Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Nature's bounty

Most people dread the end of the summer – that dull sense of foreboding that is engrained in us from our school days and the start of the new term. No more carefree days of doing as we please in the sunshine (yeah right), treating ourselves to days out and ice cream and not doing much work ‘because it is August’. Just endless weeks stretching out into the dark evenings with Christmas feeling a long way off. But this year, I’ve been secretly dying for our ‘summer’ (if you can call our soggy, sub 20c days summer) to be over so I can see what hidden gems we have in our fields and hedgerows.  As a wannabe forager of wild foods, autumn is where it’s at and this year (saddo that I am) I’ve been desperate to see what our little corner of Wales can offer to supplement our weekly food shop (although who am I trying to kid….it’s hardly the jars of fruit jelly and packs of blackberries that hammer our weekly budget so much as the cans of Fosters and bottles of Pinot Grigio…).

For once, wandering around the place at the usually infuriatingly slow pace of a toddler is actually ideal for doing a recce of what’s about and vaguely edible.  While she hunts for slugs and snails for her bug box and repeatedly removes her socks and wellies (still no idea why, especially now the grass is very cold and wet) this gives me time to get in and amongst it, pulling branches back to get a tantalising glimpse of the deep purple jewels beneath. It’s been really interesting (in a properly nerdy kind of way) to see the differences between food for free in Hampshire and the Welsh equivalents. In Hampshire it was all about bullace, wild cherry plums and blackberries. Here we’re overrun with rowan berries, hawthorn and hazelnuts (a.k.a cobnuts that cost pound for pound about the same as royal beluga caviar at any farmer’s market south of the Watford gap). Now I’m quite au fait with what to do with endless kilos of blackberries and plums (and would even go so far as to say that I pride myself on my hedgerow jellies) but concocting creations with my new gratis ingredients is presenting a whole new voyage of discovery. For starters, I have to overcome my own (primitive?) aversion to picking and cooking up anything that is such a shocking shade of luminous orange. These berries veritably glow in the dark! Isn’t that nature’s way of telling you to “bugger off and don’t touch me or I’ll knock you down in a second”? Then there is the whole matter of pectin. Are they high, medium or low? If I go through the whole ball-ache of picking, washing, preparing, boiling, straining, sugaring, setting, sterilising and bottling the bloody things will the end result actually be edible, let alone the right taste, consistency and sweetness? Challenges, challenges, I tell you. Thank goodness it’s not summer anymore so we could have an excuse to put off all this crazy industriousness. So having picked about 12 tonne of these orange buggers and a process that took over 3, yes THREE, days (two attempts at daytime picking forays with two kids in tow followed by two nights of boiling and straining and a third night to finish up) we have ended up with three modest sized jam jars of runny, dark orange gloop. Neither of us has yet had the courage to taste the stuff. I think we’ll save that special treat for when we have unsuspecting guests to visit…

Luminous orange rowan berries

The hazelnuts have proven to be a lot less hassle for a lot more reward. We’ve discovered that you can eat them green straight from the tree, easily cracked in the teeth to reveal a sweet, crunchy pea-like treat on the inside. None of this high danger nutcracker action with lethal shards of nut shell flying into your eyes. Just nice, soft, easy-access shells. No wonder the squirrels are going mad for them. We’ve spent this week trying to outwit them (although to be fair it would be some squirrel who could outwit my husband with a .17 rim fired rifle from the bedroom window). Squirrel pie all round. Delicious, especially with some fresh pheasant breasts added into the mix, courtesy of our faithful hound who, for once, actually managed to catch one on our morning run up the hill. Mind you, these birds are not exactly speedy, more like lumbering zeppelins needing the run up of a jumbo jet to get airborne. Or not, in this case. Good old Bru. Good timing too as he was in need of a fair few brownie points to atone for his sins elsewhere on the place.

Bru with Cecil the pheasant

It turns out he has a penchant for apples. And apples are the one fruit (apart from the aforementioned rowan berries) that we have in abundance. And that we all like to eat, even the baby who in the early stages of weaning can’t guzzle enough of them all mushed up.  So it’s unfortunate that I appear to have been scrumped by my own dog, no less, who seems to think that these Golden Delicious apples are exactly the same shape, size and colour as the tennis balls that he so loves. I sat and surreptitiously watched him one day as he bounded up to the tree and actually picked one directly off the branch, quite delicately, before throwing it up into the air and amusing himself by tearing around all the other fruit trees at a million miles an hour. Just as well the dog is not into red apples as we have precisely one specimen on the Cox tree, just at muzzle height, hanging on precariously as though from some illustrated children’s bible.   

Anyone for tennis?

Go on, eat me...

As well as the flora and fauna, we’ve also found some fungi around the place, which we believe to be field mushrooms but have not, as yet, plucked up the courage to eat. If this turns out to be my final blog post, you can assume that I lost the game of paper, scissors, stone and it turned out that they were not.

A quick menagerie update before I sign off. We still have our full complement of turkeys and are slowly preparing them for the great outdoors by limiting their time on the sunbed (heat lamp) much to their chagrin. We’ve lost one chick, not quite sure how, other than it looked like it might have just been sat on by a clumsy sibling.  The piglets have been released from their holding pen into their big enclosure and have been frolicking around, although that might just have been the after effects of having 12 volts up their arse from the new electric fence. They won’t be doing that again. (There are no long term effects by the way and it is just a short, sharp shock to remind them to stay on the right side of the boundary). Chauntecleer the cockerel has finally worked out how to crow and leaves no one in the valley in any doubt of his new found prowess. Fortunately for us he is a lazy sod and rarely gets going before 10am. Part-timer.  He has also very much worked out what to do with the laydees. So much so in fact that he is bordering on becoming a sex pest or needing to be on some register. We’ve even had to isolate some of our hens into a ‘safe haven’ to give them some reprieve from Chauntecleer’s amorous advances.  I feel like opening a poultry branch of RELATE to see if I can improve marital relations but fear that there may only be one solution to this. I wonder if he will taste nice with rowan jelly…

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