Tonight’s the Night. For Wassailing.

We wassailed on Saturday at Gowanhill in Stirling, where Transition Stirling have created a community orchard. It was an icy, searing, brilliant, sun-soaked morning, with snow underfoot and the tracks of rabbits, deer, foxes mingling with the human and dog ones. Claire’s  mulled apple juice was zinging, and we all toasted the young trees (which had just been pruned under Andrew’s guidance), and bellowed our wassail to the ancient and productive apple tree, relic of an older orchard, at the centre.

By rights it should have been tonight, but there’s no tradition of wassailing in Scotland and therefore we can bend all the rules and make our own customs. Tonight is Twelfth Night in the “old” calendar, which had Christmas Day on January 6th.

Wassailing (making a lot of noise, singing to a load of fruit trees and drinking a lot of cider at its simplest) is steadily insinuating itself into the calendar of the Scottish winter party which begins on St. Andrew’s Day at the end of November, and continues through yule and the midwinter solstice, Christmas, Hogmanay and New Year’s Day, to stagger to a halt around Burns night – technically January 25th  but tends to stretch to incorporate the weekends before and after it. Aside from the obvious gap in excuses around mid-January, the growth of wassailing is largely thanks to the huge number of new community and private orchards planted in the last decade that are now blessing us with copious harvests.

The thing is, you have to keep wassailing to ensure the harvests continue. Grab a jug of cider and a slice of toast, choose your King Apple (or whatever) Tree in your garden or nearest orchard and get out there!

Wassail! Drink Hail! Sing!

(https://dochub.com/andrewlear/63bBXm/wassailing1  AND  https://dochub.com/andrewlear/8p3NL6/wassailing2  will take you to our favourite wassailing songs. You’re on your own finding the music!

cider

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

 

Walnuts in Scotland

walnuts

The nice thing about Catriona’s walnuts is how easy they are to crack open. Christmas childhood walnut memories for me are of battles against wee brown rocks, broken nutcrackers, bruised fingers and mashed nuts I could never pick out of the remains of the shell.

Maybe in Scotland the shells don’t get quite so granitic. Anyway, Catriona’s walnuts break neatly and easily along the centre line and come out whole. Little wrinkled ovals of russety-brown, rustling with the papery bit that divides the cotyledons. Not the biggest walnuts in the world, but they taste fantastic. Any thoughts of making another nut roast (like the Christmas one I made to offset the goose) dissipate because they just go straight in the mouth like sweeties.

The variety is ‘Buccaneer’, and it’s about 10 years old, certainly not much more. It started bearing nuts the year after planting. Contrary to everything I believed about planting walnuts for your grandchildren! We once saw a massive walnut tree in a square in one of the east Sutherland towns – maybe Dornoch – and assumed it was very old. Since then we’ve found quite a few around the country (Scotland, that is) – all thriving, but I doubt many are as prolific as Catriona’s ‘Buccaneer’. There’s another variety called ‘Broadview’ which is said to best for the UK. I wonder?

At a Hogmanay party, we tried Ann’s pickled walnuts. Never realised it is the whole immature fruit (nut and its embryo shell and its thick green seed case) that gets pickled – or that several steepings in brine are needed before the actual pickling. Wow – amazing flavour and texture. Catriona’s walnut tree needs to be raided next year before the nuts start to ripen!

Andrew’s sowing some wild walnut seed, with a view to grafting with ‘Buccaneer’ scions….one day. How long for the straight Walnut tree-lets to germinate and grow? How long for my very own, pickled and unpickled, walnuts?

It isn’t Spring. Really it isn’t.

The clouds hang low across Birnam Hill in the sulky twilight and the air is turgid and heavy. Patches of pinkish light to the north, but the grey, oozy mist soon covers them. The oak and the sycamore on the lane stand out indignantly, black and convoluted against the gloaming.

