Two weeks in, and our new life has settled into a kind of routine. We have both returned to work (a necessary evil until we go completely off-grid/the zombie apocalypse happens/Trump gets in to the White House and presses ‘launch’ instead of ‘snooze’), but we are able to do this from home. A run in the morning, breakfast in the garden, work ’til about three o’clock, then life proper begins.
At the moment this consists mainly of planning, as, although it is still very much summer here, the winter is not far away. The bees will not thank us for installing them in frozen hives. I shall try growing a few winter vegetables, but shan’t start in earnest until next spring.
I’ve begun digging the vegetable beds ready for next year. Two down, around fifteen to go. It’s good exercise, and I’m certainly sleeping well at night.
We have decided that the chickens we’ve been planning on getting soon will live in the small brick ‘shed’ at the side of the field. It’s a sturdy building, will be waterproof with a minimum of work, and, as the third little pig can attest, is wolf-proof (or at least should be fox-proof). We have researched materials for building a chicken run, and have found a bloke down the road who makes salt-treated acacia fenceposts, which are a lot cheaper, and more eco-friendly, than the pesticide treated, or the plastic, posts in the shops. There are several small ‘agri’ shops locally, boasting that they sell everything you need for your poultry (in truth this means a bewildering array of things to put feed and/or water in, and an inexplicable display of toy rubber chickens). After a few false starts (I still can’t get used to shops closing on a Sunday, and a Saturday afternoon, and lunchtime), we found a place that sells the right kind of mesh, the only problem being that it seems to be exclusively for using with rabbits, pigeons, or roses. Ah well, I’m sure the chickens won’t care. (I shan’t tell them.)
There are wasps everywhere, nesting in the walls, in the chicken shed, in my hair. I bought a can of Raid, but I just can’t bring myself to use it – it’s nasty stuff, and I don’t want it getting in the local food-chain or environment. It’s pretty indiscriminate in its exterminating, and we need to look after pollinators, after all, globally and locally, and my crops next year shall be the better for it. When the colder weather sets in (soon, too soon), the wasps will die off and I’ll seal up all the holes they’ve nested in this year, and hang some fake nests to dissuade them from returning too close to the house next year. I don’t like the wasps, but I do like the bees and the beetles and the humming-bird moths that zip around our garden, busy being inscrutable.
We’ve pulled so much scrap metal out of the earth in the field (springs, nails, a bed frame) that I’m considering investing in a metal detector and a giant magnet (and possibly opening a scrapyard).
The weather has been very dry, and there’s nary a hint of any champignons in the forest. I suppose I’ll just have to be patient. The season has only just started, and I really ought not to be wishing too hard for rain; ML may have words to say about that.
ML’s brother lives a mile or so away, and has an orchard, and several hazel trees. (It still counts as foraging if you don’t own the trees.) We got a box of apples to turn into compote, and spent a happy hour gathering a huge bucketful of hazelnuts.
Two whole evenings of peeling and shelling later, I’ve come to see that hazelnuts are a complicated nut, and a formidable opponent. A lot of them have tiny holes in the shell, made by the emerging larvae of the hazelnut weevil (Curculio nucum), which should mean that there is no nut in there. This, I learn, is not necessarily the case, and one must crack it open to make sure. A lot of them make no sound when shaken, an indication that there is no nut. Again, not true, and more cracking ensues. In fact, hazelnuts are somewhat like Schrödinger’s Cat in that there both is and isn’t a nut until one opens the shell, collapsing the quantum state, and sending bits of shell all over the floor. It is also true that there is a direct inverse correlation between the effort needed to get into a nut and the likelihood of there being anything edible inside.
One giant bucket of hazelnuts yielded three small tubs of nuts (a good result), so I’ve been playing around with some recipes. The best by far has been a hazelnut and blackberry brownie (our field edges are heavy with ripe, dark fruit at the moment), so this is the recipe I’ve decided to share.
Hazelnut & Blackberry Chocolate Brownies.
There is little one could confuse hazelnuts or blackberries with, but the obligatory caveat remains: don’t eat it if you don’t know what it is.
Blackberries Rubus fruticosus aggregate
The hedge round our farm is heaving with blackberries, although I have to fight the insects who seem a little furious that I am picking their breakfast. I have discovered that if you attach a plastic jug to your belt, it is possible to pick (or eat) them at double the speed, as you have both hands free.
Hazelnuts Corylus avellana
Nuts are incredibly expensive to buy, so the chance to grab some wild hazelnuts should not be missed. They are mature and ready to gather from the end of August onwards, but it’s best to get in early to beat the squirrels. They will need removing from the outer sheath that they grow in, and then shelling. I also tend to take the skins off by roasting at a medium temperature for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are starting to darken and blister (they’ll burn easily, so keep an eye on them), then wrapping in a tea towel. Allow them to cool for a few minutes, then rub the bundle between your hands for all you’re worth (I find muttering under my breath also helps). The skins should flake off, and you can fish out the peeled nuts. Not all the skins will come off, no matter how vigorous you are, but do what I do and ignore this.
Ingredients makes 16 portions
90g good quality Dark Chocolate
250g Salted Butter
4 free range Eggs
200g granulated White Sugar
200g Demerara Sugar
70g Cocoa Powder
225g Plain Flour
120g Hazelnuts (skins removed)
200g Blackberries (washed and allowed to dry)
Preheat your oven to 170ºc.
Briefly blitz your roasted, skinless hazelnuts with a food blender (not too much or you’ll end up with nut butter – you just want them a bit chopped up).
Cut the butter into cubes, break up the chocolate, and melt them gently together in a metal or glass mixing bowl over a pan of hot water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl, nor allow the water to boil).
Once melted, add the white sugar and Demerara sugar, and mix thoroughly.
Add the beaten eggs and mix through.
Sieve the flour and cocoa together into your mixture, stirring all the time to ensure they’re completely combined – the mixture will start to get quite stiff here, so brace yourself.
Add the hazelnuts and mix.
Pour the mixture into a lined baking tray (20cm by 30cm or thereabouts will give you the right thickness), and spread out with a spatula making sure it’s right in the corners and edges.
Dot the blackberries evenly over the mixture, and push down into it a little with your finger.
Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, or until a skewer pushed into the brownie comes out almost clean (you want them to be a bit gooey, and they’ll continue to cook once removed from the oven).
Allow to cool a little, then portion and either serve warm (with vanilla ice cream drizzled with blackberry coulis is a winner), or cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to five days. The combination of the nuts, chocolate, and fruit is really special, and properly seasonal.
Right, I’m off to dig another hole and avoid wasps.