The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale

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Ripe apples

2013 was a fantastic year for apples. I was obviously very impressed judging by the number of photos I took! At home we have an old tree in the garden with apples that ripen in August. They are a soft apple and won’t store (but they are lovely fresh or frozen in yogurt pots as apple sauce).

Apple sauce ready to freeze

Apple sauce ready for the freezer in a handy sized pot

I took some of these apples to an RHS identification day where the expert, Jim Arbury, told me they were a variety called Bushey Grove (RHS award of merit 1922). I do have a little doubt over this as the information I’ve read says that they are harvested October to December but few remain on our tree by October. Also Auntie Dolly reckons the tree was planted before 1920 and the first ever Bushey Grove tree only fruited in 1910. Would it really have made it from Kent to a Yorkshire garden by 1920?
Apple tree Bushey Grove

An RHS expert identified the apples on this tree as Bushey Grove

Anyway, whatever its name, we love the apples from this tree. With it ripening so early though, it is very popular with wasps. Our favourite eating apple tree, Discovery, is also early and plagued by wasps. However, knowing how fabulous a freshly picked Discovery is, I was tempted to buy three more bare rooted trees at a local sale last spring. I planted them in buckets for this year and let them carry one or two fruits each. They definitely weren’t Discovery! I took these to the expert too and he told me they were Jupiter (RHS award of merit 1993). I’m not disappointed though. They are nice sweet apples with the added bonus that they ripen much later – long after the wasps have gone for the year. I now have an extended eating apple season!
Discovery apples

2013 was a great year for Discovery apples

Jupiter apples

This tree was labelled Discovery in the sale but actually the apples are Jupiter

I now have an extended cooking apple season too. When I was told that this gorgeous tree at Village Farm was a Bramley Seedling I wasn’t very impressed – I’ve never been a fan of shop bought ones.
Bramley seedling apple

Bramley Seedling apple tree in full bloom at Village Farm

However, having so many other apples to deal with, the Bramleys were left untouched. They were still on the tree in November and I still have some keeping well just in a bowl now. They are delicious raw or cooked so don’t be put off by Bramleys picked far too early for commercial reasons – they are 100 times better when left to mature on the tree!
Bramley Seedling apples

Bramley seedling apples like you don’t see them in the shops!

I’m sure that if I’d picked more back in November and stored them correctly, they would last a lot longer. Aunty Dolly recommends storing a few in plastic bags in a cold outbuilding, putting pin pricks in the bags so the apples don’t sweat. The advantage of this over wrapping them in newspaper is that you can instantly see if any are going bad and remove them.
It was also a good year for wild crab apples. I made this bowlful into chilli jelly. I made some into a mint jelly too but next year that experiment will need more mint!
crab apples

2013 was a good year for wild crab apples too

The thing with all these apple sauces and jellies though, is the amount of sugar needed to preserve them. I cut it down in the chilli jelly recipe but then it needed a lot longer on the boil to achieve a set. We did juice quite a lot of eaters and froze some to drink later. That was lovely without any added sweetness. My friend Judy makes wonderful apple crisps in her dehydrator. The variety she used didn’t need any sugar and were absolutely delicious. I’m looking out for a second hand one so that I can trial my varieties dried. Seems we need electricity to either prepare or store most apples!


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Sunshine and swirls

I’ve had an hour weeding the vegetable beds in glorious sunshine yesterday afternoon – what a tonic! And I picked fresh carrots, celery, parsley and rosemary to make chilli for tea. Quite amazing for January – it’s been so mild (so far). I also went into the greenhouse to get a chilli pepper. I’ve been quite behind (lazy?) and not got the greenhouse cleaned out yet but the chillies are quite happy in there and I ate two very sweet cherry tomatoes still on the vine too!!!

Monday and Tuesday last week I went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. It’s a very inspirational gathering of agro ecological like minds. I have lots to tell in next posts but to start on a lighter note – an organic beef farmer from Cornwall was saying how, with the breed of cattle he kept (Stabilisers), he could tell if the cow was good natured or not by the position of the hair swirl on her face; if it was above the centre line of her eyes, she would be sure to clear the gate. If it was lower, she would be a more placid cow.