I’ve been cleaning the wee greenhouse ready for seed sowing, unsurprised by the enthusiasm of shamrock spreading greenly in the gravel, but ecstatic to note that my Caucasian Climbing Spinach – the one in a pot – is already shooting. Alive! No sign of the outdoor ones yet, though they were more vigorous last summer.

In the garden. the rhubarb is up, leaves unfurling. Including the Lochgelly Miners’ Rhubarb. Little weeds everywhere I spread the compost rampage like they’ve never heard of frost. ice, snow, winter…. When I clear a border of overgrown perennials for replanting in spring, marching armies of daffodil shoots stand to attention.

Darkness deepens, I come in, the television news blares an icy message, not the latest pish from Trump this time, but of snow in Greek islands, temperatures of -30 degrees and freezing blasts and storms from Turkey across to Georgia, USA.

I wonder  if it is coming this way, any time soon.

Berber Artisans and City Life

My trip from mountain to City was very eventful, but that’s for another day….I love to see people who can make things! I watched a leather worker in Chefchaouan make me a wallet, but in the maze of Marrakesh you can see gates being welded, chickens gutted, bed heads being carved, banjos being stretched, fabrics being woven and all within a few hundred yards of each other….well I did get lost and spent a happy 2 hours or so looking for the exit! If you have been there you will understand!  What a rich den of skilled people, they are highly inventive and recycle lots of odds and ends as part of their craft. The very narrow alleyways are surprisingly cool in the 34 degrees of last week. But watch out for the caleches, donkey carts, motorbikes and the sort of one way system of people!

1461598869248.jpg

In contrast I visited the Yves Saint Laurent Jardin Majorel. I was told it was a major tourist attraction…I was there at daybreak so saw no-one else, but wow what a place! I’m not surprised it’s popular. It is the most perfectly manicured garden I have ever seen and very stunning in design and colour. And there’s a very good Berber Museum within.

Majorelle

Majorelle

Cacti Forest

Cacti Forest

So my intention to see horticulture here was more or less achieved, at least in the North, seeing the contrast of home vegetable gardening, small farms and large commercial farmers. It is a rich productive land wherever water allows in the mostly dry and rocky landscape.  Some dusty French hikers told of rich valleys in the High Atlas and Walnut groves, and where are these Argon trees…….mmmm next time…..oh and did i tell you about the air display at the airport, and the Romans at Larache, and the El Djemma Fna Concert show?

Djemma Fna

Djemma Fna

A Berber Way Of Life

Peaches

Peaches

Well where to start! I experienced a week or so of life with a berber family at  Ribat El Kheir in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. On route I passed a large commercial Apple Orchard, apparently 200 hectares or so of very closely spaced dwarf trees, all for export.  They have many deep wells to support the parched terrain and the workers are paid bonuses, so work very hard I was told.

The peaches were in flower in one of the smaller orchards around me. All the trees in this plot were headed back at about 30cm to make an upright open framework.

My week was very relaxed, looking after a few cows, many types of poultry, rabbits,  doves and pigs. And a lot of time relaxing and drinking tea with neighbours….and of course delicious tagines! All food is shared, there are no separate plates, and it is most often scooped up with bread with your right hand. The bread is flat and unleavened in Morocco and made fresh each day. We ate it a lot.The mint tea is very sweet and refreshing in the heat.

Tagine Dindons!

Tagine Dindons!

We also ate omelettes and dipped bread in olive oil, as well as a semolina in a sour milk, butter milk maybe? The daughter made it in a plastic bottle, rolling it on the floor for an hour or so. Also side dishes of sweet broad beans and a fennel paste from the buds of the wild fennel around us.

Fennel

Fennel

1461249440561

The Berbers lived simply, and ate what they grew or farmed mostly. They had a bottled gas cooker and oven, but no electricity, though new pylons at the end of the farm lane forewarn of a change to come. It was very amusing to see Berber shepherds using mobile phones to communicate with each other across the hill! Samsungs are ubiquitous!

