Update: what better gift than a pile of… manure?

Ah, happiness is … a whole pile of cow manure.

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Couple of weekends ago, some lovely friends dropped off a whole tractor trailer of cow manure for the veg garden.

I’ve been panicking about how far behind I am this year with the veg patch as I couldn’t plant anything until I had finished uni for the year so I’ve only just started sowing seeds. But as soon as that pile of manure was dropped off, I just thought ‘yes, it is all ok, the garden will be fine’.

We live on VERY sandy soil and this cow manure is our secret ingredient for growing our crops.

To celebrate, we have planted out some trees this week – a crab apple, a cobnut, a nectarine, a peach, and we have the last two plums and gooseberry bushes left to sort out…

Indoors I’ve sown tomatoes that are starting to pop up, a couple of cucumbers, aubergines (eggplants), peppers, rocket and spinach. I’m hoping to move onto courgettes (zucchini) and chickpeas next…

Bring on spring!

 

 

Bananas

Now, I don’t grow bananas. England isn’t that kind, even in the south. But I do love bananas. I do eat bananas, a lot. And I would love to grow bananas. But because I can hardly keep citrus trees alive and I’ve already half killed to plums and a pear in my short gardening life-time, best not to go there…

But I’ve done my research and I present to whoever can grow bananas an ‘all you need to know page’, I hope!

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From internet – bananas 

Banana, an edible fruit, botanically a berry, produced by several kinds of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. In some countries, bananas used for cooking may be called plantains. The fruit is variable in size and colour and firmness, but usually elongated-ly curved with soft, rich flesh in starch covered in the middle by a rind that can be green, yellow (yay), red, purple or brown. The fruit grows from the top of the plant, hanging in clusters. Almost all bananas come from the wild species Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana. 

Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, cultivators with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as South East Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the binary distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.

The word banana is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese

All the above-ground parts of a banana plant grow from a structure usually called a corm. Plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy, and are often mistaken for trees but what appears to be a trunk is actually a “false stem” or pseudostem. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is at least 60 cm deep, has good drainage and is not compacted. The leaves of banana plants are composed of a “stalk”, petiole, and a blade, lamina. The base of the petiole widens to form a sheath – the tightly packed sheaths make up the pseudostem, which is all that supports the plant. The edges of the sheath meet when it is first produced, making it tubular. As new growth occurs in the centre of the pseudostem the edges are forced apart. Cultivated banana plants vary in height, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Most are around 5 m (16 ft) tall, with a range from ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ plants at around 3 m (10 ft) to ‘Gros Michel’ at 7 m (23 ft) or more. Leaves are spirally arranged and may grow 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) long and 60 cm (2.0 ft) wide. They are easily torn by the wind, resulting in the familiar frond look. When a banana plant is mature, the corm stops producing new leaves and begins to form a flower spike or an inflorescence. A stem develops which grows up inside the pseudostem, carrying the immature inflorescence until eventually it emerges at the top. Each pseudostem normally produces a single inflorescence, also known as the “banana heart”. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots will normally have developed from the base, so that the plant as a whole is perennial. In the plantation system of cultivation, only one of the offshoots will be allowed to develop in order to maintain spacing. The inflorescence contains many bracts between rows of flowers. The female flowers, which can develop into fruit, appear in rows further up the stem, closer to the leaves, from the rows of male flowers. The banana fruits develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called “hands”), with up to 20 fruit to a tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch, comprising 3–20 tiers or commercially as a “banana stem”, and can weigh 30–50 kilograms (66–110 lb). Individual banana fruits (commonly known as a banana or “finger”) average 125 grams (0.276 lb), of which approximately 75% is water and 25% dry matter (nutrient table, lower right). The fruit has been described as a “leathery berry”. There is a protective outer layer (a peel or skin) with numerous long, thin strings (the phloem bundles), which run lengthwise between the skin and the edible inside. In cultivated varieties, the seeds are diminished nearly to non-existence; their remnants are tiny black specks in the interior of the fruit.

