Perhaps I’m being partisan when I say that English apples are the best, and the best of the best are those which were on the tree a few moments ago.

When I was six, my family moved to a lovely, rather shabby 1930s house with a number of mature apple trees, some so mature they were frankly moribund. Each of us was assigned a tree. Dad had the majestic Bramley, Mum had an early type which never kept long, my brother had one which ripened next, my sister’s tree was a sort of golden delicious type, but never thrived, and mine was a Charles Ross, a glorious apple which was reminiscent of Cox, but which isn’t so fussy, and which keeps right up to Christmas. For some reason, Father Christmas used the same apples in the foot of our Christmas Stockings.

I planted my first apple tree when my husband and I lived in High Wycombe, bought in the sales and transported home in our Ford Cortina, tree head out of the window, my nerves in tatters. I tried to make it into an espalier against the fence, but we moved house before it came into fruition. In Wantage we planted a Family Apple tree with three different varieties, Spartan, Hubby’s favourite, Cox, which was lovely, and a cooker – Granadier, I think. I also planted apple trees on my allotment. Alas, we moved to Essex, and the next home owner cut down the family tree, but the trees on the allotment are still thriving, though too far away to benefit me now.

I planted a quince when we arrived in Essex. I figured that I could buy apples, but quince are hard to find. I didn’t know much abourt quince, so half-heartedly tried to espalier it. Quince are spawlers, and it resisted all attempts to keep it upright. Last year it was just beautiful, and laden, but I had to cut it back, which upset me. However, I did strike a cutting. Such a pity we’re only allowed dwarf trees on my new allotment or I would plant it there. I might just take it over there but keep it n a pot. This year I have just four quince from the old tree, but oh, the fragrance is divine.

My quince last year

My quince last year

My current garden is too cluttered to add apple trees, though I have tried in pots, including a Charles Ross, the same as I had as a child, but it’s not very productive as yet.

The trouble with growing up with apples is that the thought of buying apples at supermarket prices for supermarket quality is anathema. Worse, the varieties available are very limited, and apples like Cox are often a mockery of what a real Cox should be.  They don’t really look like Cox and they don’t really taste as a Cox should, to the extent that I wonder if they really are Cox. Perhaps it’s something to do with the soil.

When we moved here found one or two wilding trees to forage from, and a friend had an orchard which supplied our apple pie needs for a time. After acquiring my dehydrator, I wanted apples to dry, particularly as Beloved Husband loves dried apple. But not at supermarket prices because it’s not economical.

Apple peeler

Apple peeler

I bought some “horse apples” from a local farm shop, and these dried very well. Nothing “wrong” with them as apples, and I could process them with my apple peeling and slicing machine.  This cores, peels and slices in one action, and is based on an old Victorian design. I resented the goodness going out with the peel, and discovered that I can make the machine just slice and core. The unpeeled slices seem to dry just as well as peeled, and it doesn’t affect the eating quality.Apple rind. No sulphur, just apple

Every year a  “Pick Your own Apples” sign springs up on the B1022 just after Tiptree Heath, and every year I have intended to locate the PYO, but the signs are like mushrooms, there one day, gone the next. This year I finally got round to it and I’m so glad I did. I arrived at Daymens Hill Farm on the way back from dropping my daughter at work, rather too early, though I didn’t know that at the time. The sun was still low in the sky and there was a faint mist turning the light golden. Although the picking season was already a fortnight old the trees were still laden with apples. The pears were hanging down and glowing like baubles in the early morning light, and the grass was damp with dew. It gladdened my heart.

Mellow fruitfulness at Daymens Hill Farm

Mellow fruitfulness at Daymens Hill Farm

The idea is to grab a bucket and, carefully cupping the apples, detach them from the tree and nestle them in the bucket. To merely “pick” them would be disrespectful. The temptation was to fill several buckets because they looked so luscious, but I resisted, picking a few favourites like Spartan, Red Pippins, and proper Cox. There were also Crispins, a variety I haven’t seen for years, and several other traditional varieties.

The pears were gorgeous too, epicure pears you rarely see in the shops, as well as that stalward, the Conference.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit was also good value for money when I came to pay for them.