Berber Brebis

Berber Brebis

A stunning landscape was my daily view, often with these Berber sheep which are kept on the move all day to eek out the few weeds. This field will not be sown because it is too dry this year….incomes are so precarious here! The puit ( well ) is a vital element in life here; the French Colonialists in the 1920’s chose these areas to create commercial farms as they had a reliable source.

Le Source

Le Source

I saw these wooden ploughs being used behind mules and oxen in many areas. Such is the contrasting extremes easily seen in this country twixt the traditional ways and modern city life. And so to the city….

Wooden Plough

Wooden Plough

Olives and more in Chefchaouan

Chefchaouan

Chefchaouan

Yeah, its the blue town and full of tourists. And hash punters. My wee hostel was run by some  permanently stoned guys, what a waste! But what a pretty little souk of narrow blue painted alleyways, lovely at night. A wee boy put the finishing touch to a wallet I had made for me.

Leatherwork

Leatherwork

The market day drew in rows of Rifian men and women, here to sell a few cabbages and onions and buy their own shopping before returning. It’s a very hard and simple life for these people…other larger traders had oranges and apples, olives or spices. These palm shoots intrigued me.

Palm Shoots

Palm Shoots

One of the wee squares was piled up with firewood for the Hammam Public Baths, a pleasure I didn’t find time for on this occasion.

Market Day

Market Day

Hammam Baths

Hammam Baths

Heading down from Chef to Fez, I was struck by the oranges,  and beans and others cereals sown underneath the Olive groves. At lower altitudes, there were larger fields of cereals and co-operatives with a more commercial layout of large fields. Almost no hedges or fences exist in Morocco. The sheep are constantly herded to prevent straying; even the motorway verges are grazed between Fez and Rabat!

Espagnol in Morocco

I have just spent a few weeks in Morocco on a farm and travelling around and thought i would record some of the events here. Those of you who have visited this fascinating country will be familiar with much of what is to follow!

English Breakfast

English Breakfast

I failed to secure a hostel in any of the Spanish enclaves so plumped for the longer ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Tangiers Med port.A lovely way to enter Africa, but not without a last breakfast of Eggs and bacon on the ferry.

Then refusal to pay 200 dirham for a grand taxi toute seule, ( thanks Lonely Planet my trusty companion ), and eventually got crammed into one with 4 others for a mad dash to Tangier bus station for 30 dirham. And there I enjoyed my first chaotic experience of the bus stations in Morocco, albeit with a few exceptions like the lovely CTM one at Tetouan. Anyway, I now knew to look for shared lifts, and waited patiently for a cheap shared grand taxi to Assilah. There’s always a headman ready to guide you …its actually quite a good system. But good to get away from that busy place and arrive at the wee town of Assilah by the sea ( though crammed in with 6 others this time! ) .Miles of beaches along the coast en route.

Mint Tea

Mint Tea

My memories of this place are of children moving to and from school at all times of the day, great mint teas, Spanish being spoken, prayers called at 5am, and the one shop with beer for sale!

1460750789810

Saskatoons

We have a selection of specially imported Canadian Saskatoons for sale in 3 or 5 litre pots.
These trees produce a fabulously sweet blue berry in July, and are similar to Blueberries. They differ in that they do not need acid soil and prefer good sunlight and any good loamy soil.
The varieties we have for sale are Smoky, Thiessen, Northline and JB 30. These are all commercially selected for their superior sized and quality fruits from tlocal wild trees in central Canada.
They are very hardy, and reach between 2.5 to 3.5 metres. Pruning involves cutting out a few of the tallest trees in a few years time. They are likely to be productive for 40 years or more. Our specialist guide gives more information.