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From internet – banana tree

Farmers in SE Asia and Papua New Guinea first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highland Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000BC and possibly to 8000 BC. It is likely that other species were later and independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the region of primary diversity of the banana. Areas of secondary diversity are found in Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in the region. There are numerous references to the banana in Islamic texts beginning in the 9th century. By the 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia. During the medieval ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world. Bananas were certainly grown in the Cyprus by the late medieval period. Writing in 1458, an Italian traveller and writer wrote favourably of the extensive farm produce of the estates at Episkopi, near modern-day Limassol, including the region’s banana plantations. Bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits from West Africa in the 16th century. Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that the food became more widespread. As late as the Victorian era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available. Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. The earliest modern banana plantations originated in the Western Caribbean zone, involving the combination of modern transportation networks of steamships and railroads with the development of refrigeration that allowed more time between harvesting and ripening. Their political manoeuvres gave rise to the term Banana Republic for states like Honduras and Guatemala. The vast majority of the world’s bananas today are cultivated for family consumption or for sale on local markets. India is the world leader in this sort of production, but many other Asian and African countries where climate and soil conditions allow cultivation also host large populations of banana growers who sell at least some of their crop.

While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor, Gros Michel discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming.

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From internet – banana tree

Bananas are a great dietary source of potassium. One medium-sized banana (118 grams) contains 9% of the RDI. Potassium is good for protecting your heart from disease, by lowering your blood pressure. Eating a good amount of potassium can decrease your chance of heart disease by 27%. Also, potassium is good for you hair and nail growth, keeping them strong and un-brittle. Dietary fiber has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. A medium-sized banana contains about 3 grams of fibre. Bananas contain mainly two types of fiber:

  • Pectin: Decreases as the banana ripens.
  • Resistant starch: Found in unripe bananas.

Resistant starch escapes digestion and ends up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for the beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, some cell studies propose that pectin may help protect against colon cancer. Bananas are often referred to as the perfect food for athletes, largely due to their mineral content and easily digested carbs. Eating bananas may help reduce exercise-related muscle cramps and soreness. The reason for the cramps is unknown, but a popular theory blames a mixture of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

So what do you do when you (are lucky) and grow a large number of bananas or have a large bunch sitting in your kitchen, quickly turning brown?

Well, here are some ideas to incorporate bananas into your daily diet:

  • Sliced up on cereal or porridge with milk for breakfast is great.
  • Mashed with strawberries makes a good light pudding or snack.
  • Sliced with greek yoghurt is delicious.
  • Banana and peanut butter/Nutella on toast anyone…?
  • Sliced or mashed banana with milk and a dash of sugar.
  • Banana smoothie/ milkshake

But the best recipe for browning/very brown that they are past edible, is banana cake.

My favourite is Chocolate Banana Loaf (what a surprise), but to begin with, I offer you this plain version. Never toss your brown bananas away, just shove them in this delicious cake, or if you have too many, bananas freeze very well. To defrost, put them in the microwave and mix them into another cake batter later on.

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Banana Cake

Serves 10, 1.5kg loaf tin

-300g self-raising flour -150g salted butter -150g granulated sugar -3 eggs -4 large bananas -75ml full-fat milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the loaf tin with baking parchment.
  2. Mix the flour and butter together until they resemble a bread crumb consistency. Mix in the sugar.
  3. Add the eggs and combine. Peel the bananas from their skins and mix in thoroughly. Add the milk, to loosen the mixture. Mix well.
  4. Scrape the smooth cake batter into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, the cake is done.
  5. Leave the cake in the tin to cool before transferring to a wire rack. Serve in square slices. Keep in an airtight container and consume within three days.

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Apples

The apple tree (Malus pumila, commonly called Malus domestica) is a deciduous tree in the rose family. It is best known for its pomaceous fruit, the apple and is cultivated world wide as a popular fruit tree – it was probably the first type of tree grown internationally for fruit. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apples, resulting in a range of desired characteristics. Different cultivars are bred for various tastes and uses, including cooking, eating raw and for cider production.

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Homegrown, 2016, eater

All sweet apples originated from a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s (Turkey) border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe by travellers through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. Evidence has been found that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste to our little island. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care‘. Apple trees are considered to be one of the earliest trees cultivated. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328BC. Those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing root stocks. Winter apples that are picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing temperatures have been an important food in Asia and Europe for many centuries.

After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, improved varieties were introduced from France, including the ‘Costard’. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination – orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. More orchards were cultivated over time and by the 13th century, the ‘Costard’ variety was being grown in many different parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as ‘costermongers’, hence the word ‘costermonger’. The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of apples in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent as he was an avid fan of apples, hiring French gardeners specifically to take care of his various trees . Simultaneously, the red skinned ‘Pippin’ was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the ‘Queene’. Fun fact: Catherine the Great loved ‘Golden Pippin’ apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.