We should, as a nation, be proud of our apple heritage. We should be picking our own from farms like this. But instead we buy apples from the supermarkets, often with air miles attached, or which may have been in cold storage for a long time. Why? Particularly at this time of year, why, when we have the glory of such orchards up and down the country? To taste an apple straight from the tree is one of life’s pleasures and yet so many of us miss out because we just can’t be bothered. And that includes myself. Fourteen years it took me to find this place. Fourteen years!

We should cherish what we have before we lose it.


The PYO is at Daymens Hill Farm, Grove Farm Road, Tolleshunt Major, Essex, CM9 8JZ, phone 01621 817479 – 815327 The card I have says 10.00am – 4.00pm daily. but I was told 10.00am – 2.00pm, so best check.

Have a look for local PYOs and check out October Apple days near you. The Hyde Hall apple day is on 18th & 19th October 2014

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Nuts About Nuts

No posts for ages, then two in a row.

Last year I found a supply of foragable sweet chestnuts. The nuts were very small, but looked edible enough.  I gathered some but never got round to eating them, and they dried out. I discovered that I could break off both the dried shell and the furry husk, which tastes dry and bitter if left. This leaves a small kernel that I could rehydrate, boil and use as a vegetable. I was contemplating returning this year, but have found a supply of much better ones. This lot I gathered in about five minutes, and look forward to roasting soon.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year's dried out nuts and this year's.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year’s dried out nuts and this year’s.

I’m very surprised such lovely big nuts were available in such profusion. Perhaps people don’t know what they are, or perhaps they distain them in favour of nice clean supermarket nuts. Perhaps they fear contamination. I wonder if we, as a nation, have completely lost touch with the countryside or the foraging potential of parkland.

Last year was a mast year and there were loads of acorns on Tiptree Heath. I was too busy to gather some, which is a shame because there are none this year. Acorns, as they stand, are toxic because of the high concentrations of tannins. Toxic to humans and to horses, so it would have benefitted the ponies if I had reduced their risk of consumption. Fortunately the ponies on the heath are sensible about acorns and didn’t eat them. In the New Forest, sadly, horses die every year from eating acorns. (Pigs, on the other hand, love them and can digest them.)

So if they are toxic to humans, why would I gather them? Apparently the bitter tannings can be leached out of the nuts. I fancied trying this, mostly out of gastronomic curiosity, but also because it was one of the staple foods I read about when researching Gladiatrix.

In the US acorns are sweeter, and have been a mainstay of the indigenous peoples.

A few weeks ago I also foraged for hazelnuts. Then a dear friend gave me some from her garden. I have a dream one day to plant an orchard and nuttery. I think I shall be opting for a cultivated variety of cobnut. They are lovely when fresh, with a particular milky texture that has vanished by the time the nuts come in for Christmas.

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Certainly nuts seem to be a better way of obtaining concentrated nutients than gathering miniscule seeds


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Fat Hen Chenopodium alba

Fat Hen and Family

I took on an allotment last year, and one of the prevalent weeds is “Fat Hen” Chenopodium alba. Knowing that it’s giant relative Quinoa is used for “pseudograins”, I wondered if the seeds of fat hen were edible, but last year couldn’t find this out and when I asked the question on a forum, was warned off from trying them.

If only I’d known I had the answer at home already in Jekka McVikka’s Herb book. It is edible. So this year I decided to try both the young leaves and, later on, try harvesting the seed. I also grew its cousin “Tree Spinach” which is very similar but has leaves which are pink when young.

Tree Spinach

Tree Spinach

The first startling discovery was that fat hen leaves are actually nicer than spinach. I had to overcome that instinctive suspicion of new foods, but once that forkful hit my mouth, I was delighted and wondered why we don’t grow it instead of spinach. I think the answer is that it’s fiddly to pick and goes off quickly.

I left a few plants and they have gone to seed. The seed is spherical and black, but enclosed in a coat which on some looks like tiny beetroot seed (they are in the same family). On others it’s easier to rub the coat off. The flowering tips can be eaten like asparagus, and I did include one or two in a stir fry and they were palatable, but I had so much else to eat I neglected these as a food source.