Appletreeman’s Guide to Growing Saskatoons

Cider Apples

Whiteways Cider factory was about 5 miles from my home in Devon and we used to scrump rather horrible apples from their orchards as kids….probably Langworthy, and Dunkerswell Late among many others. And as a teenager of course I drunk some pretty rough ciders from big round barrels! As there is a great buzz in Scotland surrounding cider making and cider apples this year I thought I’d post a few thoughts on the subject. We have in the past grown Morgan’s Sweet, Tom Putt and Fair Maid of Taunton….and I have really enjoyed browsing through Liz Copas’s ”A Somerset Pomona” over the Xmas break. In this book there are some varieties reminiscent of my childhood climbing and scrumping trees! Cider apples come in different categories according to their taste….so don’t worry about what they look like in the books as it is the cider making qualities that are important here. In a nutshell they are categorised as Sharp, Bittersharp, Bittersweet and Sweet, and may be early mid or late ripening. At our cider sessions last year it was possible to catch these elements in different Scottish apples; getting a mix of these flavours is how to make a good cider.  Going for say a sweet and bittersharp mix would be good. Or you could make different single variety ciders and then blend before drinking. A bittersweet and sharp mix would in my mind do the same. The tannin content (the browning) of an apple is useful and the specific gravity content of the juice is important to cider making, giving you the necessary ingredients for alcohol production! Of equal importance to us here are the productive qualities of cider varieties, as there is no point in planting a cider tree that just isn’t going to produce anything under Scottish conditions; many won’t even ripen properly, and are just too late for our climate.  So, over the following year I will be propagating a small range of specially selected scab resistant, early, and precocious trees, ready for sale in winter 2015. A small amount of scab is acceptable for juicing, but not so much that the trees and production suffer. There are a few examples of cider trees in Scotland that I know of, and most are large and relatively unproductive. Growing central leader trees on a semi-vigorous stock is probably the way forward for us. Don’t be fooled by the unpruned large Herefordshire trees as a system, it would not suit us all here, unless you have a large acreage to play with. Our likely mix of sharps and bittersweets, sweets and bittersharps will be among the following: Langworthy, Porter’s perfection, Stoke Red, White Jersey, Brown’s and Slack Ma Girdle and  others.  Traditionally cider apples are grown as very big trees and they are shaken free of all their fruit. OK if you can wait 5 years for a crop, but most of our customers want to be making juice sooner. So we will be grafting some mm106 semi-dwarfing trees as well as vigorous M25 trees for sale in a year’s time. 79 Watch this space! And best wishes to all you apple tree growers for the new year…. and remember to Wassail your trees on January 17th!

Woodhouse Coffee Shop

Hot on the heels of my last coffee blog I continue the theme here after visiting the Woodhouse Coffee shop near Kippen (on appletree business of course!).
Its very accessible from Stirling, and on a roundabout also so easy access to the large car park.
The shop was loaded with interesting goodies including many organic items, the largest pie I have ever seen from the Kippen Butcher section, teas of exotic nature, and a fine selection of interesting beers and ales. Also a few ciders from Cornwall with weird colours, a must try for the future!
Slightly puzzled at the lack of vegetables in a farm shop, though there was a ‘naughty’ sweety section….what nae spuds?
Its fab to sit on a comfy cushion in a cafe, and recycled ones too, and I love all the wooden tables, boxes and baskets etc. Solar panels on the roof also….You get a ‘hello’ as you enter and there were plenty of staff serving on a Monday afternoon.
But best of all was the list of teas you can buy! And I ordered a good latte before I read down the list. Mistake, as a ‘Gunpowder’ would have been just the ticket or a chai! Lunch of Fennel and lemon soup will also wait for my next visit.
On the way out – oops a ‘Grapevine’ pale ale for a pick me up  later tonight….it comes recommended from a local microbrewery. You do know about the old Kippen grapes, the world record holder? No, maybe the owners should put a photo on the wall? You’d be impressed. So cycle out a few miles from Stirling or pop in en route to the west and enjoy a cuppa!Woodhouse Cofee Shop