Local Apples

I can’t think of a better example of the need for local food supplies than apples.

As I write, in October 2021, we are experiencing a number of issues with the supply of different food types that make a mockery of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which claimed that our supermarket dominated food chain had proved its resilience during the Covid pandemic.  Lack of workers to pick crops and process meats means that we have been warned to expect shortages of such “essentials” as Pig in Blankets this Christmas. Writing in the Telegraph, Xanthe Clay has helpfully given instructions for self-assembly.  What is the world coming to?

The supermarkets are further struggling with the shortage of lorry drivers and the just-in-time supply chain has resulted in many gaps on the shelves.  No wonder they have had little time to worry about the British apple season, now at its peak, which currently has no representation in Tesco’s, and plastic bags of imported Gala hiding behind the Duchy Organic label in Waitrose.

The website of The British Apples and Pears association is one of the saddest examples of promoting British fruit that I have ever seen.  Try looking at www.britishapplesandpears.co.uk/apple-varieties.  Seventeen varieties are illustrated – all as highly polished as something the Evil Queen might have given to Snow White to tempt her to eat the poisoned apple.  Looking at these pictures of apples is like looking at someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery – it gives me the creeps!  Finding a basket of these fruits in a hotel room is anything but welcoming, it generates immediate homesickness.

With the exception of Worcester Pearmain, the varieties fall into three main categories: the same old commercial favourites (e.g., Cox/Bramley/Egremont Russet); non-native varieties (e.g., Braeburn/Gala) or new (and trademarked) varieties (e.g., Zari/Rubens/Kanzi).  This is what happens if you have to supply the whole country.  The treasures in our 2300+ strong repertoire are as if they never existed.

This rock-bottom commercial situation ought, surely, to signal a resurgence in home-grown apples and short, local supply chains?  No-one who has ever eaten an apple straight from the tree would think of looking in a supermarket to buy apples.  With the added impetus of improving carbon storage and air quality everyone is aware of the need to plant trees, and why shouldn’t many of these be fruit trees?

With the caution that you don’t buy fruit trees in a garden centre any more than you would buy apples in a supermarket, there are many options for planting an apple tree.  Growing on half-standard rootstock is now the norm, you actually have to seek hard if you want to plant a tree that will grow to the traditional full height.  Half-standard trees are perfect in a garden setting.  They have turned out to be much longer lived than originally feared, and their reduced height makes them easier to prune and to harvest.

Which variety to choose?

This is where my caution against buying from a garden centre shouts loudest.  They will be stocked with a very limited range of varieties.  First, I would suggest you research which varieties are local to you.  They have proved themselves to be suited to your soil and climate.  Now is the perfect time to taste some local varieties as smaller orchards may well be hosting Apple Day events.  “Apple Day” was an initiative begun in 1990 by Common Ground and their website continues to provide a wealth of information about orchards, varieties and nurseries on a regional basis – https://www.commonground.org.uk/an-apples-orchards-gazetteer

There is another reason I hesitate to recommend specific varieties to plant, and that reason is biodiversity – we have over 2300 to chose from so why would I single out just a handful?  The reason that many older varieties have been abandoned is purely that they don’t fit the commercial model – they may not look perfect, be medium sized, or be prone to biennial cropping, but we can live with these things at a domestic level, especially if the compensation is better flavour.  Instead, below I give the general characteristics of types of apples to help you decide on your needs.

  • Dual-purpose apple

Britain is unique in having bred a range of apples specifically for cooking, other countries use dessert apples for everything.  Pretty much any apple can be cooked when it is under-ripe then eaten as it ripens but some are especially known for this.  They tend to come into season in September and then ripen sufficiently for eating in October.  If you can only plant one tree a dual-purpose apple might be useful.  If the apple contains some tannin too it might also be used for cider.  Tom Putt is one such example, known as a “cottagers apple” because it fulfils three purposes.  Dual purpose apples work well when eaten raw in savoury dishes like a salad.

  • Cooking apples

Bramley dominates the market; in fact many people would struggle to name another cooking apple.  Bramley apples are very high in acidity, which means that when cooked the flesh disintegrates to a fluffy pulp.  This is great for something like apple sauce, but not so good if you are trying to hold it intact, either whole when baked or in slices on a tart.  For this you need less acidity.  The dual-purpose apples work well here early in the season, but what about later?  Try Catshead, Annie Elizabeth or Newton Wonder to name just a few.

If you want the acidity of a Bramley (and it does mean the apple taste comes through no matter what you add to it) the Dumelow’s Seedling is an older alternative.

  • Keepers

Whilst an apple eaten straight from the tree is a wonderful thing, as a general rule the best keepers are those that ripen very late.  This means you will probably need to pick them sometime in October, before the winds bring them down, as you cannot keep an apple that has fallen.

Picked and stored carefully in an unheated room (e.g., shed or garage) you should be happily eating apples until the end of January by which time the texture is likely to be going soft and you will probably want to cook them up to finish.

Practically all cooking apples store well, and you might still be happily using these in March.

  • Dessert Apples

If you have plenty of room, you will probably want to plant more than one so that you can stagger eating across the full season.  Otherwise consider when you will be most likely to want to eat them.

Early season – the earliest apples ripen in August but be aware that their season is very short and early apples do not keep so it is possible to go on holiday and return to find every apple already fallen and rotting under the tree!  If you are around to catch them at their brief point of perfection you will need to be able to use the entire crop quickly.  Juicing is a common use of early apples.