Until the agricultural revolution in the 18th century methods of producing apples were  pretty relaxed. Towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including ‘Laxton’s Superb’. The introduction of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste this was achieved. ‘Ribston Pippin’, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 after being raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The ‘Bramley Seedling’, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the most popular apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876 after it was grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809. Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Queen Victoria was a fan of the fruit. She particularly liked baked apples as a dish. A Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy. Apart from the apples sold at market, the fruit was grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War (1914-18), several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties. After the Second World War (1939-1945), new rootstocks were introduced. These enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the growing fruit which increased the density and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity. The market was greatly improving.

Until the 20th century, farmers stored apples in frostproof cellars during the winter for their own use or for sale. Improved transportation of fresh apples by train and road replaced the necessity for storage. In the 21st century, long-term storage again came into popularity, as ‘controlled atmosphere’ facilities were used to keep apples fresh year-round. Controlled atmosphere facilities use high humidity, low oxygen, and controlled carbon dioxide levels to maintain fruit freshness.

Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Red Delicious’ and ‘Granny Smith’ were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised.  English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties which had been bred for taste rather than yield and as a result they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the 20th century. In the 1990s, ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’, varieties which had been raised in New Zealand, were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers have managed to produce these varieties with some great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example ‘Jazz’ (which are my second favourite, other than ‘Pink Lady’, the greatest apple if you are ever buying them from a store),’ Kanzi’, ‘Rubens’, ‘Cameo’ and ‘Zari’.

Many modern orchards have been planted more intensively than previously in history with up to 3,500 trees per hectare. A lot of research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects thanks to modern science and additionally growers have invested in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.

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Dwarf apple tree

There are over 7000 varieties to choose from. It is overwhelming. Mark Diacono, trust River Cottage Fruit Handbook author has some suggestions categorised into easy boxes to make the decision slightly less demanding:

Eaters – ‘Orleans Reinette, ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Blenheim Orange’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ (note, self-fertile), ‘Lord Lambourne’, ‘Old Somerset Russet’

Cookers – ‘Bramley’, ‘Annie Elizabeth’

Ciders – ‘Kingston Black’, ‘Browns’

Dual-purpose – ‘Veitch’s Perfection’

I will quickly confess, most of our apple trees were planted before I started working in our veg garden and I don’t know what brands they are. We have one green, one deep pink, one red/green that is a dwarfing rootstock, two old apple trees that have been hanging on from before our time, more than 2 decades, and one ‘Braeburn’ we planted last winter. All of mine are late producers so we are considering investing in some early ones this year.

If you are limited for space, opt for self-fertile trees or a ‘family tree’ – trees that have two ore more varieties grafter onto one main trunk, giving you the option to have different apples on each of the main branches.

In the context of growing fruit trees, apples are relatively easy to take care of. They are happiest as freestanding trees but they can be trained too as stopovers, cordons, espaliers and arches. You only need to visit RHS Wisley and you can witness the artwork of training an apple tree. Training can make apple adaptable to smaller spaces. I like mine to look traditional – standing in the ground like the beginnings of an orchard. Spacing the trees depends on rootstock. 3-9m apart for freestanding trees is the general outline, 50cm when training. Plant your tree up to the knot in a deep hole filled with well-rotted fertiliser. Fill in and heel down so that the earth is trodden in around the base. Mulch around the base, water through dry spells in the early years and feed it with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch every spring to encourage a good crop for the year and significant growth. See my pear page for notes on pruning – it is the exact same. Pears

Pruning should focus on removing diseased, dead and damaged wood as well as crossing branches and congestion in the centre. Prune undesired branches back flush with the trunk to main branch, but if they are large and likely to leave a big wound, leave them cut  to short stubs to minimise the risk of disease getting in.

x2 apple trees, 2015

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Early apples are ready from late July through to September. Eat them straight away, consider them like early ‘Charlotte’ or ‘Jersey’ potatoes. They don’t keep very long. Later varieties are ready from October. They may in fact need a little storage time after picking until they are at their best. Many can be stored for up to half a year. If the pips are brown inside the apple when cut open instead of white, they are ready. When picking apples, take any that give with a gentle, cupped, twisting motion with your hand. Don’t pull, if it doesn’t drop into your hand with a small amount of pressure, it is not ready yet. Picking too early can damage and reduce next years crop.

