Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Tories and Fox Hunting (and me and meat)

This is a fox. Accuse me of being a scare monger if you want, but I'd like you to look at the fox here and tell me you want it hunted by a pack of slow moving hounds until its lost the energy to continue running, and then be ripped apart in the teeth of those hounds.

I'm not about to demand that wild animals should never be killed. I'm an omnivore, and I'm a fan of game. And vermin. Seriously, rabbit, pigeon, muntjac deer, these creatures are killed as agricultural pests - if you're a veggie these creatures are dying for your dinner whether you eat them or not. So I'm not going to say 'blood sports are wrong, mkay?'. That would make me a hypocrite. Grow crops and you deprive wild animals of resources, and their young will die. That is reality. We're stuck with it. The same is true of fish, crustacea and molluscs - I've gathered winkles, cockles, mussels, I've trapped crabs and caught shimp in nets. And eaten them all. I've eaten no end of line caught wild fish too. 

My point here is that killing and eating wild animals isn't a bad thing - its just a thing. It has to be done sustainably and responsibly of course, and the way we've over-exploited many fish stocks makes that a minefield for the ethical omnivore. But if you're looking for low environmental impact, low fat, high protein, high quality food at a reasonable price the critters I've listed up above are ideal. 

Life ins't quite that simple though, and just like if you're buying farmed meat you really ought to be looking into the detail of how the animals were reared (if you care at all for animal welfare or the environment we're all in), you've got to look more closely at wild game. So when I'm buying venison, pigeon etc. I'm looking closely at the carcass, (I'll buy a whole carcass for that very purpose) and yes, I'll ask searching questions of a game dealer or hunter to make sure we're on the same page - if they're responsible in their work they'll welcome this and, probably, enthuse at you about the whole thing.

So, if you're killing an animal as cleanly as you can, taking pains not to wreck the ecosystem its in, sustainably and responsibly, thats awesome. I'm OK with that. And unless you can, hand on heart' say you're taking quite extraordinary pains to ensure your food habits and lifestyle kill no animals, you should be ok with that too.

Now back to fox hunting.

Is it cruel? Yes. I mean lets not wrap this up with cliches, the beagle is bred for stamina rather than speed, its a slow creature that'll pick up and follow a scent all day, running the fox until the brink of exhaustion. The fox is a faster animal, but it can't run forever. Add to that the fact that the beagles are fed, watered, given all the advantages of modern veterinary science whereas the fox is scavenging and hunting in a harsh environment and rarely at peak health, and what we're looking at is an immensely unequal confrontation. Even a fox who survives has been subjected to an horrific chase and will have expended significant resources just in surviving massively un-natural predation, its a dangerous and unpleasant way of handling a wild animal hunt.

Is it sustainable? Well... No, not really. Sustainability isn't some magical thing that happens when you can do the same thing next year, its also about whats going on around the event. Fox hunts have a terrible habit of trespassing on other peoples land, stretching over and damaging farm fields, and the chase isn't just a few people on horse back - there are usually scores of 'foot followers' and frequently no end of vehicles following. The chase does damage to the countryside, and the idea that feeding high quality factory farmed protein to a mass of dogs to take out a small number of foxes is in some way a sustainable solution to dealing with the occasional problem animal is a complete absurdity. The overall footprint of the practice is massive.

Is it necessary and is it a good way of dealing with pest control? No. It really isn't. The total number of foxes killed by this practice was always small - the issue isn't the number, its the fact that running an intelligent wild animal to the point of exhaustion and then ripping it apart with beying hounds is a particularly cruel form of killing. Its not a good way of targetting a problem animal worrying livestock - you've no way of getting the 'right' fox thats attacking someones chickens. Its a terrible, terrible means of pest control.

So what is it for? Well fox hunting is traditional. Bluntly. The only argument in its favour is that for some in the UK (and its a tiny minority) its a traditional practice that they enjoy. They could compare that tradition to one of, say, the Inuit hunting whales (which is in some areas protected). I've heard that comparison made - and that comparison is vacuous crap. There is no need, no cultural necessity, no strong historic link between the practice and survival of the people doing it, it was a passtime for a few. And, more importantly, the rest of us from inside the same (British) culture recognise that and mostly oppose the practice.

