Farm from the Madding Crowd

The roads winding through the countryside, some tree-sheltered and some opening onto wide rolling fields belie how close we are to London and the grey January concrete I've just left behind.

Although the weather is downcast and gloomy, the skies heavy with cloud and light drizzle, the journey out of my corner of South East London quickly and always surprisingly opens out into fresh air and the wide landcapes of West, then East Sussex.

Most of the fields I pass are brown, the work happening underground. The quiet surface appears asleep with no visible sign of life. Most of the winter produce is cropped now and all that remains is either stumpy and scrubby or muddy and lumpy.

I wonder if this is the best time to visit a fruit farm. But I wanted to see where the work of growing began. Normally all you see in your fruit bowl is the gloriously ephemeral end result. You give it little thought as the juice from the berries runs down your arm and chin, but here, on a cold and muddy morning, you can see the long journey from it's soily and unglamorous beginnings.

Brambletye biodynamic fruit farm near the small town of Forest Row, is down a long and bumpy road that after a few twists and turns becomes little more than two muddy ruts. I drove past the ruins of the 17th century Brambletye manor, of which there are only separated halves of the facade remaining, and knocked on the door of what I took to be the farm house. Two large dogs (I'm not good with breed names) galloped around me, and the lady of the house, aproned and with flour covered hands like the country version of a seaside postcard told me I was in the wrong place. A great shame, as the smells from the kitchen wafted out the door like siren song.

A few minutes later and slightly further along the road, I stepped from the car into the mud of the farm then got immediately back in and changed out of my towny white trainers into wellies.

Greeting me were Ellie and her two year old daughter who was well wrapped up with a wooly hat pulled down over her ears, and coat and scarf drawn up around her, but not quite able to prevent a little cold red nose poking out.

Crates of bottled apple juice were stacked high all around ready to be sent out, and the big barn behind was being swept out by Stein Leenders, clad in dark blue overalls and dusty boots. He and Ellie have been farming on this land for 10 years now after he moved over from Holland along with 15,000 apple trees to what was then a rented field.

The first thing Ellie took me to see were the mushrooms, growing in an old shipping container. Rows of plastic barrel-like sacks, packed tightly with mushroom spores and wood chippings from the hazel trees in the neighbouring woods were sat neatly on shelves. The damp air and low hum of the artificial lights casting a Bladerunner like glow gave the impression of a strange tunnel, lined with embryonic alien life. Here and there, out of the plastic where holes had appeared, sprouted little mushrooms. Pink, yellow, and blue winter oyster mushrooms were vivid in the half-light, slowly growing larger until harvesting. Growing this way recreates the exact conditions all year round as if they were growing in the forest. This was very different to the mushroom farm's long stacked beds I spent weekend mornings picking in as a teenager to earn money to buy the latest A-ha album.

A few minutes walk from the mushrooms and we were on the crest of a hill, the highest point of the farm overlooking the sweeping High Weald. Rows of stunted apple trees, Evita, Santana and Red Topaz varieties, lined the field, sounding like a musical revue. Leafless and jagged, it seemed as if a fierce wind had blown through, stripping everything. On this exposed hillside, it probably had.

Chickens, lots of them, run freely and curiously among the slim tree trunks, the grass growing happily under their feet. "You don't see this very often," says Ellie, picking up her daughter, who was starting to get cold and a little hungry, as was I. She tells me the chickens are owned by a neighbouring farmer and share, and therefore fertilise, the land. We walk along to their coop, a long, movable shed where in the porch-like entrance is a window through which a conveyor belt's end pokes through. One egg sits proudly on it.

Behind this, through another door is the main room where the chickens can sleep, lay eggs and hang out, possibly watching telly, or whatever it is chickens do on their days off. Fifteen or so are clucking around happily and when we step out the door we are greeted by a large crowd of them, gathered like fans at the stage door of the Palladium.

We head back toward the main apple shed, past rows of gooseberry bushes, the green and the sweeter purple types. Past cherry trees, blackberry bushes and then the pear trees, of which there are a few varieties such as Wildeman and Concorde. Every tenth pear tree is a pollinator, that is to say, a different variety. They are grafted onto quince roots and you can see the quince trying to fight it's way up through the soil around the base of the trees.