So I have been examining our varied cow breeds to see if the same applies. We have one just calved that would kill you as soon as look at you and her swirl is very high (hubby assured me from a safe distance!). But this one – Bronte – has a high swirl too and she is as docile as they come.

Bronte the cow

Our cow called Bronte

This one is Harriet – my favourite young heifer – her swirl is well below her eyes.
Harriet the heifer

Harriet is a young heifer in our breeding herd

Harriet is expecting her fist calf in the next month or two. I persuaded hubby to keep her in the breeding herd. She is a really bonny colour and I have a soft spot for her mother- very good commercial reasons! Her mother is 226 (before I started naming them) and she has been on the farm for 13 years now. She was destined for slaughter but was accidentally caught by the bull and no one noticed until it was too late. She had that first calf by caesarean section as she was too young really but she reared it well. The next year, her second calf was born small (we nicknamed it “Handbag”) and we battled for months to keep it alive until it eventually died. It would then be good business sense to have fattened 226 and sell her for meat but she was such a good mother and very quiet to do with that we decided to give her another year. Then she was lame and that really should have been curtains for her as that usually means constant foot trouble. But she recovered and has had 7 trouble free calves since – the 8th due soon.

Anyway, back to the swirls – there doesn’t seem to be any rigid pattern with our cows. Best to treat them all with the healthy respect a 600-800 kilo animal deserves. Even the quiet ones can be very dangerous – especially when they have just calved.


Plants v animals

This is my reply to Jon re his comments on my last post about diet. There was probably a “reply to comment” button but I couldn’t see it! Oh, well………………..

Hi Jon. Many thanks for your kind words about my straw work. We have just got planning permission to build another straw house at Village Farm, so that is very exciting!
Also thanks for your thoughts on a plant based diet. I have many vegetarian friends and absolutely respect their choice. My main issue is from a resilient food production point of view – how much of a vegetarian diet can be grown in this country? If you could analyse your diet in terms of % potentially UK grown I’d be really interested.
I’ve just read a book called Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter. It is recently published and is written around new research which confirms that a high carb/low fat diet is definitely not going to help your heart and can in fact do an awful lot of damage to your nervous system. Our brain is made up of mostly fat and it is vital we eat plenty in our diet to keep it in good health – with animal fat being the best kind. The book also explores the huge amount of damage done to human health by sugar and gluten – whether you exhibit intestinal symptoms or not.
The best fats this country can produce are grass fed animal ones – beef and lamb primarily. Grass (but more especially herb rich meadows) produces meat high in omega 3’s and there are biodiversity bonuses too (which I will get to in a later blog). I’m thinking hens and ducks on grass will produce eggs and meat with good omega 3 levels too but I need to research this a bit more.
Animals have an important role in a growing system too. They can build fertility, recycle, control pests and do work. For example, we had three pigs this summer which happily ate all the fresh vegetables and fruit that us humans didn’t want. I’m thinking of having some more this summer to dig up the rest of the growing area. I don’t want to plough or spray chemicals to kill all the couch grass. I picked out an awful lot out of small vegetable beds by hand last summer but I don’t feel like rubbing 3 acres worth of soil through my hands to get out every last bit of couch root. I think some pigs will do a much better and quicker job of it and very much enjoy doing so.
If I ate a diet of meat and vegetables only I would easily maintain a healthy weight. My weakness is cake and puddings (homemade largely – although I do sometimes (often?) give in to confectionary from the shop). I know this is where the unnecessary calories (and other baddies) lie and I often wonder why I still eat them. Am I very weak willed? Is it because although I know excess weight will cause me health problems eventually, currently I feel fit and well and at 50 still have the energy to work a 12-14 hour day so I don’t see any urgency? Having two 500 calorie days a week is just an easy way to lose some weight while I get my head around other issues. There are health benefits to fasting too – see The Fast Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. It seems to make sense because we evolved in a time when a constant supply of food was not available. I think ultimately, I’m heading towards a paleo-ish diet with an added mantra of “everything in moderation”.