Jam Today

Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
Holly FarrellThere’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
Rose Hip SyrupThe kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.

Hedgerow Harvest

There’s never a really good time of year to flail a hedge, but it’s particularly galling to see so much hedge cutting going on at this time of year.


It could be why the prodigious bounty of our native hedgerows tends to be over-looked, despite the fad for foraging. Sloes, hips, haws, elderberries and blackberries have all been excised from the hedges around us, which have been neatly cut as they are every year. It’s a real pain; armed with a variety of recipes we always look forward to raiding nature’s larder at this time of year.

Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) Eating berriesIn the past folk used to collect apples, berries and nuts from hedges as a free supplement to their diet, but for many birds and mammals this food source is rather more critical, of course. And flailing hedges like this doesn’t just impact on larger animals. It’s not surprising the Brown Hairstreak is such a rare butterfly; it lays its eggs on young Blackthorn plants. There’s no chance of them surviving an annual flailing; populations will be wiped out in a single year.

Current best practice is to cut in late winter to a height over 2m in a three year rotation. Like roadside verges, management regimes tend to be over zealous.

That’s not quite true – best practice is to lay a hedge, although that’s a time consuming manual business and is often not a practical answer. I’m a sucker for hedgelaying though, and lay all the hedges we have around our patch in Somerset. Follow the link to find out why.

The Pig Hotel

Last week the Pig Hotel in the New Forest very kindly offered me free lunch and a tour. As a free loading pig enthusiast how could I refuse? There are a small but growing number of Pigs, if you see what I mean, and their format was familiar from Babbington House, which is the posh boutique hotel / restaurant around the corner from us in Somerset. There were two things that marked The Pig out as being rather different, though.
I do like pigs. Although I’m not a proper swineherd we do buy in weaners, which we grow on and knock on the head, to fill our freezers for months. Pigs are intelligent animals and their treatment by some overseas producers in particular can be terrible. I’m very picky about the provenance of any pork I eat, which is one of the reasons I started to be interested in them.
Tamworth at The PigWe keep Large Blacks, which are a wonderfully phlegmatic West Country breed, although The Pig goes for Tamworths, the punks of the porcine world. Tamworths are semi-feral in my book, always trying to escape/knock you over/have a ruck – you get the picture. They’re a good laugh, though, and very tasty. To my delight, at The Pig they sit in a field next to the hotel, opposite the quails and chickens. Good looking, happy pigs staying at the Pig Hotel.

The Pig Hotel, New ForestMy plant m.o. suggested I should have been more interested in the kitchen garden, which was indeed lovely. There’s some interesting stuff there, but I thought the most interesting thing was the philosophy behind all this. We were eating pork raised on site and veg from the garden, local farms or foraged. By chance I listened to a fab talk by Alys Fowler today, about foraging (i.e. her new book). One of the points she made was the current lack of connection between people and their food, and that by re-establishing it you’re helping re-establish a broader connection with the natural world around them. Forage Wild Garlic (very trendy) and you’re suddenly aware of Ramsons and where they are. Although she was talking about foraging, the same is true of animals and veg. James Golding, the head chef at The Pig, was disarmingly honest about how they plan their menus; they don’t. He uses whatever is ready in the garden.
James Golding, chefThe second thing that marked The Pig out to my mind was the staff. Like Marcus the head gardener James is in his twenties and fabulously keen. He’s even tattooed with a guide to butchering a pig – this is not a man whose commitment to the cause is in doubt. These guys have enthusiasm and energy as well as vision. Great job.

The Wildflower Meadow And The Chicken

A chicken and a wildflower meadow don’t seem a natural combination, but in fact they’re a match made in heaven. Let me explain.

Last year we were approached through the British Beekeepers’ Association by Noble Foods, the biggest producer of eggs in the UK. An enterprising manager realized that chicken ranges might offer some interesting opportunities to help bees. If you go to a free range chicken unit you’ll understand. In the middle of a field is a vast barn, with something like 30,000 chickens inside. They’re free to wander about, and indeed have to have a certain space per chicken to wander about. The thing is, they’re not really interested. The barns are snug and the chickens have food, water, and egg laying sites. They might run about outside around their barn, but very quickly a visitor will be walking across an unpopulated grass field. A large chicken free grass field.

Noble Food chickensGraham – the enterprising manager – got to thinking that doing something with those unproductive grass areas might be a good idea. Noble Foods had already planted trees on some areas of their chicken ranges, but he felt there must be other opportunities. All the vast chicken-less grass areas were being used for was to make the odd bale of hay; it’s verboten to use them for a commercial crop. Not only that, but uncropped grass needs regular cutting so they were actually costing hard pressed egg producers to maintain. He hit on the idea of wildflower meadows.

1. Lower maintenance cost.
2. Great for chicken welfare – lots of invertebrate snacks.
3. Large scale habitat creation – genuinely significant impact on the landscape and a fantastic PR opportunity for Noble Foods.
4. Engagement with local communities – Graham had thought of local beekeepers, but everyone will love the aesthetic appeal.