You can, and really should, oppose bringing fox hunting back. It isn't effective, it isn't humane, it isn't sustainable, and it isn't OK. The drive to bring it back isn't a sign of the Tories being a modern, forward looking party - its a sign that they're putting the pleasure of a very few above the quality of humanity. To bring back the obscenity of fox hunting cheapens not only the Tories, but all of us. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Blackbird Brood in the Front Hedge

So I could talk about how our little front garden is a productive little space constructed on permaculture principles to give us multiple crops of greens, berries, nuts and other produce. I'd be sort of telling the truth too. What I'd be missing is that I also designed it to be a little oasis of interesting wildlife habitat in an otherwise mown-to-oblivion suburban landscape. Its usually got hedgehogs wombling around in it all summer, and the bird feeders and sheltered nesting spaces (with spiky, cat repelling plants making up much of the planting and wild garlic on the floor that cats hate the smell of) make it a frequent nesting site. Once in a while we even get someone nesting right under our bedroom window, giving us a superb view of the baby birds. And yes, we lose plenty of fruit to the beasties, but its totally worth it.

In about a fortnight from hatching, the first blackbird brood of the year has gone from blind pink things to fluffy little fledgelings.

Its almost 'blink and you'll miss it' with blackbirds. They hatch and grow so quickly. But totally worth planting a garden with nesting birds in mind.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Urban Trees of the Future

I got talking to a guy at the City Council about their tree strategy recently, and I've got to say I was impressed - Cambridge is a fabulously green city, and the city council does want to keep it that way in what may be a rapidly changing world. They're aware that a diverse range of urban trees is far more robust against various diseases - such as the one that wiped out most of our elms, and another which is taking such a heavy toll of ash trees now. When you look at the urban trees across a lot of cities in the UK, there are certain trends that are worrying, such as the prevalence of relatively few species of often closely related trees, which might mean that the our urban tree stocks could be vulnerable to diseases or climate change in the future.

So I thought that maybe I could contribute a few thoughts on this subject. I started out with a list of suggestions for urban trees I think could do well, and after half an hour of writing and dozens of listed cultivars I decided to cut things back a bit and just list a few I'd like planted in and around our cities based on four goals.

(1) Being uncommonly planted in towns and cities in the UK now - it isn't that linden or plane are bad, but broadening out what we're planting is a good idea
(2) Provide good cover/shade/aesthetics and being maintainable in this context (including resilience to polution or a warmer climate)
(3) Be in some way of use, producing fruit, nuts, leaves or something else of practial value
(4) Support wildlife - whether by being a rarely used native tree or in some other way

Yes, I know, they aren't independent goals, indeed every tree will do all of these things to some extent or another. But its a way of looking at things that might be useful. None of the suggestions I'm making do all of these things perfectly, but they all do some of them.

One last thing - at heart I'm a forager. I love the idea of planting as diverse a range of food producing trees as we can. I tend to think if we can plant a beautiful tree, or plant a beautiful tree that at some stage might be worth someone scrumping fruit from, the latter is obviously better. I accept my choices may be skewed thus, but I'd defend the selection of fruit producing trees as better for people and for wildlife.

So here we go with my list...

'Exotic' Prunus trees

I know, 'exotic' depends on context. But what I mean here is trees of Prunus genus that aren't commonly used in urban planting schemes in the UK. That means trees other than plum, cherry plum, cherry, blackthorn and damson.

There's a variety of peach that I believe would make a great park/city tree, a cultivar called Avalon Pride. I've had one in my garden for years, and unlike every other variety of peach tree that withers under the attack of peach leaf curl when we get one of our typical humid UK summers, Avalon Pride is largely resistant to this. So as our summers get ever warmer and our season for fruit becomes shorter as cherries, plums and damsons get earlier, broadening that season with other stone fruit seems sensible. Likewise, apricot trees (Prunus armeniaca) can do well, especially in the South of England, and I see no obvious reason not to plant them where there's space for a good sized tree. Not maybe for next to the busiest of roads (they can shed a lot of fruit), but a beautiful tree in flower, leaf and fruit.

Loquat and Medlar

I do like trees that look good through different seasons, so I'm of the opinion that trees that start off with great flowers and follow up with beautiful looking fruit are among the best options - something for bees, something for birds and other animals. And generally speaking our councils plant a lot of these - depending where you are there are certainly plenty of whitebeam and rowan trees in most cities.

