The taste of autumn

There are old crab apple trees lining the streets in this part of London. They’re well established, probably twenty metres tall, and planted closely enough that their crowns touch in the wind.

At this time of the year they drop their fruit – tiny, hard, sour crab apples that crunch underfoot in the leaves as you pass by. I walked through them at the weekend, smelling autumn in the air, and it made me crave the apple and blackberry pie that my mother used to make.

This was one of my mother’s specialities. She made it infrequently enough that it was a treat, which considering her busy life, it was. Her pastry was crumbly, sweet and slightly biscuity, with a hint of lemon zest.

The blackberries were never bought from a shop in those days. When the season was right, we kids were dispatched out with a bowl to collect them from the bushes, bribed with promises of pie, crumbles and turnovers. We’d return with purple juice-stained fingers and mouths, and enough pickings to fill the kitchen for a week.

Served with a spoonful of good cream for richness, this is the taste of autumn for me. I can’t wait until we’re picking our own in the hedgerows on the island next year. Bring on the pies, the jam and the blackberry wine!

Cobnuts or filberts

Whilst browsing for seeds to take with us to the island in a few weeks time, I noticed that one of the online smallholdings that I was shopping from had filberts, or cobnuts, for sale.

Husband loves nuts, and has reminisced often about eating fresh filberts as a boy in Istanbul. I recall picking them too as a child, where they grew in the woods adjacent to our house in Dorset.

As soon as I saw these I couldn’t resist.

The small box arrived at the house yesterday, hand-packed with a layer of hazel leaves on top of the nuts to keep the dampness in. Opening them released the scent of woodland.

They have a unique taste and texture quite unlike dried hazlenuts. Slightly sweet, nutty and milky. They are only semi-hard with a moist, almost chewy texture. If anything could taste of ‘green’, this is it.

It’s inspired us again to make sure that we plant plenty of hazel on the croft.

The hazelnuts that don’t get eaten in handfuls off the tree can be dried and stored, chopped or whole, for use in bread, cakes or puddings. Or preserved in jars of honey for spooning as luscious toppings over cooked apples, pears or ice-cream.

Wilding, the book

Wilding, by Isabella Tree, is a book based on an experimental re-wilding of a 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex.

Forced to accept that the intensive farming of the heavy clay soils of their farm at Knepp was driving it close to bankruptcy, they handed the farm back to nature.

The results in terms of biodiversity, soil fertility and increased wildlife have been nothing short of astonishing.

This is a pioneering book describing a brave and far-reaching experiment. If we can achieve these results on a piece of intensively farmed, chemically fertilised, biologically sterile land situated under the flight path at Gatwick, with time and patience we can achieve them anywhere.

Books like this provide inspiration and reinforcement of the thought that given half a chance, nature will fight back and thrive.

What we do to our little six acre pocket of land on Skye will be much less impactful than the 3,500 acres at Knepp, and the soil, weather and environmental challenges will be very different, but to the local area of Sleat it will be just as important.

So many ideas and plans. We can’t wait to start.

Bluebells and pignuts

Our next trip to the croft is in September, and itching to make a start, any kind of start, we’ve bought some seeds to sew in the established patch of woodland on the western boundary.

We can’t start anything on the main croft land until the drainage and groundworks are complete, which won’t start until the Autumn, so the little woodland belt is the place to begin some underplanting.

First off, I’ve bought pignut seeds.

Pignut is small perennial herb, whose underground root resembles a chestnut and is sometimes eaten as a wild or cultivated root vegetable. It has fascinated me for many years.

The name Pignut comes from its popularity with pigs, who root it out for its flavour, which is said to be similar to water chestnut. Wild food foragers also love it and jealously guard their sources.

Secondly, I’ve sourced some bluebell seed from a small, licensed croft on the Isle of Eigg. Eddie’s Croft.

Bluebell seed can be procured from many places, but I particularly wanted to find Scottish bluebell seed, and being so close to Skye, seed grown on Eigg will, I think, be more naturalised to the climate and conditions there. We will scatter it in the birch grove and hope that in a few years we’ll have the beginnings of a sea of blue.

It’s a small start, but it’s a start, and it’s exciting to be making our first mark on the land, however modest.

Scything on Skye

We’ve been looking at the practicality of using a scythe to keep the rushes and weeds under control between the trees on the croft.

We find the idea of using manual tools one that sits comfortably with our philosophy for the land. No fumes, no noise, no pollution…🤔

There are times and certain tasks for which mechanical tools would absolutely be needed, but it would seem that scythes can be an effective alternative to keeping the grass down between the trees. I’m in touch with a couple of crofters and gardeners in Scotland who use and recommend an Austrian scythe.

Scything it seems, is undergoing a renaissance in Britain, fuelled in part by the increased interest in the permaculture movement and the desire to become less dependant on gas guzzling implements.

Used here from Anglo-Saxon times right up until the 1940s, they’re a genuinely simple and effective tool, and as the great Paul Kingsnorth says, ” they will doubtless be around long after the Flymo has faded into legend. Keep the blade honed, and know how to use them, and you have probably the most efficient tool for cutting grass ever developed. This is proven entertainingly year after year at the Somerset Scythe Festival where the annual ‘scythe versus strimmer’ contest is always won by the scythe.”

Paul Kingsnorth is a compelling voice, and a very talented writer. This article really resonated with me with regard to not just the renaissance in the use of old tools, but the reconnection with the land and inherited skills that once lost, we never fully recapture. Here’s the link to the article

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2010-07-27/snatch-old-song/

Sobering reading

The sun is shining this Easter weekend and most folks in the U.K. are heading to an overcrowded beach in the rush to escape the cities, or consuming their body weight in mass produced chocolate eggs. Perhaps for our generation it has ever been thus.

In this home the long weekend break is a little different. This book is on the side table pile for consumption, and I’ve just started it. I’m two chapters in so far.

It’s not a book about the science of climate change. I’m sure that we’ve all heard about that, and although it’s something that I totally believe in, the most frightening thing for me is that I see that it’s almost impossible for many others to sustain strong feelings about it, such is its’ enormity. It’s simply too large and horrific to believe it’s real.

Others won’t believe it until it affects them directly. I watch people struggling to equate the facts with their protected urban reality in their continued disconnection with nature.

This is one of the reasons that we have decided to live at the edge and grow woodland, trying in our small way to leave a small patch of the planet able to support biodiversity and wildlife.

This book is about what it will be like to live on this planet should we continue the trajectory that we’re on. It’s a depiction of real Armageddon.

The writing is clear and powerful. I’d urge you get a copy and to read it.

Horticulture for crofters

I’ve just received this copy of Horticulture for Crofters, a fabulously useful handbook published by the Scottish Crofting Federation.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on this for months, and so its arrival in the post this week was a cause for much excitement on my part.

It’s an incredibly detailed read on vegetable, fruit and tree production in Scotland, with lots of advice on crop shelter, soil care, crop selection and drainage. There are plenty of examples from growers in the inner and outer Hebrides, many on Skye. Just what we need to provide solid advice on local conditions and challenges.

Not to mention the wonderful illustrations by Chris Tyler, generously scattered through the chapters, which sadly I don’t have the rights to share here.

Bring it on! That’s the next weeks reading sorted.