Growing Uncommercial Fruit

At this time of year I frequently feel very lucky to have a garden for it is filled with ripe fruit, there for the picking. But what I really love is the fact that most of what I can pick is not available in shops.

Victoria plums are for some reason dismissed by many gardeners as being not worth the effort or the space. I really don’t understand this; our plum fan takes little of either, apart from being sure to pick them every day when in season for they do not hang around. Their keeping time is short, only two or three days to be at their best, but the flavour and texture is so much better than any other plum I have tasted with the possible exception of a good greengage.

Apples start in my garden in August as well, with the smallest Sunset eating apples usually coming first along with Bountiful cookers. Arthur Turner follows on promptly, but goes on for longer. However there is another, unnamed, tree growing in our hedge from a core discarded many years ago that produces the most amazing cooking apples. If only they kept for more than a week it would be a great commercial proposition, but they don’t. I like to make chunky apple sauce that can be frozen and then turned into crumble or Eve’s pudding or applesauce and chocolate cakes. I wouldn’t bother with an apple that keeps for weeks and that I could buy in the shops whenever I wanted it, yet because the season is so short I find myself going to extra efforts.

As for various berries in their reds, blacks, or blues, a few at a time, they are delicious for breakfast and so different from watered down commercial equivalents. Luckily they won’t keep either, unless frozen or turned into jam. We just have to eat them.

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Sour Grapes?

I read some interesting comments this week, talking about the way fruit and vegetables are treated:

“By spraying poisonous chemicals on our fields and gardens, we killed the micro-organisms and bacteria that provided the glue that held the soil together in its crumb formation. … Once the micro-organisms and bacteria had been killed, their work – which was to excrete humic acids that would break down mineral elements into nutrient forms the plants could use – did not take place! … Plants grown in poor, dying or dead soil were not healthy enough to withstand cold, heat, periods without rain, or the normal range of pests, fungi, and viruses that lived in any soil. … The dead and collapsed soil we insisted on trying to grow foods in was just not capable of producing either healthy plants or healthy foods. Since insects and fungus were nature’s garbage collectors, her way of cleaning up sick, diseased, or dysfunctional plants and removing them from the landscape because they were not fit for consumption, our continued use of poisonous sprays to protect worthless crops was nothing less than ridiculous, ignorant, and doomed. … Fruits, vegetables and grains that grew from dead soil were almost as dead as the dirt they came from. Even when they looked beautiful they lacked basic levels of proteins, sugars and minerals. Worse, they contained chemical residues and other poisons. Healthy, normal amounts of protein in vegetables and fruits had to be at least 25 percent to support human life. Foods grown in these depleted soils of these United States had been at 3 percent or less for at least thirty-five years.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

And that is just proteins. Huge numbers of trace minerals are missing from these crops, leached out of the soil that hasn’t been taken care of, and further unbalanced by using NPK fertilisers with many of the essential trace elements missing. The effects of waxing or preserving fruits for storage, then gassing to ripen them only adds to the chemical imbalance.

Fundamentally for me was this statement:

“Most of us were paying for cheap, poisoned foods grown in depleted soils and still complaining that it cost too much to eat. No one realized that what was saved at the grocery store was being spent at the hospital.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

As someone who has had major health issues in the past, this struck a chord within me. I don’t like buying overly processed food, or non-organic vegetables or fruit that may have been flown half way around the world, but sometimes I still do. I can make many excuses, like alternatives not being available, or being significantly more expensive, or that I have requests for particular things that are only available from sunnier climates, but ultimately I still have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I would like to do better, one day…

And then I ate a grape. Just one, but before any other food instead of after as I normally do. It made me feel queasy. It gave me an instant headache, something I don’t suffer from. Sure the grape taste was in there, but what else?

So I have realised I cannot carry on down the path I am on any longer. Ideally I would grow more fruit and veg, but my garden is small and the area given over to edibles is smaller still, not sufficient to grow everything we want. Neither am I a very successful vegetable grower, yet! But change has to start somewhere, and for me it is now. So I am writing down my intentions to grow better fruit and vegetables and to seek out organic and biodynamic locally grown alternatives, because what I write here has a good way of coming true.

Early Fruit Harvests

The standard pagan calendar of eight sabbats sets out two of them for harvest – the grain at Lammas / Lughnasa at the beginning of August, and the tree fruit at the Autumn Equinox. I have particularly noticed this year how by August most of my soft fruit picking will be finished, that which started in June shortly before the summer solstice.

Right now I am spending a good hour of every day picking fruit – strawberries, alpine strawberries, loganberries, raspberries, black, red and white currants, gooseberries, morello cherries… Not all get done every day, and luckily the blackcurrants finish before the gooseberries start, but I am still picking around four or five types of berries a day for several weeks, on top of any vegetables. I then spend more time in the evening ensuring that those we don’t eat or cook immediately get stored in the freezer whole or as purée to be turned into ice-cream, or as jam or jelly.

