Monday, 18 September 2017
Local patch 16
I quietened bouncing Bilbo and pulled him to me as the horse approached. From her lofty position, the rider hailed me, "I'm scrumping!", she hooted. "I have been riding these lanes for 20 years and I have tried the apples from all the gardens. The apples here are the best - by a country mile." From her vantage point she was ideally placed to check out the harvest in each garden. She picked one from the top of the tree and took a bite. "Actually", she continued, "I insist that you try this". She threw it down to me and I obediently munched and we agreed that it was good. In the county of apples and cider, it was very, very good.
Apples and orchards are a vital part of the landscape and culture of the Somerset Levels. Cider making is big business and corporate, but also traditional and small scale. You can take your plastic bottle to the cider farm and have it refilled with scrumpy for a few pounds. The cider is rough and cloudy, it tastes of pith and pip; it tastes of the land.
The wild winter hedgerows shine with red and gold apples. I used to think that they were old, wild varieties but an orchard-man told me that they were there because apple cores had been thrown from cars. Nevertheless, they hang in the autumn fog like Christmas baubles between the tinsel of Old man's beard (Clematis vitalba) and our native honeysuckle or woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum). The hedgerows are stuffed full this month. Closely related to apples, hips and haws have been part of our landscape and medicine boxes for hundreds of years. Now, they provide a winter feast for blackbirds and flocks of visiting thrushes.
Once, I made rosehip syrup for my new baby. It is packed full of vitamin C and I was enchanted by the idea of natural food, no preservatives and zero food miles. But I read about the irritant fibres in the rosehips and, despite my careful muslin straining, I was too timid to give it too him! On safer ground, I reach for sloes and brambles and wild plums. We stack our kitchens with chutneys, syrups, jams and jellies which glow from the larder shelves in jewel colours.
Ancient hedges are rich and diverse. They provide food and shelter for wildlife: green corridors, rotting logs, pollen, berries. The Barbie-pink spindle (Euonymus europaeus) berries are bright this month. Deadly, beautiful and fascinating the small trees grow very hard wood - once used for making wool spindles. The more familiar sloes (Prunus spinosa) are fattening nicely. The foliage is a valuable food source for many moths and the savage thorns make the wood useful for spiny, inpenetrable fences. Now, we wait for the first frosts to bloom the skins and sweeten the flesh, before we pierce them and marinate them in gin.
A recent ramble also brought me to this beauty: chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphurous) or sulphur shelf fungus. This gorgeous bracket fungus was nearly a metre in height and shone amber and gold in the late summer sunshine. This one looked young and fresh; the fanlike layers were plump and flexible. Some say that it tastes like chicken but I left it intact. Maybe next time?