Second early – you have a little longer to enjoy these apples, perhaps throughout the month of September, depending on how far north you live.  For example, James Grieve is a second early of Scottish origin which is quickly ripe enough for eating when grown in the South but is almost always considered a cooking apple on its home ground.  Worcester Pearmain is another old variety with a wonderful strawberry note and colouration to the flesh.

Mid-season – in addition to the dual-purpose apples already mentioned above, late September heralds some dessert apples for eating in early autumn.  Lord Lambourne and Sunset are two of my favourites.

Peak season – the apples are becoming longer lasting and fuller in flavour as October progresses.  Blenheim Orange is an old favourite that is too variable in its cropping for commercial growers.  The nuttiness of russeted apples makes them perfect for eating with cheese and there are far more to choose from than the commercial Egremont.

Late season/keepers – these are the apples that rarely ripen sufficiently for eating straight from the tree but will see you through to January.  Ashmead’s Kernel, Claygate Pearmain, D’Arcy Spicy and Cornish Gillyflower are just some of the names that fall into this category.

No garden?

The concept of Community Orchards was championed by Common Ground and the time is ripe to plant some more.

The Community Orchard in our village was planted 25 years ago, and these are some of the points we have learnt:

  • What is the purpose of the orchard? It can, and probably will, fulfil more than one purpose, but stating and prioritising these at the outset is useful if uses conflict in the future. Here are some possibilities: Wildlife (best served by planting a traditional orchard of full-sized trees with the orchard floor grazed by sheep); Community Events; Local Food/Drink (perhaps a mother orchard for local varieties)
  • Ongoing maintenance: there needs to be a long-term body to manage the orchard, but the costs are on-going, and you need to consider how to cover this, e.g., a memorial garden where people to pay for a tree and its future maintenance, sale of fruit or produce from the fruit.
  • How will the harvest be allocated? If it is not all to be used to cover on-going costs, how will it be shared? It can be difficult to strike a balance that is fair and ensures that fruit is not wasted. It may affect you decision about which varieties to plant.
  • Longevity – if you have planted a traditional orchard, it will be 10 years before there is really much fruit to harvest. Those who were originally involved in its planting may no longer be around and you will need to plan how you will maintain interest for decades to come.

In Blagdon, the Community Orchard is owned and managed by the Parish Council and we have a separate group, Blagdon Orchard Group, for promoting and using orchard fruit generally.  After our first decade, we were amazed at the wide range of interests that were encompassed by this umbrella and decided to publish a book documenting this.  You can buy a copy (£9.95) by contacting me via this website.

Hedgerow Fruit

One of the projects undertaken by Blagdon Orchard Group was the planting of an edible hedgerow.  Farmers are now being “rewarded” to plant new hedges, although the reward is minimal.  Nonetheless, new hedges are being planted, and it might be possible to ensure that these include fruit and or nut trees by donating the trees where the hedge will have public access.  There are local varieties of plums, damsons and cherries throughout the U.K. so if you have a local speciality this makes and obvious choice.  As with Community Orchards, bear in mind that these trees will take a long time to bear fruit, but the maintenance will be covered by the owner/farmer.

 

Local Supply

To return to the issue of local supply, remember that you can still achieve this before any new planting bears fruit simply by taking an active interest in what is already being grown.  There are still independent orchards producing with minimal spraying and these need support.  Additionally, some people have more fruit growing in their garden than they can use and may actually be grateful for someone offering to pick it.  We raised some money for our group this way, just picking fruit and taking it to be sold via a local shop.

The future of our apples is very much local – resolve never to buy them from a supermarket again!

 

Truly Seasonal Blackberries

Today, 1st October is Devil Spit Day, the day when the Devil spits on blackberries making them no longer fit for eating.

These arbitrary dates are becoming even more irrelevant as the climate changes.  Actually, this particular tradition predates the Gregorian calendar and the comparative date would now be 11th October.  But my point is, that true seasonality can’t be tied to any date but depends instead on being able to read all the signs in nature.  As the following extract from Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path puts it – the blackbirds know the moment.

He held out the Tupperware box, half full with glistening, ripe purple fruits.  “Do you want a blackberry?”

The blackberries we’d picked along the way had been small, tart and sharp, so I took one only out of politeness, but when I put it in my mouth it was like no blackberry I’d ever tasted.  Smooth, sweet, and a burst of rich claret autumnal flavour, and in the background, faintly, faintly, salt.

“You thought blackberries had passed, didn’t you?  Or you’ve eaten them and thought you didn’t like them.  No, you need to wait until the last moment between perfect and spoilt.  The blackbirds know the moment.  And if the mist comes right then, laying the salt air gently on the fruit, you have something that money can’t buy and chefs can’t create.  A perfect, lightly salted blackberry.  You can’t make them; it has to come with time and nature.  They’re a gift, when you think summer’s over and the good stuff has all gone.  They’re a gift.

From The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

You can see my recipes for blackberries here but if you find the perfect, lightly salted blackberry – just eat and enjoy!

British Walnuts

A fundamental principle of the Campaign for Real Farming is to use British produce as far as possible and import only those foods that we cannot grow here.  Walnuts challenge this principle in that we can grow them, but mostly don’t, at least not commercially.

As the country steps up its tree planting to help combat climate change could walnut trees feature in this planting and at the same time improve our food security?

Almost 40% of the worldwide export in walnuts comes from California, with the UK being their 5th largest market.  Walnuts are rich plant source of Omega 3, and so of special importance in vegan and vegetarian diets, although valued by all for their health-giving antioxidants.  The UK market looks likely to continue to expand whilst repeated drought and wildfires in California throws into question walnut production there.  However, Californian walnuts are sold in supermarkets for less than half the price of the rarely found home produced walnut.  The CBI provides market information for potential new entrants, although personally I would hesitate to recommend growing them from a purely commercial standpoint, although the value of walnut wood is apparently good.

