Monthly Archives: August 2011

Warning: May Contain Nuts…

We’re just back from Polly and Jon’s wedding in Kent. I wasn’t the wedding photographer but Polly is the daughter of very old friends and we’ve known her all her life, and I wanted to take some pictures. Disaster struck, all my cameras suddenly decided enough was enough and ground to a digital death, and my pocket digital had disappeared into the matmos I call home.

So I had to take the Holga to accurately (!) record Clarissa’s arrival at the church.

And her shoes…!

A Holga is a light-leaking plastic camera with a plastic lens that uses 120 film. Some might say it misuses 120 film.

It has a cult following because it can be relied upon to produce pictures that are blurred, out of focus, haphazardly framed and (by light getting into the camera) fogged . Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to use after the relentless perfection of digital with the endless opportunities and compulsion to manipulate, ‘improve’ and ‘correct’ to make reality even more real, but at the same time less true. I agree with Martin Scorcese who reckons digital effects may look ‘real’, but they lack that ‘used’ feel, the fortuitous unplanned reality of life.

Polly’s mum and dad, Barry and Karin, used to live in Brockley, but some years ago they decided they needed a new challenge and took the brave step of selling their huge house and buying the 180 acres of beautiful Kent countryside known as Farnell Farm. From the beginning they planted Kentish cobnuts, Filberts and Gunselberts, about 700 trees altogether on a sloping 4 acre field leading down to their barn.

They thought cobnuts would be in tune with the landscape and a traditional local crop,  something that was very important to how they saw their life on the farm.  On our first visit we were unprepared for the sheer beauty of the landscape; while the dog dashed around in lurcher heaven Barry and Karin showed us around the orchard, Barry worrying about the squirrels eating the nuts, and later Karin bringing us some freshly picked green cobnuts.

The cobnut harvest starts at the end of August after St Philbert’s Day, the first cobnuts are green, and eaten as fresh as possible. The taste was amazing, the green cobnuts were moist, sweet and soft.

Even the wonder-lurcher discovered a passion for green cobnuts. “People become addicted to green cobnuts,” said Barry. “If you taste them green the flavour is unique and subtle, once they’ve been cold-stored or chilled they lose that flavour.” Karin thinks they taste like raw fresh peas. Green cobnuts are only available for a few weeks from about now, then they’ll turn dry and golden and are delicious roasted. The field yields about 2 tons per hectare depending on the squirrels who account for about half the crop. Then there’s the badgers. Farnell Farm has 75 acres of ancient bluebell woods, peppered with badger setts, the badgers climb up the trees after the nuts and flatten them!

Now a few years on, they’ve a small flock of Portland sheep, and they’ve recently planted 5 acres of vines, hoping in 3 or 4 years to be producing their first Farnell Farm wine.

The couple are licensed by DEFRA to sell bluebell seeds, I didn’t know it was illegal to collect the seeds without a licence, but apparently this is a serious business, and Barry and Karin were two of the first people to be granted a licence to gather and sell the seeds.  They’ve added wild garlic and wild broom seeds to their stock and sell everything by mail order through their website.

The whole family, Barry, Karin, Polly, her brother Harry, and now Polly’s husband Jon, all help with the cobnut harvest, picking the nuts by hand then dehusking them and laying them out on tables turning them once a day.  “Our cobnuts aren’t cheap,” said Karin, “but they are as near perfect as we can get them, we don’t use any sprays or chemicals and rely on birds to keep insects at bay. We haven’t gone for organic registration because of the cost, but our cobnuts are as organic as anyone’s.”

The hazel tree dates from the end of the last Ice Age, cultivated hazels known as Filberts have been grown since the 16th Century, named after St Philbert’s Day which falls just as the nuts are ready to eat. The Kentish cobnut is also known as the Lambert Filbert which was developed in the 1800s. Other traditional varieties are the Gunselbert and the Frizzled Filbert.

Before the last War there were 7,000 acres planted with cobnuts, now there might be just 250. People have lost the taste for cobnuts as small greengrocers have disappeared and supermarkets refuse to stock fresh cobnuts. Some Turkish shops stock green cobnuts from abroad, I’ve seen them in the Lewisham Food Centre for instance.

The Kentish Cobnut Association, led by Alexander Hunt are working to preserve this tradition.  Alex was at the wedding, we’d met before at the Canterbury Food Fair  and at Produced in Kent events. I told him about the blog and we self-consciously exchanged cards.

