Monthly Archives: October 2014


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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