To store apples, keep them in a cool, dry place. We kept ours in a garage last year (we collect all of the neighbourhood’s excess to give to the pigs who adore them). Store them in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other, ideally on slatted shelving (air circulation) or newspaper. Check regularly for spoiling. If you have too many that are spoiling too quickly, you can cook them into a pulp and freeze them, cut into rings and dry them in a dehydrator or on the lowest setting in the oven, cook and strain through muslin to make an apple sauce to freeze (good for my apple cake, see below), make into apple jelly or bramble jelly or use fresh – ideas in a moment.

Moth larvae is bad in apple trees. Cut out any you see in the fruit and shrug your shoulders before eating or cooking with the apples. It is the perks of homegrown produce – caterpillars, slugs and snails, plus the odd worm or beetle cropping up in your pickings. Apple scab is the most problematic. Something one of our apple trees has in particular. It doesn’t do anything in particular, it just makes the fruit look sometimes unappealing but I promise ours taste just as good. Some varieties can be more resistant (‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ for example or ‘Egremont Russet’). Nectria canker is a fungal disease that can also crop up.

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Apples are notable for their impressive list of phtyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Studies suggest that its components are essential for optimal growth, development, and overall wellness. As the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The apple is rich in dietary fibre which helps prevent absorption of dietary-LDL or bad cholesterol in the gut. The fibre also saves the colon mucous membrane from exposure to toxic substances by binding to cancer-causing chemicals inside the colon. They contain good quantities of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents. Apples are also a good source of B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. Together these vitamins help as co-factors for enzymes in the metabolism. Apples also carry a small amount of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure.

Different varieties of apples should be eaten in different ways. Some should only be cooked, some can be eaten raw or cooked (some might taste poorly when cooked and some are great both ways). For our homegrown varieties, we only grow eaters. We looked into buying a ‘Bramley’ but decided that we were very happy to cook with any slightly strong tasting eaters – our green ones in particular are a little too sharp for eating raw. I love a bright pink/red apple raw – ‘Pink Lady’, anyone else? Bramble Jelly (apple and blackberry jelly/jam), apple mint jelly (eat with lamb), apple jelly (eater apples made into jelly/jam and eaten on toast and butter or used as a filling for apple tart or pie, it is gorgeous), River Cottage suggests apple with black pudding, pork, cabbage and cheese, apple ice cream apparently is good too. Mincemeat fillings, stuffed apples for winter dishes… The apple is pretty great. Ways to eat raw apple alongside other food: yummy with cheddar cheese/ cheese fondu, dipped in humous, slathered in Greek yoghurt, melted chocolate, it is a key ingredient to a Waldorf Salad (apple, celery and walnuts) and a great addition to the ploughman’s lunch (fun fact: the ploughman’s lunch was an advertising stunt invented in the 1960s by the cheese industry). For cooking, apple crumble is the first that springs to mind, apple and blackberry crumble (see my recipe here: Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble), apple tart/ tarte tatin, apple pie, I’ve never tried apple charlotte or Eve’s Pudding but these are more classics to consider. I often resort to the good old apple crumble with custard, if I am honest, for autumnal puddings. It is one of the dishes I remember my gran making for us when we used to stay with her more often but it brings back fond memories of coming home from a school trip and my mum had whipped one up as a surprise – it is one of her puddings she made me as a child that I ate and loved and one of the first I ate after being very poorly for sometime and started eating pudding every night as a result of it. Otherwise, the best apple pudding is apple cake. I had my first ever slice of Dorset apple cake, in Dorset (no surprise there) at the Hive Beach Cafe, close to Bridport. It is the best Dorset apple cake I have ever eaten. I tried to replicate it when I got home but it was never as good as theirs. But I discovered this recipe, Apple, Almond and Cinnamon. It is not a Dorset apple cake but it is yummy in its own way. The texture and cinnamon-y taste with the added nutmeg and the flaked almonds is scrumptious. I particularly like it slightly warm.

