Sunday, 6 September 2009
Sufficient for the day ...
Pomona's cottage is a hive of industry at the moment: as I recorded a couple of days ago, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is definitely upon us, but for my part I don't think that Autumn would have had time to sit careless on the granary floor, or slumber amongst the half-reaped furrows.
We have been overtaken with piles of produce, quite ready to rot if we don't take it in hand with all speed: produce to pick, and to process, and think of ways of storing.
And this is the nub of self-sufficiency - so often nowadays we play at it, congratulating ourselves hugely at the sight of half a dozen jars of jam, patting ourselves on the back for a batch of plum chutney ... all in the sure and certain knowledge that when it runs out, we can trip down to Tesco and buy some more.
This was a luxury our ancestors did not have: if they did not store enough food, or sow enough at the right time to get through the winter, then they would go hungry.
This was happening not so long ago - you only have to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books to see that even in the late nineteenth century the hard work of summer and autumn would mark the difference between plenty and want for the next six months of the year.
For us in our little cottage, the situation is more complicated: yes, we do have a supermarket only a couple of miles away, but not only have we committed ourselves to living a more sustainable life, which involves producing as much of our own food as possible, but also (and this focuses the mind somewhat) the Head Chef will no longer be in paid work quite shortly and I, for the first time in my life, will be the family breadwinner, having only been the sidekick before. So every little thing we can stash away will save us money in the long run.
Although at the moment the thrifty aspect does sometimes seem questionable. All that food to be stored needs to go somewhere: we have been lucky enough to be given a no longer wanted, but working, freezer, which makes two and a half freezers. But they are already full - and we have nothing like enough fruit, or even vegetables to last until next summer. And we will need space to store the Christmas pork. Vegetarians look away now (and I am a vegetarian, too, so I will say no more).
I have been to buy some preserving jars, so that we can start bottling apples, pears and blackberries - but actually when I look at the price, I do think that I could have bought a lot of fruit for that money!
But fruit is definitely worth preserving in our climate - or there will be nothing in the way of fresh fruit until early summer.
For vegetables, I think the real answer is to manage the growing so that we can harvest vegetables all the year round. There are carrots, parsnips, leeks and cabbage already in the ground, and today the Ploughboy has sown some more greens.
We are hoping to use the polytunnel to help maintain a year-round supply of green vegetables, and the greenhouse for salads, and will be replanting these as the tomatoes come to an end. This year we have sown everything in modules, which has made a huge difference: the germination rates have been more or less 100%, the seeds don't get taken by mice, and the seedlings that are planted out are stronger and better able to survive.
It all requires a lot of thinking ahead and planning, which we have never got quite right before now - partly because it did not seem such a necessity. But we have not had to buy vegetables or fruit since the spring, which means that it has been our best year ever, but selling meaningful amounts of produce is another question.
In the past smallholders could sell their surplus more easily, I think. We live on a very quiet lane, so farm gate sales are never going to amount to much, but to take a stall in a market would entail a cost which we would probably not recoup, because of the small quantities we deal with. And once you go to market, the level of regulation makes it very difficult for the smallholder: for example, the cost of super-accurate scales, having to buy new boxes for eggs and registering with the relevant authorities.
Farmer's wives used to put up a sign by the wayside offering teas to passing cyclists and walkers, or selling cakes - I'd love to do this, but again, the cost and feasibility of implementing the regulations really puts it out of the question. And yet it tends to be the industrially-produced food which is harmful to the health - often in a long-term manner.
But I am being far too negative: and because presents make the world go round, I have a present for you of the recipe for hedgerow jam. You don't need to live in the country to make this - brambles and elderberries can be found in towns if you look around (try neglected gardens, wasteland, the wilder bits of parks), and by the side of all sorts of roads. But perhaps don't pick them by a very busy road, and rinse them off if they look dusty. And if you can go the other, non-road side of the hedge they will be cleaner.
Although I have given the quantities in pounds, remember that these are proportions only, so you can use whatever you want for a base unit. In terms of fruit, I use brambles, elderberries and Bramley apples because they are easily available - I use bush plums for jelly only, because I can't be bothered to stone such small plums.
You could strain this and make hedgerow jelly if you have plums, but jam is quicker and simpler, and the berries and small pieces of apple give a wonderful texture. These fruits are also high in vitamin C, so this jam must be very health-giving, I am sure.
I make 6lbs at a time - this is about right for a standard 9 litre preserving pan, but there is nothing to stop you halving or doubling the quantities as you wish.
Strig the elderberries and pick over the blackberries - you need a total of 4lbs of these fruits combined, but the proportions are not crucial. I usually end up with more brambles than elders. Simmer the elder and blackberries together with about quarter of a pint of water until softened (about 15 mins).
Take 2lbs of Bramley apples, peel, core and chop small - simmer with around a quarter pint of water for about 10 mins, until softened but not too pulpy. Mix the fruit together and stir in 6lbs of sugar (jam or granulated) - it will dissolve quicker if you have warmed it first. Bring to a rolling boil and test for a set by putting a teaspoon of jam onto a cold saucer. If it develops a wrinkled skin as it cools then it has reached setting point, and you can pot into sterilized jars. Keeps for a couple of years at least if you use screw top lids.
And after that slightly Eeyorish post, I remember that this year has been full of positives, and I have so many blessings to count instead of dwelling on the potential difficulties of the self-sufficient life. We have grown more food than we have ever done before, we have made jars and jars of jam and chutney, the freezers are full, we have more food on the way, and we are lucky enough to live in a most beautiful place. Take therefore no thought for the morrow!