conker

A Seasonal Change

sloes growing in hedge

Autumn is creeping in. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to change colour, the first hints of yellow and gold appearing as a prelude to the riot of russet, bronze and purple to follow. The hedgerows are filled with sloes, their beautiful blue blushed skins belying the astringent flesh within and the apples are at their juiciest best. The days are cooler and it feels like summer is finally over.

It’s time to pack away sandals and summer dresses; to pick the last blackberries and raspberries; to shelve this blog until I regain my enthusiasm for it; to make chutney; to make plans for adventures; to find a new knitting project; to take long walks in the autumn sunshine; to make the most of my favourite season.

There is a restlessness as the seasons shift and a need for change.


September Days

No matter how many decades it is since I was at school (and it’s several) September is always a prominent marker in the year. It makes me think of sharp pencils and new shoes; reading suggestions and equipment lists; scratched hands picking shiny blackberries and apples eaten straight from the tree.

September collage of new shoes, sloes, blackberrries and rosehips

This September, the Barley Barn has been cleared after the overnight Gong Bath ready for the new term of printmaking classes, which start this week. In preparation, there’s been a flurry of creative activity including some experiments for using up rubbish imperfect prints, hence the collage above.

In September, the farming year starts a new cycle as the fields have lime, farmyard manure or biosolids spread on them filling the air with dust or a range of smells. Curiously, the biosolids (the more attractive name for sewage sludge) have a not unpleasant smell with a slight whiff of washing powder.  Before the new crop is sown and while the ground is dry, the chance is taken to trim some of the hedges and clear any ditches that have become overgrown or been dammed by children during the summer holidays.

This September, a trailer was discovered dumped or hidden in a remote spinney. The discarded number plates and other detritus suggest it was probably a holding place for stolen machinery.  Meanwhile, field boundaries are checked and any bordering a road without a thick hedge are trenched or bunded against unwelcome intruders, which seems positively mediaeval but is actually very effective.

rosehiips in September

In September, the hedgerows around the farm are filled with the colour of spiky sweet chestnut cases, orange rosehips, red haws and the beautiful dusky blue skin of the sloes that belies the astringent flesh beneath. Branches dumped in a jug with some bolted salad crops from the garden make an unfussy grouping, which is about my limit for flower arranging.

sloes in September

This September, the sloes are plentiful but the plum trees in the garden have been disappointing. The wasps ate more greengages than we did and many of the damsons went from hard as bullets to wrinkled almost overnight.

Soon it will be time to eat crumbles and pies, socks and sweaters will be pulled on reluctantly and doors that have stood open all day during summer will be closed as the days cool. But for now, we’re enjoying the late summer days of September.


Blackthorn - sloes destined for Slamseys Sloe Gin

Five for Friday – the spring edition

Five photos from the farm this week.

Around the fields, the first froth of white blossom is filling the hedges. In the garden the cherry plum tree just beats the blackthorn, but on the farm the blackthorn bushes are always the first to flower followed by the hawthorn.

blackthorn hedge

Blackthorn blossom forming

We have lots of sloe bearing blackthorn bushes growing in the hedges around the farm, which isn’t surprising as we live on Blackley Lane and the name of our farm is thought to derive from the Old English for “enclosure of the sloe (tree) hill”. We plant new hedges most years somewhere on the farm and always include plenty of blackthorn, especially as Beth needs a ready supply of sloes to make her Slamseys Sloe Gin. The photo in the header is the hedge that was planted three years ago to form the boundary for part of the Slamseys Drinks fruit field. Follow this link to see what it looked like three years ago.

blackthorn flowers

Blackthorn Flowers

Through the winter, the blackthorn bushes cut a dark silhouette with their tough, black branches tipped with long sharp thorns and then in spring, before the leaves appear, tiny white buds form that burst into blossom.