Apart from strawberries, few of these fruits get a mention in any book of festivals, pagan or otherwise such as the many Steiner-Waldorf books for celebrating with children. So why is this amazing bounty almost completely overlooked in the yearly cycle?

Two reasons I suspect currants in particular have failed to gain much popularity is that first they don’t really grow wild, and second you wouldn’t want to eat many raw berries. They are much better cooked! They are also small and insubstantial individually; it takes a lot of berries to make even a sauce or condiment for a meal. This is quite unlike pome and larger stone fruit where one fruit is satisfying by itself, picked and eaten raw off the bush. Neither do currants travel well; a handful of berries is never going to be as sustaining as a pocket full of apples over a few days of walking. So they have never entered our folklore. However I do not see these as reasons to ignore them. Their flavour and colour is so much more intense than most other fruit that a little goes a long way. They crop better than imported ‘superfoods’, contain at least an equal amount of antioxidants, and blackcurrants contain a very high amount of vitamin C; during the 1940s blackcurrant syrup was distributed free to young children when oranges became unavailable. Even today 95% of blackcurrants in England get turned into Ribena apparently.

So this weekend I am celebrating the fruits of the harvest by coming up with as many new ways to use the berries as possible. Whitecurrant jelly goes well with pork, as redcurrant jelly or fresh sauce (redcurrants, balsamic vinegar, honey, heat gently 10 mins) does with lamb. Blackcurrants need something robust, but work well with red cabbage. Blackcurrant ice cream seems to be a favourite here, almost replacing the previous favourite of whitecurrant and Drambuie ice cream that we invented a few years ago. (Whitecurrant purée, sugar to taste, double cream, Drambuie. Churn until frozen.) Redcurrants are traditionally used in Linzertorte and summer pudding, but I am seeing what other cakes or tarts I can come up with. And blackcurrant cheesecake always works well. I might be in danger of turning into a kitchen witch at this rate…

Tree Stories 4 – Apple

Crabapples

Crabapples

The fourth tree story, Apple, is now available for reading on its own page. This was a story that could have filled a novel, with a few sub-plots of course, so I make no apology for its being longer than the previous three! In fact if I had continued with my original idea of Julie finding the cottage and then buying it, you might never have got to the apples… Yes the narrator’s name is Julie, and until I knew her name the story didn’t flow. However she’s not one for talking about herself much, so I thought I’d better tell you here instead.

I love eating apples, and always have done as far back as I can remember. I currently have five apple trees in my garden. Three are cordons, Sunset, Bountiful and Arthur Turner, planted the first winter we lived here and on M26 rootstocks, almost too vigorous for their own good. The fourth was found in our hawthorn hedge and allowed to grow up, a very early cooking apple that tastes delicious and ripens even before Discovery apples make the shops, but it doesn’t keep well. It is a tip bearer and pruning it each winter usually involves a ladder or a scaffold tower. The fifth tree was planted eighteen months ago, crab apple Laura. It is still establishing itself but I look forward to some dark red fruit next autumn. With such a mild winter last year the trees failed to set their usual abundant crops, so I’m hoping for some snow this year! I’ll add some more photographs next year, starting with the blossom, which on Arthur Turner is usually stunning.

Apple feels almost like our National fruit. It is ideally suited to the English climate, keeps well, and is varied enough in its fruits that it caters for all tastes. Sweet, sour, savoury, raw, juiced, cider, brandy… Apple also seems to be becoming a staple ingredient for commercial herb teas – which says more about the apples than the teas! And while trees can be pruned for shape or size, they will still produce fruit happily by themselves and feed the bees each Spring.

Apples are full of soluble fibre, present even in the juice, which is great for the digestive system. The acid helps balance the body in all kinds of ways, so is helpful for rheumatism and arthritis, and the pectin is also good for removing toxins such as heavy metals. The juice is good for the skin too, hence rubbing fruits on warts and burying the remains. Various compounds within the fruit also improve lung function, liver function, and guard against cancer. An infusion made from the tree bark will help bring down a fever. An apple at bedtime is said to improve the quality of sleep, although if placed under your pillow instead of eaten, it is said you will dream of the one you will marry.

There are probably more stories associated with the apple tree than any other tree, thanks to its generous nature and the fact that it is one of the few trees whose fruits can be eaten straight off the tree. Just to mention a few: Adam and Eve, Labours of Hercules, Aphrodite, many Celtic tales, Norse Iðunn, Snow White, Johnny Appleseed, William Tell and Isaac Newton. Many folk traditions are centred around apple trees, such as wassailing, apple bobbing, and divination.

Traditionally apple wood was used in windmills, since it was hard enough for the cogs and doesn’t need oiling. It also makes good handles for wood carving tools, or the mallet used to hit them with. Other uses include woodwind instruments, carving or inlays. It will burn well, although this may be a waste, but if used to smoke cheeses or meats the results are delicious.

It will come as no surprise that apple is used magically for healing, fertility or love. However it is also often used for faerie magic or in dealings with the otherworld, helping to connect their world and ours.