I saved some seed in a cloth bag (made from an old pair of trousers) and dried the seed off before rubbing it between my fingers and winnowing it. What a chore, and, as this was at home, I fear I might find rather a lot of seedlings next year. No matter; caught in time it makes a good green manure. However, as a means of separating the seeds from the chaff, it was unsatisfactory because it was time consuming.


James Wong on quinoa says that quinoa has saponins coating the seed which need to be removed before consumption. He whizzes his quinoa heads in a food blender, which does the job of washing the seed and bashing it out of its coat. So I whizzed some different fat hen seeds up with the stick blender.

Whizzed up seeds

Whizzed up seeds

The water frothed up, so I think there are saponins in the fat hen, too, which I wouldn’t want to eat too much of. The foam held many of the seeds in suspension, so I passed it through a sieve. Alas, the sieve holes were large enough to pass the seed through, so I had to find a finer sieve. But once washed, the seeds were far less foamy. I think the thing to do for this “water winnowing” is to whizz the seed clusters up then wash the seeds through a cloth. This does not get rid of the “chaff” though, which might be tolerable with freshly harvested seeds for soup, but not for dried – perhaps. So I left the seeds soaking to see if the good seeds would sink.

Some seeds sank

Some seeds sank

They did, and they didn’t. I decided the ones which didn’t might be duff, so tipped them away. After a lot of faffing abut and rinsing and discarding, I was left with a teaspoonful or so of seeds, and still some chaff. I boiled them for 10 minutes + then turned the heat out and let them sit for a while. They were still crunchy. So I cooked them up some more. Still crunchy.  I’m beginning to think they’re not worth harvesting, except as seeds for next year. And then only the giant spinach, so I can eat the leaves. The fat hen will come back of its own accord, of that I am sure.

I think the basket of seeds will go in the green bin, but I will save the ones I harvested the other day. They might be OK used like poppy seeds on bread – except that I grew bone fide poppy seed for that. If I were really hungry I might consider it, might add them to soups etc as recommended, but I have beans and  other things to give me carbs and protein from the allotment, and foraged nuts are far more satisfactory.

I have the feeling I shall find seedlings everywhere.


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I have mentioned my dehydrator before (linden Tea). I thought I’d post a couple of pictures of the dehydrator and blackberry & apple leather.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The unit gets quite warm on top – I can use this to dry other things as well, such as herbs and these beans and peas, which will be used in soup come the winter.

Inside there are five shelves. This number suits my needs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For leather the shelves have to be covered in a Teflon membrane. This is expensive but tough.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once the leather is dry I finish it off without the membrane. This latest batch has not gone well – too dry and brittle.


Better too dry than still damp, though, or the leather will go mouldy.


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Alys Fowler Talk

Last autumn I went to a talk on foraging by Alys Fowler, held at Writtle and hosted by Edible Essex. You may recall that the previous year I went to a similar talk by James Wong. Alys Fowler’s talk was very enjoyable and interesting. Though I forage for fruit like blackberries and apples, I am still wary of other wild food and hoped this talk would increase my awareness of what is edible in our environs.

Alys pointed out that people who forage actually see more on a walk than those who are just walking. This is an interesting point, because people who walk regularly have bigger brains than those who are sedentary. Perhaps just recognising plants as foods stimulates the brain even more. I certainly see more, or should that be observe more if I’m out with the camera looking for something interesting to photograph. The next startling remark was that wild greens contain much more Omega 3 oils than cultivated greens. Man has bred out the omega 3 oils in exchange for shelf-life. So there are good reasons to gather a few wild greens when out for a walk. The snag is that foraged greens go off quickly.

Alys showed a photo of wild rocket growing against a wall. I didn’t know it’s perennial and this makes me inclined to grow it, especially as I now have an allotment. I grow ordinary rocket in pots but it often gets munched on by flea beetles. Wild rocket is evergreen so can be overwintered under a cloche. Even more reason to grow it, if only to lift an ordinary salad. Is Iceberg the most boring salad leaf ever? Unfortunately it’s cheap, keeps well, and the rest of my family prefer it. I think it’s fine as a salad base but look forward to adding more zingy herbs.