One that I've seen far too rarely is the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica. Not a big tree ususally, rarely more than 4m tall, but the spikes of white flowers it has in Spring are followed by distinctive yellow fruit later in the year. Great looking thing. 

Another thats planted just occasionally is the medlar, Mespilus germanica. This one has an old, old heritage in the UK and across Northern europe because the fruit stay on the tree into the dead of winter, only becoming good to eat when they go soft (or 'blet' - not as weird as it sounds, several tree fruit benefit from this). As a fruit crop it has long since been superceded - but its another tree that provides a point of interest in any planting scheme, with flowers followed by fruit that don't look like anything else you'll ever find.


We're used to the good old varieties of oak trees we find in woodlands in Britain, but many cities seem loathe to plant them. This is a real shame, they can grow to a wonderful size and have a truly extraordinary lifespan, offering a host of sub-habitats for wild animals, fungi and even other plants. If we're going to continue to diversify what is planted in our cities, I'd go for things like Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) and Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto), being species suited to maybe slightly warmer climates and able to withstand pollarding. Beautiful, shady, majestic trees.


Black (Morus nigra) and white (Morus alba) trees are glorious things - 15-20m high when grown, but slow growing. They're big, shady beasts. Trees of real stature, shedding delicious fruit that birds go mad for, and they're excellent habitat trees for insects and birds. Yet, strangely, they're not planted all that often in our cities. As our climate gets warmer I think this one could be a winner.


I don't really know why these really delightful relatives of elm aren't grown more commonly in the UK. They have lovely dense foliage, they get to a good size, and produce some small, vaguely edible berries that birds seem to love. The species native to Southern Europe is Celtis austraulis and I see no reason it shouldn't do really well in the UK, but Celtis occidentalis is a North American species thats maybe prettier. There are a number of species of this tree though, and for any local authority looking to broaden out the range of species it has I think this is a great bet. Quite a good size, 20m or so, but fast growing too so ought to be good in urban settings where cutting back is part of the management strategy.

Blue Bean Tree

This is a real oddity (Decaisnea fargesii) but where you see it growing in the UK it seems to do well. Only a small tree but one with delicate, alien looking flowers followed by almost metallic blue bean-pod shaped fruit. Again, of only tangential use (the fruit pulp is kind of edible but unexciting), but its a great little tree that has the huge advantage of not being closely related to anything else you're likely to see planted in British cities - if we want to ruggedise our urban tree stocks against future risks, thats got to be a good thing. 

Hardy Orange

Ok, I'm going out in a limb with this, its another really weird one. But thats the point of this article. I present the most darling little tree you'll ever meet, Poncirus trifoliata.

This is presently as close as you can get to a citrus tree happily growing outdoors in the UK. Its a spiky, slow growing, massively aromatic plant. Especially when in bloom, and it can produce the most unlikely looking small, bitter oranges (that as a push could be cooked into marmalade, but its really not worth it). The real reason for wanting to see more of this one planted is for the flowers, which are a brilliant bee-magnet. They love this tree. And its a good option for roadsides and verges where something smaller, slower growing and alltogether shrubbier will grow - I doubt it ever gets to more than a 2.5m in the UK, and it takes years to get that far. I've rarely seen one in the UK that was bigger than a good sized shrub, and its not renowned for being a big tree - surely a plant like this has to be worth a punt in hedges if we're looking to diversify?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Suburban Peasants guide to the Vegetable Crisis

Allegedly we're really short of vegetables in the UK. Or something. Courgettes are out of stock, iceberg lettuce is melting away, and there's a rude shortage of aubergines.

So we're seeing 'rationing' at supermarkets where they're restricting how many of each you can buy.

I'm a big believer in eating seasonally and locally - so I'm not affected by this. At all. Even a bit. Its February so, pretty much entirely, all of those things are being grown under cover in Southern Europe and even further afield. As the pound weakens and as imports get more expensive we'll be seeing such crops get ever more expensive at this time of year - so I would suggest simply using this as an opportunity to break the habit of relying on produce that'll only get harder to afford.

Now I'll grant you, traditionally February and March are the suckiest part of the year for local produce across most of the UK. Stored stuff is starting to want to go off as the days get longer, and fewer things are left standing in the fields - its had to survive through winter and now it all wants to run to seed and be ready to produce baby plants for Spring. If you go back a few hundred years people would actually be at risk of starvation. But we're not in the 15th century any more, and we have ample varieties of good, resilient vegetables to please anyone, before even we consider whats growing wild at this time of year.