Ah yes ,the wedding, the Holga was doing its best, every so often I  changed the film and replaced the batteries back into their clips, they kept falling out and rattling around inside the camera so the flash wouldn’t work. The official photographers moved smoothly on, their laptops glowing confidently; as dusk arrived they suggested taking some pictures of the bride and groom with the bridesmaids and ushers in a field the other side of the woods. I thought I might get something memorable, but when I reached the field after negotiating the odd electric fence it was quite dark and I had to rely on the puny built-in flash. The photographers set up umbrellas and flashguns and fiddled with radio transmitters while I happily shot away. Later back in London I took the films to West End Cameras for developing, explaining the shots were taken in near darkness from about 20 feet away and I didn’t think they’d come out…? They specialise in cameras like Holgas and their cousins Lomo and Diana and are really enthusiastic about the fun of film photography. When I got the prints back I was really pleased, this is what is so exciting about Holga photography, the unexpected results the double exposures and the over-lapping frames. The snaps remind me of one of the happiest days,  the fun of photography and the companionship of old friends.

Here’s a recipe for cobnuts, with marrow and plums from the Kentish Cobnut Association. I bought my plums in Lewisham Market, walking around the back of the fruit stalls scrutinising the labels on the crates of fruit till I found some English plums from a farm near Sittingbourne in Kent.

Stuffed Marrow with Plums and Kentish Cobnuts

 

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 large marrow

2 onions, sliced

2 – 4 cloves of garlic

350g plums

450g cobnuts (that’s the weight in their husks)

175g mushrooms, sliced chunkily

4 tomatoes, sliced

110g butter

30g grated fresh ginger

Some mixed herbs, fresh or dried

Salt and pepper

Method:

Clean the marrow and slice it in half lengthways. Scoop ,out the seeds leaving a hollow in each half of marrow and then put them into a suitable ovenproof dish.

Halve the plums and remove the stones. De-husk the cobnuts and chop them roughly, not too small. Take half the butter an in a pan gently fry the onions. Then combine all the ingredients, adding the garlic to your own taste, an scattering with a few mixed herbs, but remember not to overpower the subtle flavour of the cobnuts. Divide this mixture in half and put equal amounts into each half of marrow. Dot with the remaining butter, cover the dish loosely with tinfoil and bake in your oven preheated to 180C for 90 minutes.


Kerb Appeal

Walking the dog around the streets of SE8 and SE4 I can’t ignore the huge amount of fruit falling onto the pavements, unwanted and unloved.

Now it’s damsons and crab apples and soon there’ll be pears and apples, figs and nuts of various kinds.  Not forgetting the blackberries which are early this year, our own Oregon Thornless isn’t quite ready but it looks as if it’ll be a bumper year in our front garden which becomes a rendezvous point for the local mums and toddlers.

It’s a bit of an obsession, finding free fruit. Everywhere I go I take old carrier bags, and if I’m in the car there’s always a coolbox alongside the Wonder Lurcher . For this recipe I gathered 5 lb (2.3 kg) of damsons from the road and pavement just 200 yards from my house, it took 5 minutes and I was studiously ignored by passers-by.

The tree is old grey and twisted, and this year heavy with fruit. I did the polite thing and knocked and asked if I could have some, but was told curtly that I could only have the windfalls in the street. Oh well, I know how she feels. Our blackberry trails along our railings at the front of our house, there’s always more fruit on the pavement side, its the sunnier side, and passers-by help themselves, which is nice I think. Though sometimes we arrive home to find people trampling around our front garden. Last year a woman knocked at our door on her way home from the Hillyfields farmers’ market. She was carrying apples in her pulled-up skirt,  a bit eccentric I thought.  Three children peered at me from behind her skirt, “I’m going to make an apple pie,” she beamed, “would you mind if I picked a few blackberries to put in the pie?” Of course not I said, but then a few minutes later I glanced out the window and saw her and the children frantically stripping the bush, grabbing handfuls of squashed fruit till her carrier bag looked like an over-stuffed pillow. “So that’s why she’s carrying the apples in her skirt,” sighed Clarissa.

