Hedging our bets

Last winter, we bought and planted 100 bare-rooted trees to plug the gaps in our less-than-wonderful boundary hedges and this year, we are lifting self-set saplings – mostly oak, hazel, wild cherry, spindleberry and blackthorn – to add to the mix. It’s a game of patience but before too long, these youngsters will start to have an impact and we should end up with some decent shelter and windbreaks in all the right places. It might seem a bit paradoxical, then, that this week we have started to cut down a huge hedge which divides the garden in two; to the untrained eye, it looks rather brutal but this is all about conservation and regeneration, not destruction.

The height and width of the bank beneath the hedge suggest it was planted many years ago, possibly as a field boundary, but it has since been left to grow into a row of tall trees, mostly hazel. This means the thick base that makes a ‘proper’ hedge has gone and the whole things casts far too much shade across the vegetable garden, especially now the sun is so much lower in the sky. As it sits on roughly a north-east / south-west axis, it also serves little use as a windbreak since those two directions are where most of our wind comes from; it’s good hedges running perpendicular to this one we’re most in need of! It’s a little early in the season to be laying a hedge but we’ve started while there are still leaves on the trees so we can identify exactly what’s there; although the hazels dominate, there is also holly, blackthorn, hawthorn, oak and spindleberry, all beneficial natives which will hopefully thrive if given the chance of some light and air. Roger is working along the row tree by tree, cutting out the bigger trunks and selecting younger ones to partially cut and bend (or ‘pleach’) through upright stakes; it will all look a bit scrawny for a while but next year, it will start to rejuvenate and thicken, making a much more appropriate living structure for the garden as well as an excellent wildlife habitat.

Hazel is an incredibly useful tree and there is certainly no waste from this activity. We are raking up the precious mix of leaves, small twigs and sawdust and spreading it as a thick mulch on all the planting beds, setting twiggy sticks aside for pea supports, long poles for beans and other climbers, thicker branches are sharpened at one end to use as stakes and a pile of stacked logs is steadily growing against one end of the house.

There’s no waste in the rest of the garden, either. Even though the major harvests are over and most food eaten or processed for storing, there are still a few bits and pieces to use. We have a very healthy crop of huge cabbages but I’ve been making some of the smaller, scrappy ones into sauerkraut and there are still a fair few beetroot in the ground so I’m also fermenting them, grated and spiced with fennel seed. Both serve as delicious and very healthy additions to our lunch plates. On which subject, I decided it was time this week to crack open the first jar of pickled cucumbers . . . and nearly blew my head off in the process! Who thought it was a good idea to add a Scotch bonnet chilli to the mix? It’s not often you find ‘cucumber’ and ‘warming’ in the same sentence, I must say. I keep thinking we have reached the very end of the apple harvest and then we manage to find yet another trug of decent windfalls too good to leave on the ground; time is definitely ticking, I was soundly cursed by a feasting redwing this week, so the winter visitors are obviously arriving and will clear the orchard floor in no time.

Having pressed, pasteurised and frozen many litres of apple juice, we are now turning the fruit into ‘incredible edibles’ helped by the fact that the kitchen woodstove is currently lit at one end of the day or other. We are cooking up big vats for compote; as the apples aren’t cooking varieties, they don’t collapse into a fluffy pulp but a quick whizz through the food processor puts that right and we’re freezing them several portions at a time in saved fromage blanc pots. Apple compote with oats, walnuts, sunflower seeds and a sprinkle of cinnamon is my current breakfast choice – very seasonal and very delicious. We’ve been using the low oven to dry apple rings and at last, I’ve got round to experimenting with making fruit leathers, starting with apple and hawthorn berry. It took a bit of faffing about to get things right but I love the finished leather, each little square is a chewy explosion of sweet-sour fruity gorgeousness; the flavour is impossible to describe but it’s like the essence of autumn and hedgerow, honey and berry, concentrated in a sweet treat – just perfect for a healthy snack to take on long walks or a post-run boost. I feel this is the beginning of a new culinary and preserving adventure so there’s a tray of apple and cinnamon leather-to-be in the oven as I write . . .

