Sunday, 31 October 2010

Autumn colour

Victoria plum and Stella cherry trees in veg garden
It really has been a corker of an autumn this year. I don't know what the weather conditions are that make it so, but this year every field and hedgerow is ablaze with wonderful reds, and golds. Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, is only a few miles from here, and I often visit at this time of year to see their amazing display of autumn colours, which is predominantly provided by the collection of Acers. You can see some of them from the road as you drive by, even without going in, and lovely as they are I have to confess that this year, the display along the A419 as I was driving from Swindon to Cirencester the other day seemed almost as good! And all our own wonderful native plants. Unfortunately the local police take a dim view of people trying to take photos whilst driving by, not to mention the blur factor, so I can't show it to you, but I have every reason to believe that many other parts of the UK has had similar displays. Even my wisteria looks a picture with its leaves turning a greeny gold.
Enjoy it while it lasts though, as a couple of days of gusty autumn winds will sweep it all away in a big russetty carpet.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Bed Of Roses

My lovely son, the Professional Gardener, brought me home an armful of roses that he had taken from the last of the summer's display, and I've been enjoying them in a jug on the kitchen table for several days. You simply can't beat garden roses - nothing you get in a florist will ever approach the naturalness and sweet scent of garden roses. And they are all the more enjoyed now, being the last armfuls we are likely to get, - many roses continue with sporadic flowerings during the early winter, but this is the last month for really generous bunches.

As I was drinking my coffee this morning a clump of petals fell off onto the table with a soft thud, and it struck me how they are still lovely, even after they have fallen, and in fact it put me in mind of a line from Shelley "Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, Are heap'd for the beloved's bed".

Let's hope old Percy was thinking rose petals, not "leaves" in the sense that we know them, as the leathery and rather prickly leaves of the rose would make a considerably less attractive proposition as a bed. I expect it's poetic licence or something, what do I know. What I do know though, whilst we're on the romantic theme,  is that you can make your own wedding confetti from dried rose petals very easily. I did it for my own wedding quite successfully. Just gather the petals as they fall and put them in a single layer in a warm place to dry for a few days, if it's a shotgun wedding and you're in a hurry you can dry them on a paper towel in the microwave, but be careful not to overcook and brown them. And if you're not thinking of getting married, they make good pot pourri too.

The Shelley poem I mentioned is a well known favourite about the impermanence of physical things and yet how such things live on in the memory. Funnily enough I know it more as a song than a poem as I used to sing a setting of it in the school choir. Here's the full text

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory,
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap'd for the beloved's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Percy Byshhe Shelley

Friday, 22 October 2010

Best Cream Tea Ever

I'm a bit of a Cream Tea Connoisseur.  When my children were small and we ran a pub we used our precious Sunday afternoons off trying out the local teas in South Devon, and we all became quite expert, even marking the establishments out of ten. And then we got even more obsessive about it, and marked the scones, the jam and the cream separately, and eventually even the loos!

In recent times the best cream tea I knew of was to be had at the Corn Dolly  in South Molton in Devon. We went there last week during our week away in Cornwall, and very good it was. But I'm afraid it has had to be demoted to number two in my list, as we also found this lovely place, entirely by accident as we disembarked from  King Harry's Ferry on the Fal Estuary.

The Tea House at Tolverne is a pretty thatched cottage, where you can enjoy your tea overlooking the estuary, or on summer days, outside on the many tables in the gardens. From the number of tables I'd guess they must be pretty busy in the summer season, but when we visited it was a quiet October day so there were just a handful of customers. 

It was a bit chilly to sit outdoors, so we sat by the window and enjoyed the lovely view

The scones were fresh and warm, tea was loose leaf in a proper china tea pot, - no tea bags here - and the jam was as close to home made as I have found anywhere. It tasted like damson to me and when I asked the waitress she told me it was "Key plum" or maybe that was "Quay plum", I don't know, as she airily waived her arm in the general direction of an old plum orchard that "they are renovating and we get the plums". So, good for "them" whoever they are, and well done the jam maker, delicious.  We had to ask for more cream, and they were happy to bring us some, but that's probably because the scones were big, and we are greedy.

As we waddled off down the garden afterwards, to look at the beach and get a breath of fresh air,
I spotted this plaque commemmorating the departure of thousands of American soldiers from this beach for the D Day landings in 1944. And indeed, as you drive away, you can still see among the trees, numerous remains of places used by the American troops during the war. An interesting historical and poignant footnote to our visit.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Heritage Apples

Whilst we were in Cornwall last week we popped into the National Trust Garden at Cotehele, to give the dogs a walk and have some tea and delicious carrot cake. And we were also able to have a quick look at the recently planted Mother Orchard, well, fairly recent I think it's two or three years old, but the point is it's eight acres planted with all kinds of old traditional westcountry apple varieties. The kind you rarely see anymore, and which are in grave danger of dying out completely. It's quite staggering to realize that some English counties have lost almost all their traditional orchards, Devon for example has lost 95% of it's orchards since 1945. But it's not all bad news, and the establishment of the Mother Orchard at Cotehele is intended to provide cutting stock for other National Trust properties around the country which can then be used to bolster the numbers of these old cultivars.

It's often thought that apples won't grow well in the wet mild climate of the westcountry, or that they won't grow in the east because it's too and windy, or in the north because it's too cold, but there's an apple for all situations, and you just have to do a bit of research to find the best apple for your garden. Many of the ancient varieties are very local indeed, and are unknown in other parts of the country. Ashmeads Kernel is a great local Gloucestershire variety, or how about a Pigs Snout or a Devonshire Quarrenden, maybe a lovely old cider apple tree like Kill Boys (a particularly crispy variety said to have killed a boy, presumably as a missile, not poisoning one hopes - I feel an HSE warning coming on) or Hens Turds, (not recorded how it got it's name, thank goodness) There are thousands of known cultivars listed as grown in the UK, and many more are unlisted local varieties. I wonder then, why we can only buy about four or five from our supermarkets? Don't get me started...

