Monday, 3 December 2007

Organic fruits of their labours

It's that time of year when the stock cupboard begins to come into its own. When the conscientious and capable vegetable gardener or allotment holder can see the fruits of his labour neatly piled on the slate shelf of the pantry to last through the winter months. (I know it will probably be stashed in the pull-out kitchen unit or the fridge but I do like the thought of a good old fashioned pantry.)

Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. Most of our apples are windfalls, the pears are usually too small; the plums are eaten by the wasps and the squirrels always get the cobnuts just before I do. I like cobnuts, they're a local crop around here and I felt we should have some. I didn't want a nut plat – too big and I don't have the pruning skills or the sheep to keep the grass down under them - but I did fancy an avenue of nut trees under-planted with primroses and primulas al la Sissinghurst.

But, I opted instead for a cobnut hedge: not as grand but easier to upkeep. This has been a great success from the point of size, ease of pruning and lovely catkins but a real dud for harvesting. I do try: I watch and I wait. I think to myself "those nuts are nearly ready, a little bit pale, just another day or two" then when I go out, basket in hand, I find that those pesky squirrels have beaten me to it and swiped the lot. They get up earlier than me, that's my excuse.

I give away most of our fruit now: I used to make jellies and jams, chutneys and bottled fruits but I'm afraid the word processor has taken over from food processor. Now and then, overcome by a flurry of guilt and 'waste not, want not' ness, I go into overdrive and freeze the mountain of beans or make the elderberry cordial but this year I gave away most of our fruit.

Still, it is lovely to be rewarded with a perfect jar of apple and mint jelly or quince jam. And when friends come to supper and bring beautifully packaged pots of redcurrant jelly, blackberry or blackcurrant jam, gooseberry or apple chutney, I feel a sense of achievement for them and love the home-made gift.

At the same time, our egg consumption has slowly decreased over the years: once there were chickens and geese – sometimes guinea fowl, ducks and quail – but these have all gone. But when a friend brought round the most beautiful coloured chicken eggs as a pre-supper gift, I was loathe to cook them they looked so lovely. Gone are the days when most households had chickens.

My grandmother used to preserve eggs in large stone pots and often they were pickled: something to last through the short winter days when the chickens were out-of-lay. And of course, at this time, the oldest birds would be sacrificed to the pot. Now electric light means chickens produce eggs all year round and anyone hearing the term 'the old boiler' would think it was a central heating question not an elderly fowl.

Talking of which, the geese near here are shortly to be despatched for Christmas dinner (see them on my September blog archive) but the beautiful pigs that I've watched on my walks get bigger by the day have already gone to market. In the past, a big, pink pig was kept in everyone's back yard, whether country cottage or tiny terraced house; a long forgotten fact. It would have meant meat for the family throughout the winter and not a part of it was wasted. But these particular little piggies will be organic pork by now, an expensive treat for a wealthy shopper. And you can bet your bottom dollar that there were no chitterlings, brawn, cheek or jellied trotters made from those parts not considered prime.

Times move on but it's heart warming to see so many interested in 'growing their own'. And not all are lapsed and unorganized producers like myself: I only hope that they're encouraged by the process of production and enjoy the fruits of their labours.


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