My enthusiasm for English walnuts stems from their culinary attributes.  Californian walnuts are what I had eaten for most of my life until a friend brought a sack back from France.  These walnuts were from Grenoble, the first fruit to receive the French quality symbol that went on to become known as “Protected Designation of Origen”.  Périgord was later also awarded PDO status and is probably the better-known region for French walnuts.  The ones my friend had brought home from Grenoble were a complete revelation to me.  Finally, I understood the fuss about walnuts and from then on Californian just wouldn’t do.

The following year I saw “wet-walnuts” for sale in Somerset and, despite their unappetising appearance, leapt to buy them.  Walnuts are “wet” when they first ripen in September and you could literally squeeze oil from them by hand.  The shells are blacker at this stage, so they don’t look particularly appetising.  When you crack them open the skin is still soft enough that you can peel it away and, as the skin is the most bitter part, you may wish to do this.  Wet walnuts are ideal for pounding to make a sauce – for example to serve with pasta or fish.  However, the nuts won’t store for long unless you dry them.  Walnut oil is very unstable, so even when dried they are best eaten within a few months.  The freshness is probably what made my first taste of Grenoble walnuts so wonderful, and I am now firmly wedded to the seasonal aspect of the nut.  If I see them listed amongst the ingredients of an otherwise clearly summer dish it really jars with me, so whilst some people might see them as a year-round provider of essential nutrients, for me they shout Autumn and Winter.

In addition to the over-riding importance of freshness, the question of the suitability of the trees to a particular area definitely intrigues me.  I accept that the regions of Périgord and Grenoble in France are ideally suited to growing walnuts, but what I can’t say, at this time, is whether we have similarly suitable areas in the UK.

Walnut trees are slow growing but long lived.  They require plenty of space and the land beneath becomes fairly barren owing to the chemical juglone produced by the roots, so it is often planted on the periphery in agroforestry.   It takes 10 years for a tree to start producing a decent number of nuts, and even then, nut production is fairly hit and miss.  No-one seems to be quite able to explain why some trees do well and others do not.  There is an old rhyme that hints at this problem although containing no sensible advice:

A woman, a dog and a walnut tree,

The more you beat them the better they be.

Certainly, walnut trees are unlikely to produce nuts consistently in the northern part of this country and locally in Somerset I have found them to be more forthcoming on the warmer southern flank of the Mendips than on the north, although even here I know ancient trees producing well and others that do not.

In the late 17th century Surrey was at the heart of walnut growing in the UK.  This came about when John Evelyn was asked by the Royal Society to draw attention to the damage done to England’s wooded estates during the English Interregnum and to encourage reforestation. His findings were published in 1664 under the title “Sylva or a discourse on forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions”.  He championed the growth of walnut plantations on several family estates, including his own around Godstone, and elsewhere in Surrey, notably at Leatherhead and Carshalton.  The walnut tree was clearly suited to the Surrey soil, although whether it was especially so or just the result of many large estates being found in proximity to the court is not certain. Whilst some people are lucky enough to have their own walnut tree, because of the space required they have always been more associated with large properties.  Their prestigious status is evident from the number of times their presence at a property, even as a single tree, is reflected in the house name.

However, Evelyn’s project came to an abrupt end just two years after his death, when the bitter winter of 1708 destroyed most walnut trees in northern Europe.

Trees were replanted, but commercially it became their timber that produced the greatest value.  Walnut wood is used in cabinet making, marquetry and for gun stocks.  Many trees were felled for this later purpose for the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.  The same thing happened again in the Crimean War to the extent that one Birmingham arms maker had to transfer his operations to Turin where the supply of walnut wood was more assured.

And so, we find the current position in Britain today is that walnut trees are mainly grown in isolation, if the garden is large enough, an ever-rarer occurrence; or the remnants of large estate plantings might be found around its margins.  Bossington, part of the Holnicote on Exmoor, provides a great example of the latter.  You can find seven walnuts trees of varying ages around the green and more along nearby roadsides.  The once famous giant tree which had dwarfed a cottage beside the green was felled in the 1950s.

Bossington Walnuts

A more recent estate planting exists near Glastonbury.  Roger Saul decided to replant walnut trees at Sharpham Park when he discovered evidence of them having been grown there when it was a monastery.  300 trees were planted in 2004 and 12 years later they were producing enough nuts to sell.  British walnuts (and Sharpham Park’s are Organic) sell for about £20 a kilo. You can also buy British walnuts online from Potash Farm in Kent.

As yet, few people seem to appreciate the qualities of British walnuts enough to create much demand, although I am convinced that when they taste them, especially the young wet walnuts, they will never look back. The most widely planted variety of walnut tree in the UK is Broadview, but If you are thinking of planting there are many modern hybrids available to suit specific requirements – see the websites below.

I do now have my own walnut tree, but don’t get many nuts from it.  Squirrels are the main problem here.  The tree does produce a decent crop, but the squirrels take the vast majority.  In an effort to beat them to it, I have harvested some of the nuts when “green”, in early July, and pickled them.  Pickled Walnuts are the only culinary use for walnuts for which the British have gained any renown, although we are not by any stretch, the only culture to use this method to preserve them.  One researcher identified more than 60 distinct recipes for pickled walnuts from countries as diverse as Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine.  Two features stood out that distinguish “British Pickled Walnuts” (those originating in British speaking countries): – none of them include garlic and all of them include sugar of some type.  About half of the British recipes include ginger.

