Tag Archives: fresh

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


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.


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!?

Salty Greens and a Salty Dog…

I’m just back from the rickety shack I sometimes call home, on the North Kent marshes. For the last two months I’ve been watching the samphire growing along the creeks of the salt marsh and finally I’ve had the time to gather myself and the three-legged wonder lurcher and get muddy.

Samphire is one of the only two truly indigenous plants of Britain, the other is Sea Kale.  Picking Sea Kale is prohibited, but you can collect Samphire so long as you don’t pull it up by the roots. The name comes from a corruption of the French Herb St Pierre, but it is also called ‘poor man’s asparagus’, and ‘glasswort’ because it was used in the 16th Century for the manufacture of glass. In America it is called ‘pickleweed’, and ‘seabean’, and sometimes ‘swampfire’ because in the Autumn it turns a bright red and the marshes seem to be on fire. My samphire is Marsh Samphire, not the Rock Samphire that was once commonplace in London, preserved as a pickle and sold on street corners by boys shouting “Crest Marine”, or “camphire!”  Shakespeare after visiting Dover described rock samphire gathering as a ‘dreadful trade’ in King Lear.  Children were dangled from ropes tied to their ankles off the tops of cliffs so they could collect the samphire from the rocks below!  Women scrambled across cliffs with a crooked stick collecting rock samphire for the London market; Samuel Pepys wrote of receiving a barrel of samphire from the Isle of Wight where it was foraged in huge quantities and sent to London in barrels of seawater, a contemporary writer lamenting that customers of Isle of Wight samphire were ‘buying their sauce with the price of the gatherers lives.’

My local fishmongers, F.C. Soper, sell Samphire all year round, like many of the fresh herbs on sale in supermarkets it comes from Israel. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my samphire to be picked and collected in season, preferably by me, though I saw lots for sale in Norfolk where they call it ‘samfer’.  When I bought some from Furness Fish and Game in Borough Market, I asked the weather-beaten retired fisherman serving where it had come from?  Morecambe Bay was the reply. “What’s it taste like?” he said, his expression hinting that you’d have to be mad to eat anything so strange-looking. Samphire has become seriously trendy and ‘cool’, and the fact that you can find it at Borough and in some fishmongers confirms that Jamie, Hugh, and Rick can work their magic on this strange-looking plant which wouldn’t look out of place in Jurassic Park.

“Samphire is for those who want to live a life of total awareness,” says Jan Murre, a samphire gatherer and grower in Holland. I think he means you should try everything once! Thankfully Marsh Samphire is easy to pick, you’ll just need a pair of scissors, a bag,  some wellies, and in my case a reluctant lurcher who’d rather be chasing rabbits.  So if you haven’t tried samphire, head for the marshes. Look for samphire along the edges of muddy ditches and creeks where the sea washes in and out, better when the tide is out!

Once you’ve found some get snipping. Just snip the top fleshy part, lower down the stem is a woody interior, the top of the plant is the best bit. It’ll carry on growing if you just snip a few inches from the top and leave the rest. Don’t take more than you need, and leave the landscape as you found it. Samphire gathering is recognised as a historical common right, and I’m all for exercising those rights!

Samphire goes well with just about any fish and meat, especially salt-marsh lamb.  The best way to cook samphire is to lightly and quickly boil or steam for not longer than a minute, if that. I like to eat it raw just as I’ve picked it, so the less cooking the better.  I’ve found an old recipe dedicated to the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Whether she liked the dish, or it whether it was devised in her honour I don’t know. There are several recipes bearing her name, notably a chocolate meringue confection.  This recipe, ‘Larks with Samphire’, has a typically Victorian twist; of course I’m not using larks, you could make this dish with any small bird, a quail or a pigeon or two perhaps, but I’ve chosen to use poussin.

                              Sarah Bernhardt’s Larks with Samphire


1 poussin per person


2 handfuls of marsh samphire, washed several times then drained and any woody bits trimmed and removed

1 heaped tablespoon of chopped fatty baacon

1 or 2 rashers of streaky bacon

5 or 6 juniper berries, crushed

1 clove of garlic, crushed

some coarse black pepper

olive oil

1 thick slice of good white bread per bird, with or without crusts

1 measure of gin per person


Stuff the poussin with a mixture of the chopped bacon, some samphire, the garlic, juniper berries, and a little pepper.

Brush the bird with some olive oil and put into a roasting tin.

Cover the pousssin with a thatch of samphire and then top with the rashers of streaky bacon cut into pieces and scrunched so it twists and curls.

Season again with some more pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Roast in a preheated oven at 200C (400F) for 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of your bird. Testing with a skewer will tell you if it is cooked through: if the juices run clear it is done. The bird may not appear ‘roasted’ and brown because the samphire and bacon will have protected the skin from browning.

While the poussin is cooking take the thick slice of bread and brush with olive oil, then place on a baking sheet in the oven about 8 minutes, maybe less, before the bird is ready. What you’ll have is a large crouton.

When you are ready to serve put the bread on the serving dish, and now the Victorian twist, drizzle with London Gin!

The add a splash of the juices from the roasting tin and carefully place the poussin onto the bread. Pour over a little more of the juices, then it is ready. This is pure theatre, encore Miss Bernhardt!

%d bloggers like this: