Easier, better or both?


Walnuts

We had a bumper walnut crop in Worcestershire this year.

My Hubby is crazy about walnuts. He has identified every walnut tree in our village plus most of those growing wild around Bredon Hill.

In our house, Walnut Fever is biphasic:

The initial phase starts in late June/early July, when unripe, soft, green walnuts can be harvested to make Nocino. This is a delicious, deep brown walnut liqueur, traditionally made Italy.  (However, the fervour of this phase has somewhat abated in our household since Hubby’s initial attempt to make Nocino last year resulted in a rather startling green, bitter concoction.)

The second and most intense phase starts in autumn, when the walnuts are ripe and ready to be harvested. At this time of the year my foraging Hubby ensures that every walk passes a walnut tree or two, and we head home to the sound of nuts clattering in bulging pockets. The rest of the day is spent happily cracking the shells and savouring the wonderful fresh flavour of the newly harvested walnuts – so much better than those bought in the shops.

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Yellow, Orange and Gold

The colour palette in our corner of Worcestershire is shifting again. Over the last few days the colour of the leaves on the trees around Bredon Hill has started to change into the yellow part of the spectrum. Autumn has started.

We popped into the Batsford Arboretum near Bourton-on-the-Hill yesterday. It’s a great place for tea or a light, informal lunch. They have a good selection of hot meals and sandwiches and there is usually a gluten-free option or two in their delicious cake selection. The restaurant is in a beautifully designed modern, wood and glass building. It’s light and bright inside and outside is large deck with stunning views of the Cotswold countryside.

We hadn’t planned going into the Arboretum, as we thought that autumn had not quite got going yet, but as we were there, we decided to go inside anyway. Good decision! It was a warm, clear, still afternoon and perfect for a walk among the trees. The aptly named Golden Mile was a spectacular succession of yellows, golds, bronzes and oranges, with bright red acers thrown in for good measure. The low autumn sunshine filtering through the leaves was quite breathtaking. We left feeling wonderful and so pleased that we’d decided to pop in and have a look.

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Crunchy Buckwheat Granola

Before the strawberry jam disaster, I did have some culinary success last week.

During the winter, I saw an interesting recipe in a newspaper using raw buckwheat as an ingredient. However by the time I’d managed to find a shop where I could buy raw buckwheat, I’d lost the recipe. Since then the buckwheat has been hanging out in the cupboard, looking for something to do.

Earlier this month we tried a gluten-free muesli, which was pretty good, but rather pricey (amazing how costly items become once they are labelled gluten-free). Interestingly the muesli contained buckwheat. I wondered if this would work in granola too, so I hit the internet in search of a recipe.Crunchy Buckwheat Granola

I found this super Crunchy Buckwheat Granola recipe on the “Kath Eats Real Food” website.

I made just two changes to Kath’s recipe – I substituted chopped, mixed nuts for the whole raw almonds, and sunflower oil for the canola oil.

For those with metric ovens, 300 degrees F is ~150 degrees C.

The granola was a great success – crunchy and delicious. If you use  gluten-free oats, the granola is gluten-free too. I’ll definitely be making this again & again. Now if only I could remember where I purchased that buckwheat ……??


Baby Birds and Burnt Jam

StrawberriesI went a little crazy & bought too many punnets of juicy strawberries last week, so they started growing beards faster than we could consume them. Inspired by Alys Fowler’s recipe for Strawberry Conserve (June issue of The Simple Things Magazine), I decided to make some jam.

My initial jam-making attempts in 2011 and 2012 using plums from our tree were quite successful. The most delicious batch was the first. It caramelised slightly because I left it a little too long, while trying to work out what the setting point looked like. (Yes I know the theory about the jam developing a skin when placed on a cooled plate, but it didn’t seem that simple in our murky old kitchen.) Subsequent batches were more “textbook”, but never tasted quite as good as that first one.

This is my first attempt at strawberry jam. After two 24 hour “set aside” steps, I was into the last leg; “Boil rapidly until set, about 20 minutes.” I armed the timer, and made a cup of tea.

Then ……. I the noticed a robin feeding it’s chick on our fence. So exciting, as it is the first time we’ve seen baby robins in our garden. Their perch on the fence was soon taken over by a sparrow family – two chicks vying for mom’s attention, one nearly unseating the mother in an attempt to get to the grub. Then the blackbirds started – chick behind mom, bobbing along to lure worms out of the grass.

Spoon welded to plateWhile engrossed in the antics of the baby birds, the smell of caramel started to waft in from the kitchen. The timer alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but the jam had clearly progressed a little beyond the desired setting point. It was a light shade of brown. “No problem”, I thought, this might be like that first batch of plum jam that was so divine.

I continued to follow the recipe; “To stop the strawberries floating to the top, allow the jam to cool slightly…. before bottling.”

Given the advancedSolid jam & a sticky mess state of caramelisation, this was a big mistake. When I tried to pick up my mixing spoon to pop the jam into the jars, the spoon had become so securely welded to the plate where it had been resting, that the plate came along for the ride. After wrestling the spoon from the plate, bottling commenced. Based on what happened later, I am not sure that I’ll ever extricate the “jam” from that bottle.

As the jam cooled it became stickier, it morphed into caramel and then started to solidify into what looked suspiciously like toffee. I decided to abandon further bottling attempts, go with the flow and make toffee sweets instead.

I started popping spoonfuls of the brown gum onto a sheet of grease-proof paper. But soon golden strands of caramel started to proliferate all along the path of the spoon. As the mixture cooled, the stickiness increased, to a point where it was no longer possible to get the goo off the spoon. By this stage I was giggling uncontrollably and hubby came downstairs to investigate. He tried one of my partly-set “toffees”, which proceeded to stick his teeth together. Not sure that the toffee idea is going to work either. Oh well – I’m off to clean the pan now.

Apologies to Alys for turning her lovely recipe into such a shambles, but I just couldn’t resist those baby birds!


Asparagus

AsparagusThe Vale of Evesham is the place to be this month if you’re a fan of asparagus. The 2013 season started slowly, but it’s been worth the wait.  We are taking every opportunity to eat these delicious, crisp, tender spears at the moment.  Our favourite sources for this luscious luxury are Reville’s Farm Shop in Defford and Collis’ Farm shop on the A44 near Broadway.  Both sell wonderfully fresh asparagus, straight from their own fields. Wayside Farm Shop sell local asparagus, asparagus quiche and even asparagus scones! In fact, everyone goes a little aspara-crazy around here at this time of year at the annual Asparagus Festival.


Apples

I love farm shops. These rural gems provide a fascinating glimpse into the cycle of life on the farms and orchards in the Vale of Evesham. They also hold new surprises on each weekly visit, from season to season throughout the year.

Our village is surrounded by orchards, so it’s usually hard to miss the apple harvest in autumn. But we have been disappointed this year. During blossom-time this spring the bees and their fellow pollinators were unable to fly, due to incessant rain. The result – our apple tree and most others in our village, are bare. Even hubby, who is pretty expert at scrumping, arrives back from each walk with barely a bulge in a pocket these days.

However, a wonderful surprise awaited us at the Wayside Farm Shop this week – an oasis of apples! Lovely, local apples, with such low food miles, that they could have walked there. And the variety – Russets, Jonareds, Spartans, Crispins, Howgate Wonders, in addition to the more common Cox’s, Bramleys and Galas. What a delight.

As most of the apples were the same price, we filled our bag with a selection of varieties tha we hadn’t tried before.  How exciting. We’ve been taste-testing our haul all week. The only problem…… we can’t remember which is which. Oh, never mind. We can always pop back to the farm shop for more.


The Merits of Ash

We had a super lunch in the Crown and Trumpet in Broadway yesterday – a luscious lasagne for hubby and a cheerful chilli con carne for me (spiciness just right).

This old poem was hanging on the wall above our table. Quite a coincidence, after my last post about the performance of different species of trees as firewoods. I’ve transcribed the poem, as the attached photo is a bit wobbly.

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Chestnut only good they say
If for long it’s laid away;
Make a fire of Elder tree
Death within your house shall be;
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for Queen with crown of gold.

Birch and Fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last;
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread;
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould –
E’en the very flames are cold;
But Ash green or Ash brown
Is fit for Queen with golden crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense-like perfume.
Oaken logs, if dry and old
Keep away the winters cold;
But Ash wet or Ash dry
A King shall warm his slippers by.