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!

Showers, wind and wild flowers

It’s been a week of squally showers, high winds and at times, torrential rain here on the island. The rivers are full and the waterfalls are torrents of white water tumbling down the hillsides.

We don’t mind the weather at all. It’s lovely to sit in front of the windows in the cabin and watch the weather fronts scud across the sky. There’s a change every half hour or so, and we dodge the showers as best we can.

In a break in the rain we made it up to the croft. Here it’s very much seize the moment!

The lower ground is waterlogged and boggy, although the higher reaches of the land are better drained. We hopped from clump to clump of rushes to avoid sinking too deeply into the mud.

The tiny burn that we saw trickling sedately through the croft in February is now a raging plume of water plummeting through the channel that it has cut for itself.

We headed for the copse of trees on the western boundary and scattered bluebell, wood anemone, pignut and wild garlic seeds as we’d planned. We’re hoping that at least some of them will take.

Although the wild flowers are more or less over here on Skye, we found more than we expected in the ditches and springy turf on the croft: and with our trusty plant identification app we think we’ve recognised black knapweed, common vetchling, broad leaved clover, buttercups, crowfoot, downy vetch and willow herb.

We were delighted to see that we had a hazel tree already established amongst the birch trees – bodes well for more nut tree plantings once we’re established!

Excuse the bad quality of the photos – these were hurried snaps taken with an iPhone.

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.

Managing Small Woodlands in the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Crofting Federation has recently published this useful little tome, packed with goodies about planting and managing woodland on the croft.

Husband and I have just spent a happy hour or so debating the wisdom of tree shelters vs. spiral tree guards for the protection of newly planted whips and young trees. A lot will depend upon the strength of the wind on the slope, which we won’t really be able to assess until we’ve lived there through a year or so of seasons.

We are travelling up to the island next month and are hoping to be able to walk the land with a representative from the local Woodland Trust, who will be able to assess the site and recommend viable tree varieties. It would be good to start the tree planning even if the trees can’t go in for a further year. And of course, the whole croft will need to be deer fenced before anything much can be planted.

We’re thinking of planting willow to help drain the boggy bottom of the croft, which can apparently act as a pioneer tree and help preparation for other species, along with birch, alder, elm, rowan, hazel, sycamore, sessile oak, bird cherry and others elsewhere. But of course we’ll take advice.

Husband is a just wee bit excited to read that Walnut and Sweet Chestnut are now considered viable species in this part of the world. Being Nut Boy, anything nut-related is worth a try in his eyes!

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.

Wilding the land

We want to wild the land. And that means trees. Lots of them. I have always been drawn to trees.

Woodland Trust (those wonderful people) are taking applications now for grants for the November 2019 to March 2020 planting season.

It’s pretty amazing to me that they will help with up to 60% of the cost of planting mixed, deciduous woodland, as well as providing advice and tree protection. We are going to need all the help we can get as we plan to use around 1.5 hectares of the land for trees, and along with the deer fencing will plant edible hedges around the perimeter of the croft.

Husband is a a total fruit and nut fiend, and is especially taken by the idea of wild fruit and nuts in the hedging – blackberries, sloes, wild strawberries, cloudberries, raspberries, haws and rowan berries. We may even try planting some hazelnuts.

On a recent summer trip to the island we were blown away by the plant diversity of the hedgerows on the lanes in Teangue, just up the road from where our land is. It was like going back in time.

We’d mainly visited the island in winter before. Summer on the island on a calm, sunny day was an experience that took me straight back to my childhood, with bird and insect life in sleepy, buzzy, happy profusion. We want to help protect and build more of that and to grow as much wild, edible fruit as we can.

I’m being a bit premature I know, but I’m already stacking up crabapple jelly and blackberry wine recipes in happy anticipation…☺️