The ground under old fruit trees was often tended by livestock, poultry, sheep, or pigs, giving extra benefits to the farmer and to the wider natural environment. I noticed however at Cotehele that they were trying out a more 21st century option

This little gadget was running around the place all on its own, cutting the grass, its area of activity defined by electronic markers under the grass, and when it ran out of energy it just goes back to the docking station to recharge itself. And then it sets off again, I could really do with one of these! Goodness knows what it must cost.

And finally I must mention the famous Cotehele Christmas garland, which they make every year from dried flowers grown on the estate and display in the Great Hall. I think it goes up about a month before Christmas. Quite magnificent, and well worth a visit.  Carrot cake's pretty good too.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Bengal Relish - Hot Stuff!

This is the time of year for finishing things up, clearing away the last of the summer crops, (and thinking of things to do with them). I left my outdoor tomatoes a few days too long, and many if the fruits have the tell tale browning of exposure to too cold overnight temperatures. So I gathered them all in yesterday, and spent a hour or so sorting out the undamaged ones to keep indoors for ripening,** and chopped up  the damaged fruits for chutney making.

I've adapted an old WI recipe from a 1970s book I have for the green tomatoes this year. It's actually quite some years since I had any green tomatoes to use up so I'm looking forward to tasting the results of this old recipe. It's called Bengal Relish, - I think that's probably because it's a bit spicy, and in the old days anything spicy was thought to be Indian, hence Bengal. I somewhat doubt that they have green tomatoes to use up in Bengal! Anyway this is a relish, rather than a chutney, the difference being mostly in the amount of time that the mixture is cooked for. Relishes are usually more firm or crunchy in texture, whereas chutneys are long, slow cooked mixtures with a softer texture. You'll need to start the day before as you have to salt the vegetables for a day. This draws out the moisture and helps keep the relish firm.

**even the greenest of tomatoes can be encouraged to ripen up if placed in a drawer with a banana for company, apparently the ethylene gas given off by the banana encourages the toms to ripen.

Bengal Relish

obviously halve or double the recipe according to how many green tomatoes you have, I happen to have about four pounds, so..

4pounds/2kg  green tomatoes, chopped
1 small white cabbage, shredded
2 red peppers, chopped
1lb/500gr chopped onions
4 oz/100 gr salt
 2 chillis 
small piece of horseradish grated
cider vinegar
1 lb/500grsugar
spices -1 teaspoon each of cinnamon,nutmeg,alllspice,celeryseed, and mustard seed

Chop up the vegetables and sprinkle with the salt. Leave overnight.
Tip the veg into a colander to drain and rinse with fresh cold water to remove the salt.
Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and drain.
Almost cover with cider vinegar, add the sugar and spices and bring to boiling point. Simmer for 7 minutes stirring occasionally.
Pot into warm jars and cover. Keep for 4-6 weeks before use.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Mo The Foraging Dog

The last few mornings have seen a sheen of silver frost on the lawn and the field beyond, which means, not only is it time to turn on the central heating, but it's the end of the outdoor tomatoes, time to gather in the last of the apples and pears, and the blackberries in the hedgerow have mostly blackened and shrivelled. This last is a bit of a disappointment for my dog Mo, as she has developed a habit this year of helping herself to blackberries. I can rarely pass by a laden bramble bush without stopping to gather at least a few pocketfuls of berries, and instead of standing by with a somewhat pained expression suggesting we should be getting on with the real reason for the expedition, ie walkies, she's taken to nibbling the berries growing low down on the hedge whilst I gather the ones from further up. Blackberrying isn't easy for a dog, having just the wet nose to select the berries - she tends to nibble one or two rather gingerly,  before the prickles on the stems set off a sneezing fit! Very funny to watch, and I've never noticed her doing it before. I wonder if anyone else has a fruit eating dog?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Major George Wilkinson MBE

My dear father in law, George Wilkinson, has died at the age of 94.  I've only known George during the last 12 or so years of his long life, but it was a privilege. I can't tell you about his military career, of which he was so proud, - he would regale any audience with reminiscences of his life in Germany during and after the war. I can't tell you about his early life, born as he was into a very modest Yorkshire mining family and destined to go down the pit, until the army opened up an entirely new life and unimagined opportunities for him. I can't even tell you much about his later career as a gun dog trainer, and country sports enthusiast. Suffice to say that his son, my husband, has to this day a somewhat ambivalent attitude to roast pheasant, born he says of the many ever-so-slightly-past-it's-best, game dinners he endured as a child in the post war years.  And we will draw a veil over the apocryphal Roast Swan I Thought It Was A Goose incident.

What I can tell you is that George was one of the Old School. He was a gentleman and a charmer to the end.  He was engaging and funny to talk to whether you were young or old, humble or grand. Because there was no silver spoon for any baby born into George's family back in 1915, he appreciated and enjoyed the good things that had come to him in life, perhaps like only those who have known a degree of deprivation can do. A potter in his pristine garden, followed by a good dinner with a glass of red wine, (or two), and a dog at his feet, and life was good. And although I only knew him in his later years, I can truly say I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.

Ninety four year olds are not often known for their witty riposts, but George would often surprise you, even in the last months of his life when you thought he wasn't really listening, or able to take things in, he would suddenly add some little aside, make some little joke. Just a week before he died, he and Marjorie celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, there was a write up in the local paper, since 70 years together is pretty special, and amid the cards, photos and congratulations George was heard to ask "Do I get a long service medal yet?"

We will miss him.


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