There are various practical hurdles, of course, which is where we come in. With the help of external consultants we’ve overcome the issues and will be starting to ship Noble a range of native wildflower meadow seed mixes in the next couple of weeks. These seed mixes are a cut above your normal agricultural cultivars – they are proper wildflowers. Graham has signed up producers for over 100 acres in year one, and we’re targeting 800 acres over a decade. If that sounds a lot, well – it is. If all goes well we will buy seed from the early adopters after year three, process it and sell it on. Noble Foods’ retailers have started getting excited about the project too, and I’m sure the Beekeepers will be chuffed to bits.

Noble Foods heartI’m so excited about this wildflower meadow project because of its size and because it’s such a good illustration of why I set up Habitat Aid. This is in everyone’s interest, for reasons commercial as much as ecological. My (small ethical UK) seed supplier loves me. The farmers love Graham. The retailers/local community/beekeepers/consumers love Noble Foods. I’m sure the chickens will love the wildflower meadows too.

Thanks Graham – great stuff, and fingers crossed. I’m sure Noble Foods will benefit in ways we can’t yet even imagine!

Don’t Stall on Sow Stalls!

Sow stalls are a shocking scandal. To my mind, as they’re an animal welfare issue they’re much more offensive than any meat mislabelling problem, and yet few people even know what sow stalls are. So let’s start by quoting Wikipedia:

A gestation crate, also known as a sow stall, is a metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be kept during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life. The enclosures measure 6.6 ft x 2.0 ft (2 m x 60 cm) and house sows that weigh up to 600 lbs (270 kg).

The floors of the crates are made of concrete, and are slatted to allow waste to be collected below. As the sows outgrow the crates, they must sleep on their chests, unable to turn around. A few days before giving birth, they are moved to farrowing crates, where they are able to lie down to nurse while being held apart from their piglets.

Pork producers argue that they are needed because sows who are housed together will fight. Animal advocates regard their use as one of the most inhumane features of intensive animal agriculture.

Nowhere near a sow stallI know a bit about pigs. We keep them every now and then, originally as I was keen to show the children where meat came from. I was then shocked at the way these intelligent and sociable animals could be treated when farmed commercially. I’ll spare you the pictures of the sow stalls and show you one of our Large Blacks, which are among the most endearing and easy tempered animals I’ve ever come across.

The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, with the support of retailers and processors. It amazed me that we continued to cheerfully import pork and bacon from countries that hadn’t. As with the horsemeat issue, cost, of course, was the reason why. Since 2002 the UK has imported more and more pig meat, from countries where sow stalls were still used. Their pig meat was cheaper, of course. This was despite the EU* passing legislation in 2001 requiring other member States to do the same.

Twelve years later there are still 17 EU States flouting the ban on sow stalls. Portugal is only 58% compliant and France 72%, for example. Even Denmark, one of the biggest importers of pig meat into the UK, is only 94% compliant.

The National Pig Association launched a Wall of Fame (and Shame), on which it carries the names of UK food retailers and processors who have signed up to buying their pig meat from compliant sources. How many retailers have currently signed up to sourcing all their meat products this way? Two.

Let’s charitably interpret this as another symptom of the difficulty in unpicking the wretchedly complicated supply chains in the food industry – the list has only been live for a month. It’s a story worth following, though. How long will it take the consumer to understand that ethically produced food costs more?

*To my mind, without proper labelling best not to eat pork or bacon at all if you’re in the U.S., where most producers still use sow stalls.

Cider Apple Picking

When we first moved into the village the noise of apples being dropped into buckets was, as much as Robins singing at dusk, one of the defining noises of autumn. Then the cider factory up the road stopped taking local apples and the orchard fell silent. Since when, though, inspired by traditional local cider makers like Hecks and Julian Temperley we have formed a village cider co-op. We now make an invigorating cider we called Bullbeggar, after our local spirit (every proper village in Somerset has a ghost). With Hecks’ help we bottle some for sale locally and in London, and sell the rest in the barrel at local fetes and festivals. The process starts with harvesting the apples, on an afternoon either on or close to the official Apple Day. Ern’s orchard is proper kit – a really nice mix of traditional cider varieties – so interesting to work in. The weather is aways glorious, as is the gossip and the tea. Community, local history, local food, habitat. Fantastic.

A Little Outing

A quick trip to the Marches last week to visit a couple of folk and the Malvern Show. I’m not going to mention any of my normal Show gripes, but concentrate on the positive. The nice thing about the trip was the strong sense of what Common Ground would call “local distinctiveness”. It’s part of the world that hasn’t sold its soul.

I got off to a good start by visiting Jenny Steel in Shropshire to have a catch up over a coffee, and thence to Plant Wild, outside Leominster. Plant Wild is the brainchild of Keith Arrowsmith and Suzanne Noble, who are growing and harvesting native plants and seeds. Keith, like me, is a refugee from an altogether different world. Fingers crossed we might work together and we can sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixtures.

Overnighted at the Three Horseshoes in Little Cowarne. The Good Pub Guide rarely lets me down, and I’m always amazed with the quality and value our best independent pubs provide. Local produce – food and drink – the watchword. Lovely Wye Valley Bitter and fantastic draft cider from Oliver’s, which as it turns out is just down the road. And some bloke came in and bought a round of a Becks and three Carlsbergs. Sigh.