In more ancient calendars, this time was regarded as the end of the old year and I have to admit to feeling a closer affinity with that idea than the end of December. As the days rapidly shorten, the weather deteriorates and leaves tumble from the trees, for me there is a strong sense of natural death and decay, of things coming to an end as we head into darker, colder times where rest and dormancy (should) prevail. It’s a good time for reflection, to see what has been achieved through this year, which ideas worked and which didn’t, which projects were brought to fruition, which fell by the wayside. It’s a time of letting go without sadness or regret but also a time to look forward, to make changes and new plans. At a personal level, I find commitments I make now tend to be far longer lived than the empty New Year resolutions which classically fizzle out before the end of January. So, for this November I have decided to do another 30-day yoga programme like I did last year – in fact, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t really done much in the way of yoga since then, so this binge on my mat is well overdue. I’m following the ‘Dedicate’ programme from Yoga With Adrienne, still my favourite online yoga teacher without a doubt and I’m hoping to do it properly like I managed last year, every day for 30 days rather than my usual habit of either taking something closer to 90 days to complete the programme or ducking out at around Day 17. At the same time, I’ve also committed to a ‘No Alcohol November’: this is partly to benefit my health (last year I did a ‘No Meat November’ and let me be honest, this one is by far the greater challenge – meat I can live without but I do so love a glass of rouge!) and also a concsious effort to reduce consumption and waste in the happy knowledge that my recycling cycle trips will be so much easier without a rucksack of glass bottles on my back. Having made the decision to do both things on 30th October, I decided to start the next day (what does the calendar matter, really?) so I’m already nicely settled in and going strong on both counts. Mmm, still a long way to go, though . . .

I’m keeping an interested eye on the proceedings at COP 26 but not with any great confidence that the needful will be done. Actually, I do find the whole thing weirdly ironic, with tens of thousands of people travelling from all over the world for the twenty-sixth time to tackle the climate crisis: how many tonnes of carbon dioxide has that contributed to the atmosphere, I wonder? On a more encouraging note, whilst painting the upstairs spare room on a wet afternoon last week, I listened to some interesting podcasts about the importance of adaptation and resilience and the ways in which the impacts of climate change are already being managed around the globe by some very creative thinking and inspired problem-solving. There are some excellent organisations, groups, companies, communities and individuals out there deeply engaged in practical and meaningful activities that are saving lives and ecosystems and that gives me hope. I don’t think we can solve these massive issues through individual action alone but I still firmly believe that every gesture helps, no matter how small; there are brilliant minds out there who have the knowledge and skills to come up with radical solutions but I will carry on trying to do my little bit, too, in the hope it makes a difference. It’s become a normal way of life to consider the impact of my actions on a daily basis and I’m comfortable with that, even if it means having to be brutally honest about some things and making some serious changes to what I do or how I do it.

Food is a huge part of this and although I think we do pretty well in producing much of what we eat ourselves (and I am very grateful that we are able to do that) and food waste simply doesn’t exist in our home, I still like to consider ways in which we can reduce our impact on the environment further – there’s always room for improvement. To this end, I was delighted to find this blog post at Simple Living which discusses the idea of eating a primarily regional diet (it’s a fascinating and inspirational read – thank you, Paula!). Of course, there are obvious difficulties such as a lack of access to local producers, farmers’ markets and the like (and I have to say from experience that just because something is sold at a farmers’ market, it doesn’t always guarantee good quality or that it has been produced responsibly); there may well be financial restraints, as for anyone limited to a tight budget, supermarket produce tends to be a lot more affordable; busy people with frantic lives may well also cite time restraints as an issue. Still, the idea of eating 95% regional produce and having a limit of ten or so more ‘global’ foods sounds like an interesting challenge to me so the question I have been pondering this week is what exactly counts as ‘regional’? In France les produits régionaux are proudly and rightly championed and there is much focus on the concept of terroir, the specific set of environmental factors which contribute to the unique character of local products. Even here, though, I find it difficult to pin down what exactly counts as regional for us: we live in Mayenne, one of four departments in the region of Pays de la Loire, but we are very close to the borders of both Sarthe (in the same region) and Orne, which is in Normandy. Are all three departments our local region, then? How far does the radius extend? For me, the idea of ‘local’ means pretty close to home, buying high welfare pork from a local farmer who sells direct from her farm or a pot of honey from the hives I cycle past en route to St P; ‘regional’ produce offers a wider choice of foods from slightly further afield but to my mind, with not too many more food miles involved. Looking for clarification, I did a bit of poking about on the web and came up with a number of opinions ranging from 100 to 400 miles, much wider areas than I’d expected. Just for fun, I plotted circles centred on our home with radii of 100, 200 and 400 miles and they gave me some fascinating food for thought.