The use of pickled walnuts varies is as variable as the recipes, but here in Britain they are almost exclusively used as an accompaniment for cold or grilled meats.  I have given Dr Kitchener’s recipe for “Wow-Wow Sauce” which dates back to 1817 as an example of the particularly British use of pickled walnuts.

You can see my walnut recipes here.

References

A Passion For Trees: The Legacy Of John Evelyn, by Maggie Campbell-Culver 2006

Potast Farm – www.kentishcobnuts.com

Walnuttrees.co.uk

Sharphampark.com

https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/why-you-should-grow-walnuts-juglans-regia includes a link to companion crops that seem unaffected by juglone.

CBI –  https://www.cbi.eu/market-information/processed-fruit-vegetables-edible-nuts/walnuts

A British Halloween

A British Halloween

I’ve come to hate Halloween with the adoption of American traditions such as Trick or Treat.  If you have children you will find it hard to fight against, but perhaps reintroducing some of our own traditions will help.

Ever popular with children is Apple Bobbing and indeed apples feature in many Halloween traditions.  Also perpetually popular is sitting around a fire telling ghost stories.

Fires were lit to ward off evil spirits and, thus protected from harm, people believed that the ghosts could help foretell the future.  Nuts might be thrown into the fire – if a nut burnt brightly it meant that the thrower would still be alive in twelve months’ time.  If it flared up suddenly, it foretold marriage within that twelve months.

The most common question put to ghosts concerned future marital prospects.  Apple pips could be thrown on the fire in the same way as nuts with the name of the loved one being said as the pips were thrown.  If they were lively as they burnt, spluttering and popping, it meant the love was returned, but if they burnt silently this was not a good sign.

There were several other ways that apples were used to foretell romantic prospects.   One involved peeling an apple in one long piece – the length of peel predicting the length of life remaining.  Women who wished to predict who they would marry would then throw the peel over their left shoulder – the form it took was meant to spell out the first initial of their future husband.  If a woman had more than one potential lover in mind as her future husband, she could stick apple pips to her face – one for each lover.  The pip that remained stuck for the longest would foretell who would remain most true.  Another method was to cut an apple into nine pieces then, at midnight on 31st October, begin eating the pieces whilst looking into a mirror.  When she got to the ninth piece, rather than eating it, it was thrown over her left shoulder and the face of her future lover was then supposed to appear in the mirror.

Cakes or puddings were made which contained fortune telling charms:

A coin for wealth

A pea for poverty

A button for a bachelor

A thimble for a spinster

A wishbone for your heart’s desire

That someone’s fortune was so bound up with marriage seems very old-fashioned and some charms, such as the matchstick, which predicted that your husband would beat you, have thankfully disappeared. Nonetheless I remember buying Halloween Brack in Dublin, finding a wedding ring and thinking how much more pleasant this was than trick or treating.

 

If you do find yourself succumbing to the pressure to buy a pumpkin for Halloween please don’t waste the flesh.  Here are my top three recipes for using it http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2013/10/the-great-pumpkin

Mid-Season Apples

This is a 2013 post-script to the previously published article Apples… A Seasonal Approach.

Owing to a prolonged winter, the 2013 apple harvest is approximately three weeks late, which has led to some embarrassment for supermarkets that were expecting to be full of British Apples in October, which normally marks high-season in the UK.

People are, correctly, pointing out that smaller, independent suppliers are not short of British Apples.  These are however the delayed mid-season apples, characterised by poorer keeping qualities than the late-season apples and frequently being of dual-purpose rather than pure dessert apples.  I expect supermarkets bought some time ago, and asking them to change plans at short notice is somewhat akin to trying to change direction in a super tanker!

The beauty of buying from small independent growers is that they are likely to have a wider selection of local varieties and what might be ripe where you live could be quite different from where I am.  The variety James Grieve perfectly illustrates this situation.  It is a Scottish variety, and in its homeland usually considered a cooking apple.  However, in the far south it will often ripen sufficiently to make a very pleasant eater.

In fact almost any apple is suitable for cooking before it is fully ripe.  It is only the British who have bred such a range intended solely for cooking, whilst other countries consider all apples dual-purpose.  Peasgood Nonsuch and Tom Putt are two other examples of apples that are probably being used for cooking now but later can be eaten raw.  Rev. Wilkes, descended from Peasgood Nonsuch, is an early cooker that is probably now nearing the end of its season in most parts of the country.  Whilst just coming into season is another cooker, Charles Ross.

Of the mid-season dessert apples that you might find at the moment are Ellison’s Orange, Lord Lambourne and Ribston Pippin – from which Cox’s Orange Pippin is decended.  Clearly some choice, but it is true that the greatest depth of flavour will not arrive until the late-season apples are with us.

Herb of the Month – Sage

Although Sage is predominantly a Mediterranean herb and available fresh all year round, I associate it most strongly with the autumn months and the warming hearty dishes that we serve as the weather turns colder.  I stress that it is available fresh all year round as I cannot understand why anyone would dry this herb, which quickly smells and tastes musty and quite unpleasant, and yet it is in the dried form that it turns up most frequently in British cooking.  If there is one thing that I hope this article will achieve it is to persuade you to throw away any jars of the dried herb that you might be harbouring and plan instead where you will plant a bush in the spring.