Vegetables in season to buy

Brassicas are the stalwarts of winter vegetables - savoy cabbage, hard white and red cabbages, kale (cavolo nero, red kale, green curly kale...), Brussels sprouts, and of course sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflowers are all excellent now. Thin sliced white cabbage is a super basis for a salad. Leeks are still good and will be for another month or two, and you can get freshly dug parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and if you've a really good greengrocer maybe even salsify or scorzonera. Onions store well through winter, as do potatoes, squashes and pumpkins and its quite likely your local farm shop or market will have local ones of those. I also spotted some excellent local carrots, chard, beetroot, turnips and swedes. Oh, and the forced rhubarb is just starting. Do we really have to resort to air freighted shopping when such goodies are available? 

Cambridge Market, today.

Foraged Vegetables

The thing about February, the most amazing thing about this month, is that if you look really closely you'll see the rejuvenating shoots of Spring appearing all over the place. As the day gets longer, there are more and more green vegetables growing wild every single day - and they're young, tender, sweet and tasty, and the perfect basis for salad (I'll upload photos next time I pick some during daylight hours).

I'm gathering plenty of chickwed, three cornered leek, cow parsley, dandelions, crow garlic and Alexanders. I can go out and get a good green salad in minutes - its faster to walk down the hedgerow by the park on the way to the supermarket than it is to go to the actual supermarket. Why wouldn't I pick a salad rather than buy a more expensive one that'll not taste as good?

I'm also finding the occasional velvet shank mushroom, I'm still getting blewits, oyster mushrooms aren't unlikely and its not beyond the realms of possibility to find the odd morel near the end of the month.

I'm not suggesting here, for an instant, that you've all got to start growing all your own veg and foraging for every meal - but have we, as a nation, really got to a point where a shortage of imported lettuce holds back our eating habits? Is a lack of courgettes actually a problem? Britain, we're better than that. Can we you not all just do a bit better? Consider yourselves challenged...

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Jars and bottles... A plea for sense!

I wish to share with you the frustration felt by those who re-use bottles and jars for wine, jame, chutney, etc. And point out, at the same time, that the way we make and use glass materials is stupid.

Jars and bottles really need to do 2 things - they have to store materials for which they're constructed safely and reliably, and they have to provide a space to identify the contents and brand. And they should be reusable and recyclable.

What I don't want, either for myself or across the whole of the marketplace, is bottles and jars that can't be reused or which are so variable as to be nearly useless. I want jars which basically have the same lid sizes as each other, and bottles that are more or less re-useable. What I don't want is what I actually have - a crate each of bottles and jars of varying sizes all waiting for re-use, with a multitude of different lids for each.

Now its bad enough for those of us who make things to re-bottle, but think about the supply chain. We buy a jar of something, we send the jar back for recycling, its melted down to make another jar... Why? I mean, what's the advantage to us in spending all the energy melting glass to make more nearly identical items? 

I'd like to suggest the following. Lets have, say, 5 standard jars, and 5 standard bottles in the EU. So suppliers have got plenty of designs to choose from such that when combined with a label its very clear what the product is. And after use, rather than smashing them up and melting them down lets put an old-school deposit on them, so you can take them back to claim a deposit (or save them to use). Wouldn't that be a more sensible solution?

Oi, folk in the Green party or any other politicians wanting to do something simple and sensible... Are you listening to the pleas of a home-jam and wine maker?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Parasol Mushrooms

Lots of mushrooms around in Cambridge right now, and when we get a bit more rain there will be lots more. I haven't done a foraging video before, so let me know if this is of interest.

Among the fungi that do best in this city are the parasols - Macrolepiota rhacodes, M. procera and M. hortensis being the most common edible species. By 'edible' I mean easy to identify, delicious, versatile and useful, but a word of warning - some people do seem to 'not get on' with them, so as with any new foodstuff, try a little out first time to see if you're okay with them. I know, it seems frightening - but think how many people you know who can't eat some normal foodstuff you're fine with, and you'll start to understand that this is just how it is - a forager is exposed to hundreds of different foodstuffs that most people don't eat, and sooner or later you'll find something you don't get on with.