One thing Alys didn’t talk much about is the legalities of foraging (though this is covered in her book). There was vague mention of seeking permission from the land owner, but no discussion as to how to go about this. I haven’t a clue who owns which fields around me, nor am I up to speed on land protected by SSI status. At one point Alys mentioned picking Chaenomeles quince in a car park, and another, more significantly, of picking walnuts on a housing estate where fence bars had been prised apart to allow access. I don’t suppose it matters of you only take a little and the produce would otherwise go to waste, but when does foraging become pilfering? Someone used to pilfer all the apples off the trees I planted on my old allotment and it upset me. As I was listening to Alys I realised that most of my foraging could be done in my garden and allotment, when it came to greens. That way I was relatively certain about there not being any additions from dogs (not so sure on the allotments because some dog owners need training). I recognised sow thistle on my allotment and thought perhaps it could stay if it was edible. (It didn’t because it grew old and coarse.) I will look more favourably on the dandelions in the garden, though.

Being an impecunious author I was tight fisted and didn’t buy the books there and then, partly because last year if I’d waited I could have got Wong’s book far cheaper than the £20 I paid for it (£8 was the lowest I’ve seen it) and partly because the family were nagging me for suggestions for Xmas and these books seemed like a good idea. I did receive them for Xmas, am delighted with both of them, and went on to buy Miles Irving’s book on foraging. I’m astounded at how many of our wayside weeds are edible and hope to get round to posting alimentary adventures more frequently. Continue reading


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Getting a Sense of Proportion

Every so often in the 5:2 group someone posts a photograph purportedly showing the difference between lean tissue and fat. Fat is indeed less dense than muscle – the so-called “Muscle weighs heavier than fat” but from many of the photographs you’d think the difference was huge. It’s not.

The reason the internet abounds with these misleading photographs is to give a crumb of comfort to people whose weight has remained static. The conversation generally goes like this:-

Distressed dieter – “I haven’t lost any weight for a month. I go to the gym three times a week and run five miles twice a week. I don’t understand it.”
Worried gym instructor (worried because client may take custom elsewhere) – “Ah, well. you’ve been building up muscle, and muscle weighs heavier than fat. See this photograph.” Flourishes graphic photo of masses of yucky yellow fat and a lot smaller piece of red muscle.
Distressed dieter – “Oh well, that’s all right then. I’ll carry on doing what I have been doing (inadvertently cheating and massively overestimating exercise levels) and carry on paying your gym subscription.”

So how much of a difference between muscle and fat is there?

To show this I bought some beef suet from my local friendly butcher and compared it with steak. The first photos show the weight is approximately the same (78 g and 79 g). Then compare the two side by side. The fat is indeed bigger, but not twice as big as some photos would have us believe. Because the fat is all knobbly and the meat is nicely trimmed, it’s not easy to see exactly how similar or different they are. The knobbles of fat make it appear to take up more room than it does.

Lean tissue (Muscle)

Lean tissue (Muscle)


So I filled a jug up to the 900ml mark, then looked to see how much water was displaced by the fat (I don’t have a suitable measuring cylinder). I then compared that with the water displaced by the meat. The fat floated because it’s less dense than water and had to be held down.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



There is a difference of about 10%, though the jug just isn’t accurate enough to measure it precisely.

Although we should bear in mind that the bathroom scales don’t tell the whole story, we have to beware of fooling ourselves by assuming that weight gain or lack of weight loss is due to lean tissue. Building muscle, especially for females, is hard work. It requires stimulation of a subset of muscle fibres called the fast twitch fibres, and these are not stimulated by long distance running nor aerobic gym work. look at the physical difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner, especially the men. This illustrates it very well. So if we’re not losing weight, chances are we’re eating more than we think and not exercising as much as we think we are.

Gaining/protecting muscle during weight loss is good because it burns calories, quite apart from being needed for doing every day activities.

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Book Review: “Tender” Volumes 1 & 2 by Nigel Slater

I received these sister books for Christmas this year and spent some pleasant hours reading through both of them. 