Red and blackcurrant bushes are being pruned and a few cabbages, kale, cavolo nero remain, the end of the season approaching. As spring arrives, so will 'the hungry gap', the space between the hardy winter root vegetables and brassicas growing and the fruit season starting. This is when the farm maintenance and planting happens.

The longer storing varieties of apples, held back for this lull -- some in low oxygen storage -- can be pressed for juice, ensuring a constant year round supply. Vats of cider vinegar are in the background too; the raw, unpasteurised stuff, full of good bacteria and culture, just like my French family. These are sold along with the juices, purées and fruit and veg at the farmers markets and shops the farm supply.

The apple pulp and waste gets fed to the two pigs, which, as it comes out of the pigs, feeds the land on which the apples grow, just like with the chickens eating the plants in the orchard.

It's an inspiring sight to see, and the work and dedication they put into their farm is uplifting in these strange times. I tentatively ask about what 'Brexit' may mean to them, and Ellie tells me they use mainly local pickers in season, and plenty of restaurants and suppliers have already been in touch to see what they can use on a local produce level. So perhaps, if there is anything good to come out of this whole farce, it may be that we become much more connected to the seasons and to shopping locally rather than relying on imports.

Ellie and Stein care about their farm, the land and their products and we as consumers should be grateful for such dedication. We are able to get real food grown with care and respect and not covered with 'Roundup' or picked before being ripe and cold-transported thousands of miles. Perhaps it's time we toned down our sense of entitlement to all year round asparagus and enjoyed things as they appear from the land before us. It certainly leaves a better taste in the mouth.

Brambletye Fruit Farm, East Sussex
London Farmers Markets
Orchard eggs

Raw, unpasteurised cider vinegar, as produced on Brambletye farm has many supposed health benefits, not least I suppose because it's all natural. It's not just something to make a salad dressing or vin d'alho with, either. People have been drinking it for centuries. There are so many varieties, but if you taste proper vinegar you'll never go back. As well as apple, there are many raspberry vinegars, parsnip ones, red and white wine, obviously, Banyuls vinegar, which is like having a glass of port, aged vinegars, young ones, all kinds.

I use the cider vinegar to make 'switchel,' a centuries old drink that deserves a revival. It's refreshing and interesting and you can make it as sweet or sharp as you like. I prefer sharp to add some zing, there are already to many sweet drinks around. For a non-drinker it's something that tastes a little more grown up than the seemingly thoughtless offerings of children's fizzy squash packaged in adult designs and it's not based around sugar.
It's important to also use raw honey here to get the full healthiness.

Make a bottle, keep it in the fridge and swig merrily away, knowing it's all pure.

1tbsp raw honey
Juice and zest of a lime
4tbsp raw cider vinegar
A thumb of ginger, grated
Water to top up (or leave it neat and dilute with sparkling water)

Dissolve the honey in a few tablespoons of hot water then top up with the lime juice, vinegar and grated ginger. Funnel into a 500ml sterilised glass bottle and add fresh, filtered water to the top. Seal and leave to infuse for a day.
Keep in the fridge, serve with ice or just straight in short glasses.

Roasting, fires, dark nights

Beetroot, roasted slowly with coriander stems

I had my first mince pie(s) of the year yesterday. Hallowe'en and bonfire night have gone and now it's open season on the festive fun. So many films to watch, so little time. 

We are most definitely into the cosier meals. The slow roasting and the richer sauces, the gradual disappearance of lettuce and delicately vibrant greens. We had a chilli last weekend, simmering slowly, full of spices and a hint of chocolate. Sunday afternoons are less guiltily filled with chocolate cake or toasted crumpets, the fire crackling and a general air of sloth.

I've been roasting things a lot, too. Red peppers with shallots and garlic, sweetening and softly caramelising in the dish. These beetroot, wrapped in foil, laying on a bunch of slightly past its best coriander stems and remaining leaves were sloshed with olive oil and salt and left for about and hour and a half in a medium-hot oven until tender. The oven trays have their chance to shine with 'sheet-pan' dinners a regular thing.

Perhaps the beetroot will be served warm in wedges with gunpowder spices or a generous dusting of ground cumin and mixed through with the remaining peppers. I may cube them and serve warm with coriander creme fraiche and lemon oil, or maybe cut into large chunks and used in a Sri Lankan beetroot curry while we watch the cricket in Galle on the telly.