About 95% of our fruit is imported, 71% of our apples come from abroad, surely this is wrong on so many levels. For nearly 500 years we were a great fruit-growing nation, then suddenly we’re not anymore. The big food retailers strive to remove risk when stocking fruit, they do this by only stocking fruit that isn’t ripe. They say that it will ripen in the fruit bowl at home. They say this is what the consumer wants because he or she only wants to shop once a week so it needs to keep for a week. The trouble is, as I’m sure you know, it usually goes straight from unripe to rotten, and consumers have forgotten what really ripe fruit tastes like, or looks like. Supermarket fruit has a good ‘shelf life’, which may be good for the shelf but isn’t good for the fruit.

In Sheffield Stephen Watts left school after A levels and didn’t know what to do, so to fill his time he started growing vegetables on an allotment. He spent three years learning about horticulture, biodynamics, and organic farming.

In 2005 he cycled around Sheffield mapping old and neglected fruit trees he found in back gardens and on waste ground, finding apples, pears, plums, figs, cherries, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and quince.  By happy coincidence Anne-Marie Culhane, a community artist, arrived in Sheffield in 2007, and she too cycled around noticing the old fruit trees, “The whole city is full of fruit,” she thought, “and loads of it is going to waste.”

Getting together with Stephen they founded the ‘Abundance‘ Project.  Says Stephen, “I knew where the trees were and how and when to harvest them, and Anne-Marie knew how to make it into a project, how to get funding and get people on board. It wouldn’t have happened without the two of us.”  Starting with half a dozen volunteers they scoured the city, knocking on doors. “It changed my life,” said Stephen, simply.

Now they’ve had a visit from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who helped pick and juice for ‘River Cottage‘,  and Stephen travels around encouraging  other towns to follow their example. The Abundance idea has spread to Manchester, Reading, Bristol, Oxford, Brighton, and Plymouth so far.

They begin harvesting in August and carry on till October, distributing the fruit, fresh or made into jams, pickles, cider and juices around Sheffield for free. About half the fruit is pressed for juice which can be frozen, and the waste is composted. Abundance ticks all the boxes, food miles, carbon footprint, healthy eating, and community involvement. In South East London we have several Transition Town groups in New Cross, Brockley, Lewisham etc., and Project Dirt in Deptford’s Utrophia. I might be wrong, but these groups seem to be more about growing food than gathering what is already there and going to waste.

Not everyone likes damsons and their tart  grown-up taste, but the thing about damsons that really fascinates me is that they haven’t been changed by breeding, the damson you taste today will taste the same as the damson that St Paul might have eaten on the road to Damascus. Damson is a shortened form of Damascene, the plum of Damascus.

Here’s a really simple damson pickle recipe, I’m going to put the pickle away in a cool dark place for at least two months, probably till Christmas.  You’ll need plenty of glass or plastic storage jars, don’t use anything metal or it will react with the vinegar. I bought mine in Deptford High Street, most of the general stores sell them and they are cheap, I think.

For the photograph I had to try the pickle freshly made and it was delicious, sweet and subtle. The blue-veined Cheddar cheese came from Green’s of Glastonbury at Blackheath Farmers Market, and the bread from Els Kitchen in Ladywell. “It’s French,” offered El, I think she meant the style of loaf, pain de campagne, and it did have a slight resemblance to Serge Gainsbourg.

Damson Pickle

Ingredients:

I had 2.27 kg (5 lb) of damsons

2 apples, cored and chopped into small pieces

2 onions finely chopped

450ml (3/4 pt) red wine vinegar

225g (8 oz) Demerara sugar

110g (4 oz) sultanas or raisins

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp juniper berries, crushed

Small piece, about 25mm (1″), (or more depending on your love of ginger),  of fresh ginger, peeled and grated., or, 1 tsp of ginger powder.

Method:

Wash the damsons and then slice them all the way around with a sharp pointed knife (I used a fish filleting knife) then twist them so they separate into two halves, remove the stones and discard. Then put the fruit into a large jam pan and add all the other ingredients and stir together. Put on your hob and heat, slowly bring to the boil and simmer for between 30 and 45 minutes depending on size of your pan.  Stir from time to time as it becomes thicker. You’ll need to simmer till the mixture reaches the setting stage, that is when you push a spoon through the surface of the mixture and it begins to resemble thin jam. It’s not too critical, but if you over boil or heat too long the pickle will be bitter.

Have ready some clean storage jars and some greaseproof paper.When you think the pickle is ready, pour into the jars and seal. Leave for a couple of hours then cut circles of greaseproof and rest on top of the pickle and reseal. Wait till Christmas!?


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