Cider for Christmas?

I am not sure if any of the cider will be ready for Christmas. Some of it should be. We racked it off this weekend, but one or two gallons are still fermenting furiously. It is astonishing that although every gallon was made on the same day, in the same conditions, and all with assorted apples, no two jars are alike. They have all been on the same windowsill, but some started late, some finished early, the colours all vary slightly and the taste – as far as we have tested – also varies from very sweet to getting dry. NONE – so far – taste sour or vinegary I’m glad to say!

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

A slight thaw towards the end of last week – many wild birds are very glad of the food we are all putting out, and now finding more that had been covered by the snow. The blackbirds are especially fond of the apples that are not going to last in storage. Waxwings are about in the oak tree at the top of our road, and spotted woodpeckers have been seen (but not by me). Tremendous icicles formed hanging gardens and broke gutters; now it has turned icy cold again and the partially melted snow has refrozen to a skating rink. I never took to skating.

Hanging Gardens

Snow on snow….

As most of the country will have realised by now, last Thursday’s centimetre of snow was just the beginning! We now have 30cm of it outside, and as our little uphill road is unadopted, there’s no prospect of it getting cleared. We spent yesterday afternoon digging tracks to get the car shifted to the bottom, as we are low on hen food and felt panicked enough by the forecast of heavy falls today to get out and stock up. Back home, now, burning logs and drinking last year’s sloe gin… the only foraging to do will be from those toilet rolls sprouting oyster mushrooms on the window sill! Being snowed in does allow you to catch up on jobs that tend to get left – I have baked and frozen cakes, and shelled and roasted all the hazelnuts. Eaten some, too…..

The snowy landscape is beautiful, and people in Bankfoot are out on foot and meeting neighbours they never spoke to before, while the kids swarm all over the little hill of the Monny on sledges and are not missing school. But I have some anxiety – it’s only the first of December. We can only expect winter to deepen. Is this the landscape for the next three or four months?

Picking apples in the snow

On Thursday we woke to snow, not more than a centimetre, but snow. Frosts and wind over the preceding week had taken the last leaves off fruit trees, leaving roadside late apples looking like pre-Christmassy hung with the green or golden baubles of the later-ripening fruit. The Mysterious Large Apple in our front garden was no exception. For 9 years it has produced a small number of dense green fruit streaked with grey because it is in the shade; it is meant to be Ribston Pipin, but apart from the lateness of the crop (left to their own devices the apples will cling on till January and never get any riper) it bears no resemblance. Hence Mystery. Yet it grows like topsy, the blossom is magnificent and loved by bees.

This year it grew hundreds of apples, and they got to a decent size and some went a slightly golder shade of green – one or two even got rosy flushes. Whether this was due to a warm, sunny summer or the deep freeze of last winter I am not sure, but with snow falling, we decided to pick the lot and store them (they do store very well, possibly for eternity). They all had to be washed and polished free of the grey streaks, and made baskets of pretty green apples which taste just OK but the skins are tough; peeled and cooked, they do the job. Update on taste progression at Christmas.

And now, Sunday, we have 15cm snow and falling fast, thunder and lightning bizarrely, and strange lights in the sky last night, amid a glut of crazy frozen stars.

Baby Oysters!

No, not shellfish, oyster mushrooms! The most amazing and intriguing new additions to my household are the fruiting bodies of oyster mushrooms that are growing out of two impregnated toilet rolls on the window sill….. I got the spawn (mycelium mixed with grain) from Ann Miller’s Speciality Mushrooms of Inverurie, together with instructions. You soak a whole toilet roll and put it in a plastic bag; break up the spawn and put it into the middle of the roll. Seal up the bag. Then I had them in the airing cupboard for 4 weeks, the fridge for 5 days, and then the window sill (relatively cool) for the past week. At this point you make wee holes in the bag. And Lo! exquisite little oyster mushrooms gather up behind the holes and burst through. I should say the entire toilet roll at this stage is a mass of fungal mycelium – it is eerie and fantastical to watch it develop and form embryo mushrooms almost before your eyes.

Blooming well beats anything on television. And edible too!

You can get the spawn if you email ann@annforfungi.co.uk Loo rolls – the recycled ones from Lidl seem to work! The fungi break down the cellulose in the paper. As edible mushrooms seem thin on the ground just now in the wild, I am well impressed!

Cider Day

In between the days of heavy rain and wind and almost-sleet, Sunday was a fine, sunny day; cold, but nice to be out. So we made cider. We hired the electric crusher and big press from the Carse of Gowrie, Stuart brought his hefty home-made press and I had our little mini-press too, which did Catherine’s juicing apples nicely. Apples arrived in wheelbarrows and crates and plastic bags. We congregated under James’s Folly – which is a handy covered ediface erected principally for barbecues and resembling the Alamo – and got to work. Between 11 of us we processed roughly 30 gallons of cider-to-be and a gallon of juice in two and a half hours. Guess where the party’s going to be in a few months!