Take for instance the wine that I’m currently not drinking. 😆 As we live in a traditional cider region, wine has to come from elsewhere and in my own mind, would have to count as one of my 5% ‘outsiders’ if I wanted to continue enjoying it, or else I’d have to start homebrewing from our garden and hedgerow produce. The 100-mile limit would allow me to enjoy wines from the Loire region, perhaps a red Touraine or sparkling Saumur, but not the southern reds I prefer and ironically, I could actually have a bottle from the vineyards of southern England before a favourite Bordeaux rouge! The distances seem very generous to me, especially 400 miles which is surely more suited to countries with large land masses than the relatively small continent of Europe; after all, I can’t believe for one moment that ‘regional’ produce for us extends right up into northern England and down to northern Spain, although that would certainly give us a wide variety of foods to choose from. It’s all interesting stuff, though, and it has had me thinking about what constitutes our list of global foods and what the possibilities are for reducing them or finding alternatives closer to home. In the last couple of years, I’ve seriously reduced my consumption of black tea and now drink far more homegrown herbal tisanes instead but the list of other foods is pretty long with coffee beans, olives, olive oil, brown rice, lentils, citrus fruit and some cheeses probably top of the consumption list (not forgetting that wine and Roger’s beer, of course). I’d also like to find local suppliers for foods we use in bulk, bread flour being an obvious candidate; despite living in a grain-growing area, it’s proving difficult to find a decent supply of locally-milled flour and I have to ask myself which is the better option: buying flour from a local supermarket which has been produced in and transported from another part of France or making a 100-mile round trip to buy from a ‘local’ producer? So many issues to unpick . . . but it’s important and interesting and gives me plenty to think about. At least we’ve got the veggie side of things nailed.

Something that most definitely counts as a regional food here is sweet chestnuts and there has been much activity locally in recent weeks as foragers go forth to hunt those shiny brown treasures amongst the fallen leaves. We have downed tools and spent a happy couple of hours wandering along the lanes from home and through local woods this week, collecting a decent harvest of nuts on the way. What better excuse is there for enjoying the simple peace and beauty of the season, the landscape in all its autumnal glory?

Preparing chestnuts takes a little time but it’s one of those therapeutic and rewarding kitchen jobs that is hugely enjoyable once we get into the swing of it: we tend to halve them first (helpful in checking for resident bugs!) then peel the skins off. Our favourite way to cook them is either to stir them through a tray of roast autumn vegetables – they make a lovely crunchy contrast to the softness of roast squash, for example – or to boil them briefly then blitz them in the food processor and use them to make stuffing. Either way, they freeze like a dream but it’s always lovely to enjoy some of them now at the height of their season. Mixed with onion, herbs and breadcrumbs they made a delicious stuffing to accompany a piece of local pork, roast potatoes, roast squash and carrots (with more chestnuts), leeks, cabbage and caramelised apple rings – a meal that was most definitely 95% regionally produced (most of it from the garden and woods, in fact) and a true celebration of autumn. Delicious . . . and I didn’t even miss the glass of wine to go with it! 😉