Growing Sage

Broad-Leaved (back) and Common (front) Sage

You can grow sage from seed, although as one plant is likely to suffice in most homes I see little point in doing so.  You can buy a plant quite easily in most garden centres and, once the threat of frost is over, plant it out where the soil drains well and it will receive a reasonable amount of sun.  The bush will grow to about 2 foot in height, with a similar spread.  After the first year you should trim the bush in the summer, when it has finished flowering, but don’t leave it until the autumn as late pruning can kill the bush.   After about 5 years the bush will have become tough and woody, so in the 4th year take cuttings in spring from which to grow a replacement plant and prune the bush back hard.  Although there are many varieties, including some with attractive variegated leaves, from a culinary viewpoint the ones to grow are just Common (or Garden) Sage or the broad-leaved variant Salvia officinalis Broad-leaved (latifolia).  Confusingly the Common Sage is sometimes also referred to as Broad-leaved, but the leaves of the true broad-leaved are larger, darker, more oval and more aromatic than Common Sage.  Additionally the Broad-leaved Sage rarely flowers in this country.

Medicinal and other properties

Sage has powerful healing properties but should be used with caution as, if you drink an infusion for more than a week or two at a time, it can cause potentially toxic effects.  Nevertheless, as a short-term remedy Sage Tea is first rate for colds and when combined with a little cider vinegar makes an excellent gargle for sore throats.

In cooking it aids the digestion of fatty foods, hence its traditional pairing with pork and goose, and its antiseptic qualities help kill off any bugs in the meat, which is why it is so frequently used in sausages.

An essential oil is extracted from a variety of Sage known as Clary Sage – the oil being referred to as Sage Clary or Muscatel Oil.  This is used in herbal medicines and toilet waters, perfumes and soaps but also to add flavour to wine, vermouth and certain liqueurs.

As a companion plant it is said to repel cabbage white flies.*

Cooking with Sage

Having already stated how important it is to use sage fresh the quantities needed this way are quite small.  If you really want to preserve some, include it in a crab-apple jelly as an accompaniment to pork.  It is great in stuffing, not only for meat but also for vegetables.  In Italy sage often accompanies veal or liver.  Frying individual leaves until they are crisp and then scattering them over a dish brings out the flavour beautifully and is a technique I employ to accompany liver, squash and some pasta or gnocchi dishes.

Recipes

*source: JSM 2012

Minding your P’s and Q’s….how to get the best from Pears and Quince

That there is some relationship between the pear and the quince is obvious from their shape, but whilst the quince has to be cooked to render it edible, a perfectly ripe and juicy pear eaten raw is a delightful, if somewhat rare, experience.

Ripening pears needs care, the sort of care that is seldom found in a world geared to mass production.  It also needs the type of storage conditions that are in short supply in most households, making this a frustrating fruit to grow in your garden.  All of which makes it inevitable that at some stage you are likely to come across the less- than- perfectly-ripened pear, which will respond better to cooking.

Before admitting defeat, let’s look first at how to optimise the chances of getting at least some perfect eating pears from your crop.

The first step is to judge when to pick them.  Early ripening pears, such as Jargonelle, Williams and Beth can be disappointing in flavour, and potentially grainy in texture, if left to ripen fully on the tree.  So pick as soon as the stalks break easily, but whilst the pears are still firm.   Handle them extremely gently, as any bruising will cause the pears to rot.  Transfer the pears immediately to the bottom of the fridge.  Even a couple of days in the dark at a temperature close to 1˚C will help ensure even ripening later on.   Pears left in the fridge will remain hard for quite some time, but when you bring them to room temperature they should ripen within a couple of days.  Because the pears ripen (and rot) from the inside out, the best spot to check for ripeness is near the stalk.

The process is similar for late ripening pears, if for different reasons, i.e. that our season is usually not long enough for these pears to ripen adequately on the tree.    Late season apples are also picked before they are fully ripe and stored for a period before being eaten, but note that they should not be stored in close proximity to pears as the gasses given off during ripening will interfere with the natural process for both fruit.  So, in a domestic setting, it may be best to invest in a separate fridge for storing pears, whilst keeping the apples in a cool outhouse.

Britain has far fewer native pears than apples, but those that do have a place in our culinary heritage were actually meant for cooking.  Cooking pears were termed wardens or wardons in late medieval England, taking their name from the abbey of Wardon in Bedfordshire, although no-one seems to know why.   Like apples, pears do not grow true from seed, making them a species of infinite variety, and these warden pears almost certainly sprang from the wild pears which were once common in our hedgerows, although now very rare.  The most famous named variety is the Black Worcester, which has been a feature of the coat of arms for the city of Worcester since 1575.  By that time the region was already gaining a reputation for its Perry, which originally would have been made from the wild pears, until gradually specific varieties of Perry Pear were cultivated for the purpose.

Let’s now turn our attention to Quinces, which are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although not native to the UK, Pyrus Cydonia has been grown here since the 13th century and was quite common between the 16th and 18th centuries, especially for Quince Marmalade.  So despite being mainly associated with Mediterranean countries, they do have a long heritage here and will grow happily as far north as Yorkshire.  Shelter and sunshine are both important for quince, although it does not mind in what soil it grows – it is actually quite happy to stand in water making it ideal for those less well drained spots within an orchard.

However, they do not usually ripen fully on the tree in this country.  Old country lore says they should be picked on a waning moon, but whilst the weather is still fine.  Late October or early November is about as late as you can leave it, because they should certainly be brought in before the first frosts.  In a warm kitchen they will complete their ripening quite quickly – the delicious aroma will tell you when that point has arrived.  They ripen from the outside in, and will always be firm, so don’t expect them to soften.  The flesh is rather gritty and the core positively hard.  This hard core needs to be removed but the gritty flesh will soften on cooking.  Although they will discolour on cutting, just like apples, as they cook to a beautiful pinky-orange colour this will disappear so don’t worry about it.