James did a couple of single variety gallons using his Golden Spire apples. Geoff brought some very pretty little red eaters – possibly Discovery; whereas most of the juice at this stage is an unappetising brown sludge (but delicious), Geoff’s was a lovely pinkish-red sludge – reckon that will be a handsome cider rose. One jar came out alarmingly clear – eerie! Our apples were the usual collection of weird and often unidentified subjects collected by Andrew over the past couple of months that have been gently festering around the house.

After we’d cleaned all the kit, we discovered another bucket of as yet unprocessed apples. And then a hard frost took all the leaves off the local apple trees, and beside roads and in gardens across Perthshire, there are strange Christmas trees of apple, with the late fruits hanging on like green or golden baubles….. More to do yet!

Long slow spring…..

Today heard the first cuckoo, in the woods fringing Glen Garr. Was with HNC Countryside Management atudents and the last time I dragged them for a walk we saw the first swallows down on the Tay Estuary – so I think the class are my lucky spring charms. They do seem to expect

Long time no blog – winter went on and on, nothing much to report and I realise I am about to repeat everything I wrote about last year if I don’t watch out. Will try to be selective….. the apple mountain finally petered out late February, with the blackbirds getting the last of them. Andrew borrowed the Carse of Gowrie cider press and the crucial crusher and made 11 gallons of cider and perry – we are still drinking it and mist of it is truly excellent. We have added to the fruit trees in our garden about 11 apples, 3 or 4 pears including the famous Perthshire Jargonelle, and a couple of plums and a damson. They are all leafing out nicely.

Have made wild garlic pesto and earwigging to Radio 4 and the like tells me the whole world is making stuff with wild garlic these days! It’s much in demand from customers too. Bistort, nettles, ground elder, comfrey and ladies mantle have all been et – both in and out of Dock Puddings, and Solomon’s Seal has produced its delectable shoots. Magnificent!

Have not found any St. George’s mushrooms yet. We found a red Peziza type fungus the other day – Scarlet Elf Cup – which we’d not seen before. Inedible but very pretty. Nearby we found a lizard out basking, which reminds me – on a student trip to the Rhinns of Galloway a morning walk at Portpatrick yielded a BEAUTIFUL adder by the path, fulmars and nesting ravens, and a stoat.

 Well, a new season dawns, and my “pet” early potatoes called Bonnie Dundee (but labelled Claverhouse out of badness) are coming up….

snowed under…

There is a lot of snow. Several inches over the week or two before Christmas, and a couple of massive falls in the past four days. 30cm last night. Temperatures: -11.2 the lowest so far recorded in the garden, -8.5 today. It went up to -4.2 and felt quite warm. Small birds are suffering. I have been feeding them; especially on apples. There are still two crates of random apples in the back porch and birds and possibly small mammals have helped themselves. The apples have frozen and thawed a few times, but seem still usable. Blackbirds love them, and I have had two fieldfares coming to the bird table every day, beautiful, fluffed up creatures looking for fruit and seeds. Sparkly speckly starlings come, too and a wood pigeon joins the collared doves who are resident. James over the road has had a spotted woodpecker.

There is no foraging to be done but we reap the rewards of a year spent squirreling away wild foods. At Christmas we broached the cider – it is sparkling, and not at all bad, but think will be even better in a couple more weeks. Got freshly pressed apple juice out of the freezer, too, and had plenty of rowan jelly for the turkey (yes, succumbed to a turkey even though we have home raised cockerels in the freezer), chutney for the sausage rolls, blaeberries and raspberries for the trifle and more home made wine and sloe gin that we can decently drink. Roasted hazelnuts from the copse, and a late jarring of rose hip syrup to keep up the vitamin C levels. Log foraging has sort of paid off – plenty of fuel for the stove but would be a darned sight more useful had Someone agreed with my desire to build a new log store out the back – wet logs in plastic fertiliser bags that fill with snow are limited in value.

My nursery is covered in snow. I cannot do anything about it and probably will lose a lot of plants in the extreme cold. I am going through the seed catalogues half-heartedly but not counting on an early start to production!

Drowning in Pomes….

It’s not that we haven’t been foraging, just that Andrew KEEPS BRINGING HOME MORE APPLES AND PEARS and I think we are drowning in them, so have scarcely had time to blog. (plus lots work on at college at present).

The worst is, they are all different varieties which he’s trying to identify or photograph or just moon over and there are crates and crates of the b**gers I’m not even allowed to touch, then all of a sudden they are fermenting all over the floor and it’s all a bit mind-boggling really. I am an apple widow.