“Tender” deals with the use of vegetables (Volume 1)  and fruit (Volume 2) in the kitchen, some of which Nigel has grown in his own garden. They’re not really gardening books, though Nigel discusses his garden, but are,most definitely, cookery books with some very luscious recipes to inspire one to both grow food and to use that food in the kitchen. I’d say they’re “coffee table books” rather than “kitchen table books” in that they inspire and engage enthusiasm rather than being straight “How To” recipe books. They also seem too “posh” to risk making mucky in the kitchen. They are the sorts of books which provoke garden-longings and culinary adventures where the cook will find his or her own way based on the inspiration between the pages. I rarely follow recipes slavishly, being somewhat maverick in the kitchen, so this sort of approach suits my psyche. I will try some of the recipes, but I will probably adjust them to suit the produce I have available at the time. The recipes in these books strike me as lending themselves to this sort of cavalier treatment.

Volume 1 deals with a short introduction to Nigel Slater’s garden and an A to Z of vegetables, Volume 2 deals with an introduction to the fruit in his garden, and then an A to Z of fruit. Both books are weighty, two inch thick tomes and appear to cover the majority of fruit and vegetables which can be grown in the UK climate and which have been either home grown, purchased from farm shops, foraged, or from friends. Every entry seems to be based on Nigel’s own wisdom and this, to me, is important in such a book. I want that personal experience, not some reiterated conglomeration of information gleaned from the work of others or “common knowledge”.

Each A to Z entry has an introduction to the fruit or the vegetable, some remarks about their garden-worthiness, then some remarks about their use in the kitchen, and recipes.

The photographs leave me in two minds. Not all the recipes are illustrated, but those which are, are accompanied by well composed and luscious photographs. Those images alone are enough to inspire and make me want to cook the dishes. Something as simple as a photograph of elderflower fritters looks yummy. But some of the photographs seem to be self-indulgent “mood” photographs. And this mood seems gloomy, earthy, almost furtive and frankly under-exposed. Now, I ought to like this, tending towards the same myself, disliking over-brightened garish photos, but I’m not sure that I do. For example, p 24 Vol 1, there is a photo of pots of courgette plans, and that seems underexposed, lacking in sunshine and uninspiring. P 30, in the asparagus section, there is a photo of backlit sweet peas. The flowers are the main focus of this photograph, the rest of it fading to dark colours, so the photo is really “about” the sweet peas, an arty-f**ty style of photograph which bears no relation to the topic in hand. Sometimes the depth of field annoys me, because there are out-of-focus blurs to the front pulling my eye away from the subject, for example, a courgette flower p 266. I gather from the text that Nigel Slater is an earthy-mood sort of man, and so these photos do convey that emotion quite well, but some of the photos just didn’t inspire me. That’s just personal taste, not a matter of quality.

Another bugbear I have with the photos is that there is a thumbnail at the start of each subject – a great idea, except that the thumbnail often bears no relation to the fruit or vegetable in question. For example, the thumbnail for “Peppers” is nasturtium flowers. The colour tones quite well with the facing rather good full page photo of peppers in varying degrees of ripeness, but what’s wrong with having a photo of peppers growing on the plant itself as a thumbnail? Another example is a viola thumbnail for spinach, yet for Jerusalem artichoke, the thumbnail is the Jerusalem artichoke flower, and for onions, there’s an onion flower. There’s a rose thumbnail for plums and for redcurrants, yet quince blossom for quince flowers. It seems to lack logic, could be misleading, and it’s almost as if Mr Slater lacked a suitable photo for some thumbnails and shoved any old photo in instead, so long as it looked good.

I found the peculiar font for “ct” rather distracting.

The other major niggle is the indices. There is an index at the end of each volume, but the one at the end of volume one is scant and confusing. I used it to try to look up artichoke soup, but failed to find it. However, artichoke soup was listed in the Volume 2 (Fruit volume) index, which looks like the main index to me. I feel the main index would have been better divided between each volume appropriately, perhaps losing a couple of the irrelevant mood photos, such as the sweet peas, the dahlia and one or two of the frozen brassica photos, to accommodate them, if pages were short.

None of the niggles were enough to detract from the overall enjoyment and I’m delighted to have received them for Xmas.


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