It's these things, usually seen as a sideshow which really bring dishes alive so make sure to treat them with care and you'll always have good food. Most of the work is just done by time and heat leaving you free with the Griswolds or Fozziewig's Christmas party.

Let baigans be baigans

Rasedar Baigan (Hindi for saucy aubergine)The more I cook, perhaps the older I get (or is it tireder), the fewer ingredients I want to use in a dish. And the simpler the food I'm making, the more delicious it seems to be.This week it's been a case of taking a vegetable and using that as the starting point for a meal. A little more thinking has had to be applied rather than thoughtlessly going with the usual starchy suspects you reach for on a rapidly darkening Tuesday evening.As if dealing with the sad acceptance that we don't live in an endless Swallows and Amazons summer wasn't enough, now we have to start eating properly again. No more cream teas and cake for the evening meal. Out has gone the pasta, rice and potatoes that form so many daily meals, and in, the sad acceptance that we are no longer inhabiting our 20 year old bodies.But it need not be dull as we slip headlong into turnip season. We are still heavy with aubergines, broccoli, cauliflower, courgettes and sweetcorn among other things. The salads are fading, but my appetite is growing. And as we lose nearly two hours of daylight over September's delicate and gentle colour change, we can start to get bolder and deeper with flavours.This recipe is based on the gloriously named Pushpesh Pant's 'curried aubergine in coconut sauce', which he says is from India's 'coastal region'. So just a small area then. I've added saffron, almond flakes, green chillies and coriander to mine to pep things up a little.Rich and exciting, it's texture is indecently silky, as if Liberty's had opened a dodgy Soho alleyway silk scarf shop. We had it twice this week, the juices mopped up with spiced chickpea flatbreads. I've still got one more aubergine in the fridge from the veg box, so we haven't seen the last of this in our house.Ingredients1 medium-sized aubergine1tsp asafoetida1tsp chilli powder1/2tsp turmeric powder200-240ml coconut milkA sprinkle of flaked almondsA pinch of saffronA small green chilli, sliced thinlyCoriander leaves to garnishSalt and pepper to seasonGroundnut, rapeseed or vegetable oil to fry. And plenty of itMethodMix the spices together in a little dish or ramekin with enough water to make a fairly thick paste.Trim and slice the aubergine into discs roughly 1/2cm thickHeat the oil in a large sauté pan and fry the aubergine in a couple of batches until golden on each side, having seasoned with a generous hand. Set each batch aside on a plate until you have finished.Add the spice paste to the pan and fry for a second or two, stirring well so it breaks up a little. Add the coconut milk and mix well until the spices dissolve into it, giving it a golden amber colour and releasing its aromas.Gently add the aubergines back to the pan and simmer for a few minutes until heated through. Don't cook them for too long or they will collapse.Sprinkle with the green chilli, nuts, saffron and coriander, give a good twist of pepper and serve hot.