Anyway that aside I’ve foraged and made these since I last wrote: rowan jelly, rowan berry wine, hazelnuts, elderberries for freezer, brambles, elderberry wine, quince jelly (using japonica quinces) and Andrew has permitted a small selection of the apple bing to be made into cider. It is a disgusting, thick brown soup of a cider at present, emitting a sludgy foam from the top of the demijohn. It is to be regretted that before we made it I had been suffering from a gastric bug (NOT from wild food!), which has affected the way I view the cider jar. Nevertheless, I am sure the end result will be as good as it was last year, and am optimistic His Lord High Appletreeness will eventually permit the remainder of the bing to be thus processed. Maybe even some of the pears.

The biggest problem we have with cidermaking is crushing the apples. We have a lovely little press, but unless the fruit is well mashed you don’t get the juice from it and it is a long, slow process. A 10lb weight into a bucket is OK but broke the bucket; James’s mechanical chip-maker is a start but we really have to get a proper mincer. The off-putting brown colour comes from tannin, and won’t do any harm, some apples just have lots in them. Keswick Codlins made up the large amount of the apples we used, but there were others – James Grieve, Lord Derby, Grenadier, Bramley and “various Laxton type things” (quote). No real cider apples – told A he needs to develop a Scottish cider apple.

The Quince Jelly also benefitted from a dose of Bramley for setting quality – and it is an exquisite jelly. I know Japonica quinces aren’t strictly wild food but they might as well be, as so many people grow the things as ornamental shrubs with never a clue they are cultivating a valuable food source.

Not been much on the fungi front – we have had a few weeks of dry weather and haven’t found anything new or in remarkable quantity or quality for a while. A very interesting mushroom is developing on a log in the garden; yet to be identified. More later!

PS. Sloes about ready to pick….

Russula Mushrooms

My favourite fungi to eat at present are Blackish-Purple Russulas (Russula atropurpurea). They are SO tasty and have a lovely nutty texture. Be very careful not to muddle them with the poisonous scarlet red Russula emetica (The Sickener) or the Beechwood Sickener, which is also bright red but found under beech of course. R. atropurpurea is claret-coloured, with a distinctly darker, blackish centre. We are finding many on the village green at Pitcairngreen,  also there are Charcoal Burner Mushrooms (Russula cyanoxantha), Common Yellow Russla (R. ochroleuca) and R. xerampelina. All edible and very tasty.

Found other species of Russula on our latest wild food ramble, including – we think – the rare Russula obscura, which we didn’t pick of course.  Lots of Tawny Grisettes, Chanterelles and Boletus species too – some early Bay Boletus and a couple of Ceps (B. edulis) which were appallingly maggoty. Rowan berries were just about ready, but I’m holding off till the crab apples over the fence are ripe as  I like to add them to Rowan berries when making jelly to get a better set. Meanwhile Andrew is coming home regularly laden with “feral” plums, damsons and cherry-plums of differing shades (Prunus cerasifera), which I really love. They all go off quickly so have made plum and courgette chutney as well as several crumbles, and will be making some jam this week too.

At Elcho Castle we helped pick some of the first eating apples (Discovery and Beauty of Bath) and bore home a big bagful to finish ripening. Have also eaten brambles off the bushes, so it’s that season again, summer nearly over and autumn fruitfulness to enjoy!

Blaeberry Harvest

We’ve been entertained since last weekend by a huge caterpillar on the willow herb outside the kitchen window – an elephant hawk-moth. S/he is still there, on the second full stem which is being systematically stripped of leaves, but is getting fatter and slower. The cat is scared of it.

We also had visitors, Tim and Gill and their daughters Lucy and Alice, and as is customary they were pressganged into picking blaeberries (bilberries). This absorbing task yielded enough of these tasty and nutritious fruits for jam, cakes, puddings, breakfasts and the freezer…. and there’s plenty more if we are back in the right habitat, which is acid woodland. Lucy was quite revolting with her blaeberries – squashed them to a mush in their plastic bag, bit off the corner of the bag and sucked the pulp out. Ugh! Fruit Smoothies the rustic way I suppose. Tim and Andrew were sidetracked by some nice big chanterelles, and Tim and I collected honey fungus on the way back – a big show of these and more to come. They were delicious in omelettes. There are a few other mushrooms about just now – several of the Russual genus are showing their faces, but not enough to get a selection of edible species, and in the Millenium Wood Tawny Grisettes (much chewed by slugs) mix with The Blusher (Amanita rubscens). We don’t eat the Blusher. It’s said to be edible, but a. it looks a bit like the poisonous Panther Cap which is also about just now and it wouldn’t take much of a deviant Panther Cap to get mistaken and b. so many creepy crawlies have already eaten it by the time we get there anyway.

Hazelnuts are swelling and becoming obvious in our local copse.