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Apple, Almond and Cinnamon Cake

(Serves 10, makes a 20cm/9inch deep cake)

-450g eater/dual-purpose apple of choice (about 2 medium sized apples), cored and finely sliced into thin segments – 6 large eggs – 335g dark soft brown sugar – 335g salted butter – 340g self-raising flour – 55g ground almonds – 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon – ¼ tsp ground nutmeg – 2 tbsp good-quality apple sauce (homemade is best)

– About 2 tbsp flaked almonds – Icing sugar, for dusting

  1. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. Put the eggs, sugar and butter into a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined.
  3. Add the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple sauce and mix together until the batter is lump-free.
  4. Pour half the batter into the tin. Place a layer of sliced apples on top. Pour in the remainder of the batter. Smooth the surface. Top with another layer of sliced apples. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
  5. Bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is burning, put a sheet of baking parchment over the top or turn the oven temperature down to 170C (I do have problems cooking this cake – I either burn the top or undercook the middle, try and see what works for you, chef!).
  6. Leave to cool in the tin before transferring on to a wire rack. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving. It is lovely still warm or cold. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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Homemade Apple Sauce

-1kg apples -600ml water

  1. Cut the apples into large chunks and place them in a large pan with 600ml water. bring the water to the boil along with the apples before turning down and leaving to simmer for at least an hour, until the apples have broken down and become ‘mush’.
  2. Put the ‘mush’ into a muslin cloth hanging over a large bowl and allow it to drip for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.
  3. Tip the contents of the bowl into containers and store in the freezer to use for the cake above or any other recipe.

Foraging: Elderflowers

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Elderflower – image from internet
One of the perks of foraging outdoors is the tiny window during the year when one can harvest elderflowers. They bloom for a very short season, from sometime in May or June for only a couple of weeks. Last year we failed to pick any, the year before we did not do anything with them and left them to shamefully rot. This year, encouraged by my sister’s fete, my mum got on with making elderflower cordial the same day we picked them. To me, elderflower cordial reminds me of birthday parties from my childhood. We would serve elderflower cordial with sparkling water in plastic champagne glass shaped cups with our picnic spread out in the dining room. Once you have gotten over the wafting smell of cat pee when you pick your fresh elderflowers and they quickly start to brown, the elderflower cordial itself smells and tastes refreshingly delightful.
Elders are common, low growing shrub trees. The flowers grow in stalked umbrella sprays, five petalled, cream coloured with yellow stamens whilst the berries that grow from August to September are a dark purple or black with three small pips. Their habitat is ideal for nitrogen-rich areas (e.g. near rabbit warrens) which I suppose is why our favourite elder tree is found in a horse field densely populated by rabbits.
Elder trees have some interesting legends associated with them. To fell and elder tree is unlucky as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Burning the timber in the house will release the devil (despite deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire). Referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’, hanging a cradle from its boughs would encourage the wrath of the witch. However, planting an elder tree near your house is supposed to protect the occupants from evils, it will never be struck by lightening and will therefore protect you from a thunderstorm, warts and sorrows can be moved to an elder’s stick and buried.
Judas hanged himself from the elder and the Cross of Christ was supposed to be made from its timber.
Despite these fears, the elder tree has been used for plenty of medicinal cures over the centuries. Every part of the tree can be found to have been used for some cure.
The tree can be easy to recognise but you must be cautious as a few others can lead you stray – the Wayfaring Tree (earlier-flowering), the Rowan (which I have almost done before, that really does smell of cat wee) can be confusing as can the later Hogweed. The elderflowers will have a sweet smell, faintly of cat pee when the sun is too strong on it. You want to pick the white, opening blossoms and not the ones already turning slightly brown and falling easily from the stem as these will be inferior in your cordials.

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Rowan – image from internet
If you cannot deal with all of your bounty straight away, you can leave them to dry in the oven with the door left open or in a dry place not in the sun. Otherwise, you can wrap them up in bags and freeze them. They will go brown but it will taste just the same in your cordials, according to online discussions and our own experimentation.
Once you have made the elderflower cordial, use as a drink, make into elderflower ice cream or syrup or use it in my latest discovery, Strawberry and Elderflower Cake, coming soon.

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Elderflower Cordial
(Makes 2 litres)
– 25 Elderflower heads, de-stalked – Finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (used separately) – 1kg granulated sugar – 1tsp citric acid
1. Place the harvested flower heads in a large bowl with the stems removed. Add the lemon zest.
2. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour it over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag/piece of muslin over a large saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the citric acid. Heat the ingredients gently to dissolve the sugar then turn it down to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
4. In an oven preheated to 120C, sterilise glass bottles. Remove them from the oven once they are hot and leave to cool.
5. Using a funnel, pour the hot syrup into the sterilised bottles. Seal with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Leave them to cool and then keep in the fridge for 4 weeks or put it in the freezer to keep for a few months. Alternatively, you can sterilise plastic bottles or ice cream containers using hot water and keep the cordial frozen in these – leave a small gap between the top of the plastic bottle/container and the cordial itself to prevent them from exploding in the freezer.
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