Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Everyone's a Fruit and Nut Case

My one piece of advice to anyone setting up to be self-sufficient would be to plant fruit straight away, orchard trees, soft fruit bushes, nut trees and hedgerow fruit. It is an investment which takes a little while to start paying off, but it has rich rewards for the patient.

Our orchard is just starting to produce properly and can only go from strength to strength in the next few years. As summer gives way to autumn variety upon variety of apple comes ready, each with its own unique taste. There are pears and plums aplenty too, as well as more unusual fruits such as medlars. We have gradually added to the trees we first planted and will hopefully soon have an annual crop of apricots too.

All these, of course, can be bought in the shops (except maybe medlars), but some of the hedgerow plants I have planted are even more of a treat. Crab apples make a wonderful jelly, as well as being an excellent source of pectin when added into preserves.
And what about the elderberry - its flowers make an excellent cordial and an even better champagne, or let the berries ripen for one of the best wines. This year we harvested the berries (leaving plenty enough for the birds) to make pontack sauce. This old English recipe has enjoyed a recent revival, probably due to its inclusion in Hugh F-W's repertoire. It is a heady infusion of elderberries, vinegar and spices. The closest equivalent I can think of is Worcestershire Sauce. Pontack sauce stores indefinitely in the larder and develops its taste over the years, so Sue makes a big batch every few years. It adds an incredible richness and depth of flavour to meat dishes, particularly stews and casseroles.
Elders poke out from the edible hedgerows I have planted as well as being dotted all around the smallholding now. They are easy to propagate, grow well here and feed the wildlife as well as us.
Alongside them are blackthorn bushes with their yield of sloes. When you say sloes, most people instantly think of gin, but Sue prefers to add them to vodka. Once they have imparted their unique flavour to this beverage, the same berries are then used to make sloe port. Definitely a hedgerow fruit for the drinkers! We almost had a sloe disaster this year. After a blank year countrywide in 2016, our edible hedgerow has again failed to produce any sloes (or Mirabelles for that matter). I think I have been cutting it back too much in the winter and taking off the fruiting wood.
Sue's disappointment was tangible, but then I remembered that I had planted a few blackthorns in the woodland area which I have created. A closer inspection yielded several bushes laden with sloes ready to pick - a thorny job and it takes a while to fill a basket, but yesterday (edit - now a while ago as this post was superseded by other events) we collected 2kg of sloes, plenty enough for a lot of alcohol. They have gone into the freezer to simulate the frosts, as left on the trees the autumn thrushes would take them all before winter bites.

There are hawthorns and rowan berries too, though we don't have much use for them and leave them for the birds. Rosehips explode colourfully from the hedgerows too and every few years Sue makes a batch of rosehip syrup, a rich and sweet source of vitamin C. I actually grow plenty of rosa rugosa as its flowers brighten up the borders of the soft fruit area and it produces the plumpest, most vivid hips.

Back to the orchard fruits and damsons take centre stage. Our tree produced abundantly this year. They are a handsome looking fruit and handsome tasting too. All varieties of plum produce, in a good year, bountiful crops too much for simply eating the fruit straight. Pies, crumbles and jams go without saying, but Sue has had the dehydrator and the ice-cream maker busy too. Her plum yogurt ice-cream is delicious and dried fruits or fruit leathers make excellent healthy snacks for a hungry worker.

Finally there is the rather poshly named nuttery. The nut trees were an expensive investment when I planted them, as I opted for named varieties bred to produce fruits early in their lives. The almond tree has produced virtually since day one and the nuts taste delicious with that lovely marzipan kick of arsenic to them. The cobnuts are basically hazelnuts cultivated to produce larger kernels and these are producing more and more year on year. In contrast, the wild hazelnuts in the hedgerow and woodland will be keeping us waiting a good few more years before they even think about producing a nut.

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