What you do with them depends largely on the quantity available.  Because the flesh is dry rather than juicy, I don’t usually make Quince Jelly even though I find it useful in the kitchen.  When my own quince tree is more mature it may yield sufficient for this, and certainly the pectin content is high ensuring a good set.   But for the time being I am more than happy to support the fundraising efforts of the good ladies in a neighbouring village.  The church path of St Andrew’s in Compton Martin is lined with quince trees, which since antiquity have been a symbol of love, marriage and family and the fruit from these trees is made into jelly each year.

Happily a small quantity of quince goes a very long way.  A single slice would scent a whole apple pie and the old recipe for Quince Marmalade includes slices that would often have been used in this way.  What I usually do is bottle slices poached in spiced sweet white wine.  These are then available for desserts (a Quince Trifle is lovely), breakfast, or serving with meat.  There is quite a lot of waste – peel, core and pips from this recipe and this I add to more quinces to make Quince Cheese (the Spanish Membrillo).  This paste is in itself quite versatile.  It is usually served with cheese – try it with very mature Cheddar; but it can also be served with coffee or added to a variety of other dishes to impart its wonderful flavour.

Click here for these and other recipes for quince and pear.

Bread Update

In March I wrote about the benefits of long fermentation on the taste and digestibility of bread:

Since that time I am pleased to report on some welcome new developments.

Traditional Dried Yeast more widely available

Firstly, in addition to Allinsons, there is now another producer of Traditional Dried Yeast – Doves Farm.   As Doves Farm seems to have captured the market for dried yeast with their fast acting type, designed originally for bread-making machines, I hope that more outlets will now be persuaded to stock both types so that those who are looking for a slower rise in hand made loaves are equally well catered for.

A new logo to look for when buying bread

Real Bread MarkThe second development has been the launch of Sustain’s Real Bread logo so that consumers can identify at a glance which loaves do not contain any processing aids.

Their survey of 1300 people found that more than 70% found it unacceptable that food additives known as “processing aids” don’t have to appear on an ingredients lists and that further more unwrapped loaves do not even have to display a list of ingredients.  Whilst continuing to campaign for greater transparency in labelling so that consumers can make an informed choice about what they buy, The Real Bread Campaign has developed their own logo which bakers can apply to use.  This will require the baker to sign an annual declaration that no processing aids or other artificial additives have been used.

Having taken an interest in this campaign from the outset, and knowing of the considerable resistance from some bakers to declaring these additives, I congratulate them on this important step forward.  Because slower fermentation, without additives, reduces the number of loaves that can be produced in any given space and time, is not uncommon for bakers to include both “Real” and “artificially enhanced” loaves within their range.  Campaign co-ordinator, Chris Young assures me that the usage agreement each baker/retailer has to sign makes it very clear that the mark must only be used in a way that makes it totally unambiguous as to which loaves it applies.  Only a bakery that bakes solely Real Bread will be able to use the mark in reference to the whole business, otherwise the mark will be loaf specific.

New website for purchasing baking equipment

The third welcome development I have discovered recently is a new website for artisan bakers http://bakerybits.co.uk/ .  They sell everything that an artisan baker, including the enthusiastic home baker, might need – from full blown wood-fired ovens to individual baking domes that you can use in a domestic oven to replicate the action of a wood-fired oven.  Critically what these do is give you loaves that have risen evenly, because however good your oven, none apply the heat as uniformly as the dome shape of a wood-fired oven.  You will also get a much crisper crust.  I will certainly be adding one of these to the “wish-list” section of the website for when anyone asks what I want for Christmas!

The benefits of wild yeast (sourdough) starters

For my bread recipes this month I am stepping up a gear.  The recipes that I have given for slowly fermented breads up until now have all used the “Sponge and Dough” method.  Now I would like to focus on another method – the use of wild yeast.

Wild yeast works more slowly than modern commercial yeasts.  During this long fermentation the wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria (the same friendly bacteria that are found in yoghurt) pre-digest the flour so that it becomes far more digestible when you eat it, allowing your body to access more of the nutrients and avoiding the bloating and other problems that can be experienced with yeasted breads.  During the long fermentation process the nutritional properties of the bread change dramatically.

For a start, the glycaemic index of sourdough bread is 68 compared to 100 for yeasted bread.  This helps keep your blood glucose levels steady.  The lacto-fermentation process actually uses carbohydrates, converting them to lactic acid so the carbohydrate content is also lower in than in yeasted breads.

The lactobacillus that are cultivated in a wild yeast fermentation produce lactic, formic and acetic acids, which in addition to being beneficial to your gastro-intestinal health also help the bread keep much longer by inhibiting the growth of other organisms.

However, despite keeping a wild yeast starter on the go, and usually baking with it once a week, I will also continue to use small quantities of commercial yeast and the “sponge and dough” method on occasions.  A bread made with wild yeasts will be dense and chewy in texture, which is lovely, but less suited to more delicate sandwiches for example.

Apples…a Seasonal Approach

Juice from Beauty of Bath Apples

Today, 21st October, is Apple Day; time to celebrate the harvest of our orchards and to pick those apples that still remain on the tree before the storms forecast for this weekend bring them to the ground.

The first task when picking is to sort the apples into those that will keep and those that must be processed quickly, even if they will then be stored in a different form.  The recipes that accompany today’s article should give you some ideas for those that are to be processed.