Anyway, here are some lovely parasols...

I won't bore you all with identification - there are better sites for this than mine. But I will say that you do need to take care you know what you're doing. Not that these look anything like death caps or destroying angels, but I'm sure you take my point...

When you've identified them, pick only what you need of course. They're fine just used as substitutes for other mushrooms, but I think you can make the most of them with dishes that rely on their light texture. Dip them in garlic flavoured batter and fry them fast and hot until golden, they're delicious. They make a lovely omelette. Or just fried with bacon. One of the finest wild mushrooms you'll find.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Cherry Plum

We're rather lucky with fruit trees in Cambridge - so much of the city used to be orchards that even in a bad year its possible to fill a basket with wildling fruit throughout Summer and Autumn. Excluding, for the moment, the soft fruit (wild strawberries, patches of raspberries and hybrids thereof, etc.) the first really abundant fruit thats ripe each year is the cherry plum - usually some time around the start of July.

The name is a little off - its not a cherry, its really rather more like a plum. Known to the botanist as Prunus cerasifera, its like a small, usually sweet plum that you might find planted in parks and hedgerows. The trees tend to be small, rarely more than 15-25 feet high, and they're much favoured in planting schemes due to their early flowering - there's a dark red leaved cultivar that is really common here. The fruit are small, any colour from yellow to red (or even a very dark red) and in most respects are small (2-3cm) plums - and you can use them for everything you use plums for.

Cherry plums in some of their colour forms - and a batch of cherry plum vodka
Flavour wise they're also pretty variable - mostly when they ripen they're sweet, with a well balanced acidity that most are looking for in a plum. This has meant that they've long been cultivated for the fruit, and while imports mean that the demand for early varieties of native grown fruit isn't what it was you'll still sometimes see them for sale on Cambridge market. The domestic varieties are sometimes referred to as myrobalan, a rather quaint old name I think.

As an aside, some distinguish between mirabelle and myrobalan, usually defining the former based on the colour or where they're from - and if you're one of those folk then good luck to you. I've found enough trees with characteristics between plum, damson, cherry plum and bullace to believe that the trees themselves are rather less fussy with such definitions than we are.

Anyway, now you know what you're looking for, the big question becomes what to do with them. They're a little bit less convenient than most cultivated plums in that he flesh clings to the stone. If you want to eat them just as they are and just spit the stone out like that of a cherry, no problem, but it makes other uses rather more difficult. But you can stone them and cook them like plums in crumble, pie, tart, whatever you like - but its more work.

I find that they make one of the best jams of the year (the internet is full of advice for making jam so I won't bore you with more of the same) - weigh the fruit out, add enough water to stop them sticking to the bottom of the pan, and cook to a pulp. Rub the pulp through a colander, and if you need boil the stones again in some more water to get the rest of the pulp off. Now add the same weight of jam sugar to that of the fruit, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and cook until you reach setting point. The colour of the jam depends on the cherry plums they use, but the red ones perhaps make the prettiest.

They also make a good wine, if homebrew is your thing. Again, whole books have been written giving methods and you'll find no end of advice online, but generally speaking its simple. Start out with 3lb of cherry plums and 2 3/4lb of sugar, plus a squeeze of lemon juice and a cup of strong, black tea for tannin, and a little yeast nutrient to produce a medium wine that can be white from yellow plums or rose from red ones. If you want to get technical about it a spoonfull of pectozyme really helps get the most out of the fruit when you start the process too - its not essential but you'll get a rounder, more full bodied wine.

If that all sounds too much like hard work you can use them for making a liqueur. Fill a jar with the cherry plums, pour vodka in until the gaps are all full, seal it up and put it in a cupboard for a few weeks. When you're fed up with waiting, pour off the vodka into a bowl and make up a small amount of sugar syrup. Add a little syrup to the vodka, stir it in, and taste - if it needs more sweetening, add more syrup, and when you're done bottle it.

Lastly, if you've still got a fridge full of berries after eating your fill and making jam and wine, make chutney. I've usually got my first glut of courgettes at the same time as the cherry plums arrive, and by adding beans, onions, raisins and the like you can make a chutney as good as any other - again, start by stewing the fruit down and rubbing the flesh off the stones. I don't believe in chutney having recipes as such, but if you want a good one, this one is as good as any I've seen.