Once the blackthorn flowers have been pollinated by insects, they’ll develop into tiny round green fruits known as sloes. Through summer the sloes grow bigger, gradually turning purple, then develop a blue bloom and finally as the cold winter sets in, they turn a glossy black colour and are ready for picking. These sloes are incredibly astringent, but make a fine liqueur when steeped in gin.

According to Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, “a handful of the flowers infused, is an easy purge; and, if taken in wine and water, is excellent to dispel windy colic.” I’ve read that you can make an almond flavoured syrup by immersing enormous amounts of flowers into a sugar and water solution but I shall give this a miss because (a) I don’t need an almond flavoured syrup (b) it will take forever to pick the flowers and (c) I don’t need purging (easy or otherwise).

crystallised violets, polyanthus and blackthorn flowers

Crystallised Flowers from the fields and garden

I also read that the flowers can be crystallised but I found them too fragile. Can you see the stalk with one petal and some stamens? (It’s halfway down on the right).  That’s all that’s left of the blackthorn flower. The book suggested that the crystallised blackthorn flowers could be used to decorate a cake for a spring wedding. Quite frankly, it would be madness to consider that plan for longer than a second.

my favourite duck

My favourite duck off on an adventure.

Known as The Brown Duck because I’m not very good at naming things. Following a request for some ducklings, on Sunday I handed over a dozen duck eggs to hatch in an incubator as none of my ducks or hens were broody. Typically, by Wedneday morning one of my ducks had decided to sit on a nest of eggs. However, the eggs in the incubator stand more chance of hatching as this duck sits every year with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I think she just does it to keep away from the drakes for a month and I can’t say I blame her.

newly planted Christmas trees at Slamseys Farm

Row upon row of newly planted Christmas trees.

These Nordman Fir trees are only about 30 centimetres tall so they have a fair bit of growing to do before they’re cut down to sell as Christmas trees, probably in 2022, if they aren’t eaten by rabbits or muntjac deer, die from disease or grow a funny shape.

I do love this time of year. So much promise of things to come.


Autumn days

Lately, we’ve been …

autumn leaves

… 1 enjoying autumn leaves. I wonder whether I shall ever reach the age when kicking autumn leaves is no longer a joy. I do hope not.

 

sloes

 

… 2 picking sloes to make Sloe Gin. It’s proving to be a bumper year for sloes around here and it’s good to get the sloes picked on mild autumn days as I hate going out on freezing winter mornings when the bushes are wet and fingers chill to the bone as we pick. The sloes are already ripe and some are beginning to fall from the bushes so we’ve been out in force to pick them before it’s too late.

blackthorn

… but not enjoying the vicious thorns of the blackthorn. Look carefully and you can see the thorns, ready to catch the unwary hand plunged into the bush in search of the fattest, juiciest sloes.

rhubarb

 

… 3 enjoying the quiet decay of the garden in autumn. The rhubarb has finally keeled over, the leaves now draped over the edges of the bed as they quietly rot away. The beans have been taken down and the canes put away until spring, the last of the peas picked and the pumpkins cut and left to dry with the rampaging vegetation pulled up and composted. I rather like this time of clearing away and tidying up, though I confess that I’m not that diligent and there’s quite a lot that’s just left to go to seed and stand forlorn through winter.

 

pumpkin

 

… 4 wondering what on earth I’m going to do with the pumpkins. We have only three pumpkins from our plants but they’re enormous and  I could feed (almost) half of Braintree with this one alone. I hear the call of Pumpkin Soup and Pumpkin Ice Cream but so far I’m just enjoying the sight of the pumpkins sitting out in the garden chairs, like old ladies taking in the sunshine.

 

Blackcurrant Gin, butterscotch bars, pears

 

… 5 enjoying some autumnal food. Pears from the garden that have just hit the perfect ripeness; Butterscotch bars studded with walnuts and chocolate; a hot toddy of Blackcurrant Gin with a little lemon juice, honey and a splash of hot water (an almost virtuous drink with all that vitamin C and goodness).

Are you enjoying autumn days or are you bursting into springtime? Whichever, have a good weekend.