In an earlier article on this website I suggested that Community Orchards could play a vital role in reconnecting people with their food and kicking off a people’s takeover of our food system –http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/06/community-orchards .  Because our climate suits them so well, apple trees were once planted in every garden and reached their zenith of popularity in Victorian times.  England has an estimated one-third of the listed apple cultivars in existence.  Farm workers were paid, at least in part, with cider, and many pubs made their own.  Orchard fruits, and in particular the apple, represented the bulk of the fruit we ate in the UK – they are a cornerstone in our culinary heritage.  Nowadays the banana is the most purchased fruit in Britain and when we chose what fruit juice to drink in the morning, orange reigns supreme despite being given a run for its money by more exotic imports in recent years.

Whilst these imported fruit have a place in our diet, things have turned around to such an extreme a recent survey by The Daily Telegraph found that that at the peak of our home-grown apple season just one in eight apples on sale in the major supermarkets was British.  Tesco has taken out billboard advertisements to say that it will be stocking 10 British apple varieties this year, presumably spread across the season, and although this is an improvement they obviously feel warrants shouting about, it is still a ludicrously small percentage of the 2300 plus varieties indigenous to this country.

It is not only a wider variety that you will find on offer if you trouble to buy direct from growers or plant your own fruit trees.  You can also enjoy fruit that has been left on the tree to achieve full ripeness and been sprayed far fewer times than their supermarket counterparts.  In return you will need to accept that apples are not of uniform shape and size and that they may also have a few blemishes.  But the superiority of taste and texture is winning a new generation of fans for British apples.

An appreciation of the seasonality of apples is another thing that we have lost with supermarkets.  Apples are available all year, not just from abroad, but our own can also be kept in storage year round in an atmosphere where not only humidity but also the “air” is controlled to remove gasses that affect the ripening process.  Picked early and stored in this state of suspended animation, British apples can also be offered year round.  No wonder we get bored with them.  Understanding the changing nature of apples throughout their season provides a fundamental lesson in getting to grips with the vast range of native varieties.

In their natural state, the first apples ripen in August.  With the exception of a modern variety called Discovery, these early apples are not often available commercially, even on a small scale, since they have a very short lifespan, softening rapidly from the moment they are picked.  These are a treat known almost exclusively to those with their own tree.  Because the whole crop will need using in such a short space of time, I find juicing an excellent way of storing them for longer, but be aware that the quantity yielded is very low.

September apples will keep for a week or so once picked and so we start seeing apples available for sale.  Dual purpose varieties are useful at this time, although it is rare that any apple is truly great in more than one aspect.  James Grieve is a good example of how the use of an apple can change during its season and also dependent on where it is grown.  It is Scotland’s best known apple and here usually considered a cooker, whilst in southern England it moves from being used for cooking at the start of the September to a crisp eater by the end.  Blenheim Orange, primarily considered a dessert apple from October onwards, will hold a good slice when cooked towards the end of September.  It is worth noting here that developing apples just for cooking is something uniquely British.  On the continent all apples are considered dual purpose.  It is the acidity in apples that causes them to break down when cooked.  Our famous Bramley’s Seedling is one of the most acidic, hence its ability to cook to a frothy pulp.  However, this is not always the required result, for example in a French Tarte Tatin or our own Apple Charlotte – for which an early Blenheim Orange is ideal.  Mary Berry’s Canterbury Tart perfectly illustrates the different characteristics that may be required from a cooking apple.  It utilises the sharpness of grated Bramley to cut through a rich, creamy egg and butter filling before being overlaid with slices of dessert apple.  But whilst these slices provide both visual appeal and texture, it is the Bramley’s acidity that ensures the flavour of apples really comes through.  The recipe already appears online, so I won’t repeat it here, but you can find it by following this link – http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/canterburytart_72796. Before leaving September, I’d like also to mention my favourite of the month the aromatic Lord Lambourne.  Its depth of flavour is unusual in mid-season apples making this my juicing apple of choice.

October marks the peak of the British apple season.  Apples that ripen in this month are of a firmer texture than those that have come before and the only ones that will store for a lengthy period.

By the 16th century the term “Pippin” had come to denote a hard, late-ripening, long-keeping apple of acid flavour although originally it referred to any apple that had been grown from a pip rather than by grafting, so the name is not a foolproof guide to these qualities.  Of those that are,  Cox’s Orange Pippin is the best known because it was so widely planted over southern England in the latter half of the 1800’s.  There are numerous regional variants including the Ribston Pippin (Yorkshire, 1707), from whose pip the Cox was reputedly grown, Sturmer Pippin (Suffolk, 1800), King’s Acre Pippin (Herefordshire, 1899), and Wyken Pippin (Warwickshire, early 1700s).  Cox’s Orange Pippin was also crossed with other varieties to produce other notable late-season dessert apples including Laxton’s Superb (x Wyken Pippin), Tydman’s Late Orange (x Laxton Superb) and Winston (x Worcester Pearmain).

Many of the Pippins will still not be ripe for eating in October and will continue to develop in storage.  Similarly the category generally referred to as “Russets” will not reach their peak until December.   Egremont Russet is the best known of this group and the only one widely available on a commercial scale.  However the term Russet refers to the dull brown and rough finish on the skin of some apples, which may be full or partial.  This is found in many late apples and whilst, as a generalisation, russeting does appear to equate to an aromatic flavour of which the British are particularly fond, there are exceptions to this general rule.  My favourite in this group is Ashmead’s Kernel, although I have yet to taste Rosemary’s Russet, said to be one of the finest flavoured.

In addition to the russet and pippin dessert apples, most cooking apples also store well, although their sharpness will deteriorate over time.  Annie Elizabeth is particularly valued for its keeping qualities but where the acidity of a Bramley means that the apple flavour comes through no matter how many spices or added flavourings you use, Annie Elizabeth is more delicate and best cooked more plainly.  Newton’s Wonder is another such, making both of these apples ideal for serving raw in winter salads.  If you are looking for a lesser-known alternative to Bramley’s Seedling try Dumelow’s Seedling, an older variety that was very popular until the Bramley became the commercial favourite.