Set off for the Malvern Show with some trepidation on Saturday – my thoughts on Gardening Shows are well documented, so I won’t go over them again. Gorgeous day though, and had a lovely time. Spent most of my time in and around the “Good Life” tent to avoid the tat. Met up with Ian Roger, my main fruit tree supplier, whose amazing display of traditional apple varieties won him a Gold medal. He was even more chuffed by the response from the punters to his stand. More Perry and Cider tasting, of course; particularly liked Severn Cider’s Perry and Cider – good luck to you.

This Bloke Walked into a Pub with a Szechuan Pepper...
Bravura performances by Mark Diacono and that Joe Swift (he should be on TV), and John Wright. Mark and John were promoting their new books, which are rather good. EVERYONE with an interest in food and the countryside should read them. God knows, we all need a bit of inspiration at the moment. I wonder if social historians of the future will talk about a River Cottage movement and its impact on food. And what nice people, too. Talking of which, there were various bloggers about, including Veg Plotting and the Patient Gardener, who it was nice to see – albeit briefly. I wish I could have stayed longer for a proper chat.

Heavy HorseTo cap a fine day – and before I got lost in the ludicrously unsigned carpark – I was asked to sell Perry Pear trees at the show next year. Delighted to, especially if it means another stay in Little Cowarne. I wonder if I could sell some local seed for Keith and Suzanne too. Oh – and I almost forgot – here’s a heavy horse photo for my mum.

AAArgh…We’re All Gonna Die!!!

Bee numbers plummet as billions of colonies die across the world
(Daily Mail)

Fears for crops as shock figures from America show scale of bee catastrophe
The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter

…as someone commented on Guardian Online:

Uhuh. Ok. Whatever.

There’s got to be a sensible line to take through this somewhere between complacent and – well – the Daily Mail. Among the things I learnt last week at the great Bee Beano was that there have been regular instances of large scale losses of honey bee colonies over the past 100 years. Hmm. Interesting. Blimey, yes, let’s make sure folk know about the problem and let’s worry about it, but let’s keep a sense of perspective.
It would also be nice if these bee extinction stories reminded us somewhere of what we can do to to help, apart from supporting relevant research. There are fewer flowers in the countryside. We can help to compensate for that by planting more of the right sort of plants in our own gardens. As consumers we can try to encourage environmentally friendly food production. Where we live – Somerset – of course disease and climate have taken their toll recently, but my informed guess is that the principle reason for the decline in honeybee numbers (which has been going on for several decades) has been commercial pressure. Many large scale cider makers use imported apple concentrate in order to keep prices low. Small scale producers have been forced out of business. Ergo local orchards grubbed up. Ergo no bees required to pollinate the apple trees.
This officially the last post on bees for a while. And I’m bound to get complaints.

Name That Ram

Poll Dorset Ram
Ern and I picked up our lovely Poll Dorset ram from the effervescent Graham Langford in the Blackdown Hills today. Here he is looking rather – well – sheepish (that’s the ram, not Graham). To recap briefly, I’ve gone for Poll Dorsets not only because I think they’re a cracking rare breed, but also because they will come into lamb at any time of the year. This means that not only are they superb for meadow management, but the lambs also reach higher prices at market. Lambs concieved now will graze the aftermath of the meadow after mowing and go to market in the New Year. We bought 5 ewes last year to get us started.
Anyway, our ram needs naming. He has to begin with a K, so we’ve come up with a shortlist to choose from. If I’ve missed your favourite out please let me know and we might include it… Voting closes at midnight on Monday.
Result is in! Kingsley snatched it from Kevin…

Poll Dorsets
K Meets the Girls

Related Posts: Sheep Sheep Again

Gower Wildflowers

Green roof
Now that's what I call a green roof
I sneaked over the Severn Bridge on St. David’s Day trying to hide my Bath Rugby windscreen sticker, en route to the Gower to visit our native wetland plant supplier. It would have been a great visit even without the amazing weather; this is just the kind of business I’m really chuffed to be working with. Gower Wildflowers is the brainchild of David Holland, who also runs Salix and is one of the tutors for our “making wildlife ponds” course in April. Salix are a pretty serious outfit, who “provide vegetative solutions to water quality, civil engineering and soil erosion issues as well as ecological and landscape enhancement”. They recently bagged a big Olympic contract and their other clients include British Waterways and the Environment Agency. They’re split between the Welsh site and a much bigger nursery in Norfolk which, if the smaller site was anything to go by, must have the largest single concentration of frogs in the country! In Wales they share 3 acres with Gower Wildflowers, which started trading last year. They have a cafe and deli selling strictly local produce like pickled samphire and salt marsh lamb, sitting under an amazing native wildflower roof. There are plants for sale and some really nice demo meadow and pond areas, which among other things have the beautiful but increasingly rare Ragged Robin (lychnis flos-cuculi) in abundance. David has great plans for the site, which will look amazing. I screwed up my podcast recording, so I’ll have to get back there this summer (what a shame!) – in the cricket season.