Rhubarbade - ying and tang

We found ourselves in the garden centre again the other day. A weekday and all. We passed through aisles of green and shelves trailing leaves and branches like lazy octopi.I bought a tarragon plant and a gooseberry bush, spurred on by the constant disappointment on the supermarkets shelves. I'll leave the tarragon a while to get established, unlike the parsley which I have had to plant a few extra pots of. We seem to use a lot in this house and the poor little things can't keep up.As for the gooseberries, those furry little fruits that seemed to be a permanent fixture of my late childhood summers, I shall, with hope and care, now have my own supply. And each year, when the season dawns, I'll be able to have the simple joy of having grown my own sour little bombs of flavour. They are so good turned into a sauce with mackerel.It dawned on me, as I eyed the cakes and considered a nice sit down and a cup of tea, that perhaps I'm not freelance, I'm retired. It'll be a tartan shopping trolley in the supermarket, grey slip-ons and annoying everyone by travelling to leisure activities at peak time on the commuter trains next.Or not. Life, after all, is about balance. And the joys of the garden, especially this time of year, when every day brings a surprising new burst of colour somewhere, have given me a new pastime. One that appeals to my inate talent of 'pottering' about. A place of calm in the morning before a busy day, or a place of contemplation and unwinding after one, as you walk around with a drink in one hand and the hose in the other. However, I can see the amount of greenfly attacking the rosebuds may lead to swearing in a quiet corner, out of earshot of the children.And talking of Ying and yang, there is the heavenly balance when startlingly sour meets incredibly sweet: a sweet spot. Just the hint of something on the edge of tartness, almost mouth puckering but not quite. Rhubarb is the king of this. Perhaps it's just me, but that feeling of being just on the edge, when chillies in a curry are almost unbearable, when bitterness is almost too much in a sour cherry tangfastic, when lemon juice or vinegar just hits the acidic edge in a vinaigrette is where the flavour is at its best. It's almost thrilling to be there.But this is only a drink, so we'll stop with all that. There comes a point in life when you have bought too much rhubarb and you have to hold back. And you can't -- although Noah would vehemently oppose this heretical idea -- have crumble every day. So to use the remaining spears, I've made this rhubarbade. It's delicious and makes a refreshing change from the lime and mint  I love, or the cider vinegar and honey tonic I make. This vivid pink rhubarb at the height of its season is a real highlight of the year so get it while you can, and get it into as much as you can.Ingredients500g rhubarb500ml water50g maple syrup50g grated ginger (this helps bring out the flavour of the rhubarb, not that it needs help)1tsp citric acidJuice of a lemonMethodBring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan and reduce to a simmer for about ten minutes. Leave to cool completely then strain into a bottle and chill.Dilute with sparkling water to serve, adding a sprig or two of mint if you like.

Lamb Shanks with Spaghetti Squash

Last night the oven caught fire. I'd only popped out for a while and left Bee a lasagne to heat for supper. We've had it for about 13 years, and it has seen two replacement heating elements and a couple of glass doors which shattered for no obvious reason. It also has always sounded like a derailing freight-train since we bought it, so perhaps it's time for a new one.The central heating part of the boiler, which now is being called into service after it's summer holiday has decided it also has had enough. Even that has had so many parts replaced I'm not sure if it's the same boiler we started with.And finally, to complete the trinity, the brakes on Bee's car failed as well. It's been a good week for the repair industry.Back in the kitchen, all is not lost without an oven. I'm baking bread in my neighbour, Russel's one, which has its own peculiarities. It's rather like the peasant taking his loaf to the village bakery to be cooked. I can't, however, impose full roasting usage upon him every evening.  So it's pots and pan cookery for the immediate future.Fortunately, the season is perfect for slow cooking. A strong, heavy deep pot, preferably cast iron and with a lid is a kitchen essential. You can make meals with just one burner and fill up on hearty and healthy food.I'm buy our meat from Heal Farm in Devon and the quality is amazing. Knowing where it comes from and being able to speak directly to the farmers is a privilege. It's not much more expensive than the supermarkets and the little extra it costs is, in my opinion a price worth paying for the quality and care.These lamb shanks were so rich and flavoursome. A proper autumn meal, and very easy to cook using one pan. Fortunately, I roast the squash earlier in the day so it only required a quick warming through. You, with your fancy, functioning oven should be fine to cook it as normal. If you can't find spaghetti squash, swap it for pumpkin or sweet potato mash with thyme and almonds.This is a rich and meaty meal. A proper dish if you've just been out hewing logs or something. And one that, after a few minutes preparation, pretty much cooks itself. It's also perfect for the slow cooker if you have one. Eight hours on low should do it.Ingredients for two2 lamb shanksOlive oil1 tin of chopped tomatoes1 bulb of garlic, halved equatorially1 large red chilliA pinch of cumin seedsOne spaghetti squashA pinch of fresh thymeA small handful of toasted almond flakesSalt and pepper to seasonMethodSeason the lamb shanks with salt and pepper then brown them all over in a little oil in a very hot pan.Deglaze the pan with about a mug-full of water and add the lamb and liquid to a heavy, lidded casserole dish.Add all the remaining ingredients and cook for about two and a half hours on a low flame. It's even better if you cook this the day before you need it. It tastes just a little more rounded after a good rest.For the spaghetti squash, roast it for one hour in the oven at about 180c. Leave it to cool a little, so it doesn't steam your face off when you cut into it. Scoop out all the flesh. Sprinkle over some thyme and almond flakes and a little seasoning and serve with the lamb and sauce.