Having established the variety is suitable for keeping, remember that only unbruised apples will store.  Windfalls, including those you drop when picking, should be used quickly.  Those that are to be stored should be placed, untouching, on trays, in a cool outbuilding.  If stacking the trays, ensure that air can still circulate around them and remember to check them regularly – you know the saying about one bad apple! Setting a mouse trap or two is a good idea, as they will certainly be attracted by the smell of ripening apples.  Dependent upon variety and your storage facilities, these apples can see you through until March, but certainly until the first forced rhubarb arrives.

For those apples that won’t store, see this month’s recipes for inspiration.

Fungi – an essential cook’s ingredient

In Rose Prince’s first article for her new Saturday Telegraph column she wrote…

If in the future, food stocks are compromised, as doomongers predict, fungi are designated a vital survival food. We need to know more about them. A ministry of mushrooms might be going too far – but an interest that goes beyond reading macabre tales of agonising death is not.

You can read the full article, which talks of the health benefits of fungi, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8009976/Rose-Prince-starts-her-new-column-in-the-Saturday-Telegraph-today.html but as one of these “doom-mongers” I want to add my own thoughts on why we do indeed need to embrace fungi.

The ability to forage for wild food is, as Rose Prince suggests, an essential survival technique, but cultivated fungi will also have an important part to play in sustainable food production.  They can be grown in places, such as caves, that would be entirely unsuitable for most other food production (cheese storage is the one other use I can think of for caves).  Up until only a few years ago the extensive network of caves and tunnels in the Bath/Bradford -on-Avon area, some of which were utilised during the war for weapons storage, grew much of the fungi that was sold in our supermarkets.  This has discontinued since it is now cheaper to import fungi from Eastern Europe.

The flavour of wild fungi is undoubtedly superior, and few varieties can be cultivated, but nonetheless those that can are immensely valuable to a frugal cook.  Their value lies in the Free Glutamates that all fungi contain, which make them high in the taste sensation we now call Umami.  This taste was only identified as recently as 1907, by a Professor Kikunae Ikeda.  The name Umami comes from Umai meaning delicious in Japanese and mi meaning essence – the essence of deliciousness.  Glutamate is an amino acid that is found throughout the human body and also in protein rich foods such as cheese, meat and fish.  When it is present in its free form, i.e. not bound together with other amino acids found in protein, it stimulates our glutamate receptors.  In meat, the glutamates are freed from their bound state by the cooking process, but my husband, an inveterate carnivore, will happily eat a meal of mushrooms where he would not be so happy with other vegetarian meals.  So, without dismissing the health benefits to which Rose Prince refers, I would put the ability to produce satisfying non-meat dishes as fungi’s greatest attribute.

To make wild fungi go further I tend to mix them with cultivated mushrooms – as in the recipe for mushroom sauce.   Boletus edulis (known as Penny Bun in England, Porcini in Italy and Cep in France) is widely regarded as the best flavoured wild fungi and is available dried.  Whilst dried fungi have a use, I find that too many of them in a dish will cause it to taste musty in a similar way that many dried herbs do.  But a small amount of dried porcini will impart their flavour throughout a whole pan of cultivated mushrooms.  Shiitake mushrooms, which can be cultivated, are especially good at absorbing flavour and also have a similar texture to porcini, so include some of these in your mix if you can.

If I have collected enough fungi to preserve some, my preferred method is freezing.  Providing they are cooked in plenty of butter this method works well for many of the finest flavoured, including Boletus edulis and Chanterelle.  If they are perfect specimens I keep the pieces as large as I can, but trimmings are also useful for flavouring.  These I press into ice cube trays for ease of use later.

Whilst many people do shy away from picking wild fungi, there are an increasing number who would like to do so.  It is not a skill that can be learnt overnight, but once bitten by the bug it is an absorbing and rewarding hobby.  For many years my husband and I had collected only a limited range of wild fungi.  We thought we recognised others but were not certain enough that we could tell them apart from poisonous lookalikes.  Two things helped grow our knowledge to a point where we can confidently indentify over 40 edible species.  Firstly, we joined our local fungi group, and there is one in most parts of the country, you can find your nearest here: www.britmycolsoc.org.uk .  I should perhaps warn that these groups are not solely interested in edible species and their use of correct botanical names can also be a tad off-putting, but they can provide a very sound foundation on which to build.  The most useful sessions that I have attended are their identification courses.  It matters not whether you are identifying an edible or non-edible variety, you will of course need to be able to do both, but the most important skill they can teach you is the systematic process of identification.  As we had found in our own efforts to identify species, if you just try to find a photograph that looks like what you have picked, you will soon find another equally likely candidate!  Learning how to use a good key is the first step and from one course you might expect to be able to identify several key groups of fungi if not many of the individuals within that group.

I mentioned that there were two major factors that grew our knowledge to its present level.  The second was an exceptional fungi season that coincided with a whole week of foraying.  At last we were able to find not only the species that we had suspected were edible but also the poisonous lookalikes and so be sure that we knew the difference.  I’m afraid I can’t predict when such an abundant season is next likely to occur, but it does prove the point that plenty of practical experience is required.

It would, of course, be wonderful if we could take fungi into our pharmacists to get a positive identification as happens in parts of the continent, but that is unlikely to happen overnight.  But that needn’t prevent anyone from gradually building their own knowledge.  Happy hunting!