Monday, 30 April 2007

Blossoming Out

I'm all 'booked out' and need to get away from books, writing, reading, plans: everything to do with paper and pen. So into the garden I go to let the wind blow through my hair (except it’s a bit too short) and clear my head.

Everywhere the blossom is out and it's ravishing. Several years ago I wanted to do my bit for posterity and, in a very tiny way, help to preserve the varieties that were becoming rare, and much of the blossom is the result of that.

I started by planting three different species of fruit tree because anything edible - food - is one of my 'interests': not cooking, just food. History of cooking, unusual foods, exciting combinations, wonderful textures and tastes: all of these. I cook not because I like cooking per se but because I like food. Just as I garden not because I like gardening, but because I like gardens - is that odd?

Many of the old apple trees in our garden had been lost in the hurricane of 1987 and never replaced, so I looked into some species to put in. Cider apple orchards were once common in various areas of England but since the 1950's most of these orchards have disappeared: so we planted a cider apple tree.

It's done very well in spite of my dodgy pruning: the tree's not very tall but it is wide which helps with picking the wonderful large apples it produces. Last year Best Beloved took some of them - along with other odd apples from old apples trees in the garden - to a friend and the two chopped them up with a home-made device.

The chopped apples were put through the press – this is called a cheese but we won't go into that: very confusing. End result, two huge bucket loads of juice. We drank some as apple juice over the next day or two - very cloudy but delicious - and froze what we couldn't drink right away in empty plastic tonic bottles (the waste product of G&T's).

The rest we left for several weeks before bottling. The cider turned out to be quite drinkable but very dry – we didn't add any sugar – so I think it's best used to cook with: great with pork or pheasant cooked a la Normandie with lots of apples and cream.

I also planted two quince trees – not the ornamental Cydonia species but the ones with edible fruit: very medieval. I have made quince jelly in the past which is delicious with game or roast lamb. However, I've come to the conclusion that life is too short to struggle with such a hard fruit. I buy the jelly from the jam stall at the Church fete instead and give the dark yellow fruits away.

The third tree I planted was a medlar – Mesipulus germanica - because it's an ancient variety introduced into Britain by the Romans and not widely grown today. The tree is small but wide spreading: at the moment the leaves are tinged with russet, the blossom a rich creamy, white. In autumn the leaves turn a lovely golden yellow and the fruit is ready to be picked from the first frosts.

But medlars are very tart and not eaten until they are 'bletted', which means so soft that they're almost rotten. Elizabethan recipes give recipes for making medlar jelly – which I tried but it's a lot of work for very little jelly – or a spiced sweetmeat from the fruit.

These sweetmeats are called cheeses – there we go again – but, like the quinces, I'm so much better at eating the stuff than making it. So the medlars are up for grabs too – perhaps my preserve making days are over – it's time to blossom out. Any one for chess?


Book Note: looking for a good book to suggest for anyone interested in fruit trees, I was surprised to find I only have either rather academic ones or ones that are very sketchy: so I have no hesitation recommending Monty Don's The Complete Gardener (ISBN 9781405308908)as a book that not only mentions these fruit I talk about (most do not) but one that also gives very sound practical advice wrapped up in a very attractive format.

I still refer to Cooking & Eating by Katie Stewart - which covers the history of cooking around the world – and A Taste of History by Maggie Black for food in Britain. Larousse Gastronomique can always be relied upon for a definition, of course, but if anyone knows of a new book that covers the history of cooking I'd be pleased to hear of it.

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