Monday, 30 November 2009

'Ravilious in Pictures' vol 1 - Out Tomorrow!

No it isn't like having a baby, but seeing a book in print for the first time is rather thrilling. I took this on our kitchen table in what I thought was a bright beam of autumn sunshine. About half a watt, it turns out. There are more pictures on the Facebook page, and an order form here.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Totterdown Press: Cider in the City

Now in its third year, the Totterdown Press makes a fine, dry cider from a secret blend of bittersharp and bittersweet cider apples gathered from orchards in Somerset and Gloucester- shire.

This year we ran into competition from Orchard Pig, which has been supporting Somerset growers by trading orchard maintenance (planting and pruning) for fruit. At least the apples have gone to a good cause.
Anyway, we still collected enough to press about thirty gallons of juice using a Fruit Shark scratter and small-ish press. A certain amount of rainwater may have found its way into the mix, but I'm sure that's all to the good. No rodents in there yet, but there's still time...

We pressed during Front Room, the annual Totterdown art trail. Fun to chat with passers-by, though we should have remembered that the weather is always terrible that weekend.

Now we wait... This year's cider should be reaching its peak in time for the launch of The Naked Guide to Cider. But that's another story

Friday, 20 November 2009

River Cottage Perry - A Second Glass

I went by the Days Cottage stall at Bristol farmers' market on Wednesday to find that they were selling some youthful perry - the very perry, as far as I can make out, that Hugh F-W suffered pain and injury producing.

Helen was keen to point out that Days Cottage workers are not routinely bombarded with pears. For some reason the TV people thought the nation's viewers would enjoy watching the star of the show being battered in this way, but in real life people are kept well out of the way of falling fruit.

But what about the perry? Well, it's young, green, a bit sweeter than I normally like, but with an exuberant something - not a fizz, exactly, but a kind of spring in the step. It'll be interesting to see how it develops.

I had a message from Nick Mann of Habitat Aid - a specialist nursery that promotes biodiversity - about Scotts Nursery in Merriott, near Crewkerne. Since at least 1850 Scotts has sold a fantastically diverse range of fruit trees, but the recent death of manager John Scott Wallis forced the celebrated nursery to close. Nick Mann writes:

One consequence of this tragic tale is that all their stock is now being auctioned off, with potentially catastrophic results for a number of rare traditional varieties which Scotts alone sold... Ian Roger of R.V. Roger, one of our key suppliers, has very kindly agreed to help to persuade the auctioneers to identify, re-categorize, and hopefully sell us some of the rarer trees. Let me know if you would like to be involved.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Win new Eric Ravilious book!

Think you know the paintings of Eric Ravilious? Well, if you want to test your knowledge and perhaps win a signed copy of Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs, follow this link and see how you fare in Tim Mainstone's Ravilious challenge.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Dave's Perry and Severn Cider

I enjoyed watching Hugh F-W playing Gloucestershire Roulette under a perry pear tree last night. Just so you know, those pears are hard and they hurt, especially if they happen to fall twenty feet.

Earlier I was visiting Nick and Tom Bull at Severn Cider in Awre, across the river from Days Cottage. In case you were wondering, Awre is pronounced 'Arrr'.

They make a proper drop over there - strong and fairly dry, with a good clean flavour. The sparkling cider is particularly good. I've been a fan for a while, so it was a treat to meet the makers, who were busy pressing apples for this year's cider. Big bags of Kingston Black and crates of Dabinett promised great things, and there are some unusual apples in the mix too - the venerable Hagloe Crab and rare Box Kernel.

Their perry is excellent too and they've just started doing a new bottle-conditioned product. The region between the Severn and the Forest of Dean is legendary perry pear country, and the Blakeney Red, named after the neighbouring town, is their staple ingredient. Brown Bess, Huffcap and Malvern Hills add character. Nick pointed out that the latter is also known as Moorcroft and Stinking Bishop - which is where Charles Martell's famous cheese gets its name.

I've already mentioned Days Cottage and Oliver's. There's an incomplete (and slightly out of date) list of perry producers here, with Orchard's, Gregg's Pit and Gwatkins among the best. Gwatkins was featured on Oz Clarke and James May's TV show.

Tom Bull took me for a swift half at the Railway Inn at Newnham-on-Severn - a place of pilgrimage for cider and perry fans. And a lovely pub it is too. Meanwhile, it seems Severn Cider has a bit of a fan club (thanks to the National Association of Cider Makers for the pic)...

Monday, 9 November 2009

"An Education": David's Bristol Car

Watching An Education at the Watershed last night reminded me of an unusual day out I had a couple of years ago. I'd been commissioned to write something about Bristol Cars, the Filton-based company run by the secretive Tony Crook. Geoffrey Herdman, who was then chairman of the Bristol Owners Club, offered me a spin in his car, which dated from 1956 or thereabouts.

So I drove in my lowly Astra to Frome, where the car in question was being serviced by vintage car expert Charles Russell. He downed tools to take me for a spin, which is about the closest I've had to a Top Gear moment since I was eight and rode in a Rolls Royce for the first and only time in my life.
Cars and driving are not subjects I spend a lot of time thinking about, but this was something different. This Bristol 405 Drophead Coupe was one of only 43 made, and the bodywork showed the telltale swirls and ripples of aluminium that has been hammered into shape by hand. Everything about the car - from the shape of the bonnet to the door handles - was distinctive. The engine sounded like a squadron of Lancasters.

The skills and knowledge that went into the creation of this car are now almost extinct. Making a car by hand was a quaint idea even in the 1950s, and now people like Charles Russell are as rare as old-fashioned wheelwrights. Perhaps it's time to add car making and other kinds of engineering to our vision of England in Particular.
I wonder what prompted the film-makers to give David the suave seducer a Bristol. Perhaps they were aware that this was Peter Sellers' favourite marque. In 1963, with his addiction to expensive cars already legendary, Sellers persuaded the company to make an abandoned prototype 407 convertible roadworthy for him – a one-off, in effect – and it became famous as Britt Eklund’s car of choice.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Ravilious in Pictures vol 1: order now!

Hot off the press: information and order form for Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs, which will be available at the end of the month. Click on the images to make them legible; you can download an order form or contact The Mainstone Press direct.

By coincidence Ravilious was the subject of The Essay on Radio 3 last night. Robert McFarlane has recorded five short pieces about a walk along the South Downs, and episode four was a haunting and rather beautiful evocation of the artist's life. I'm not sure Ravilious was quite the mystical figure McFarlane conjures - he was more interested in the visible than in metaphysical phenomena like ley lines - but definitely worth a listen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Days Cottage on River Cottage: Perry for Beginners

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage crew descended on the Gloucestershire orchard of Days Cottage last month to film a segment on the fine art of making perry. It should be in the first episode of the new series, showing on 12 November.

The perry pear is a strange and wonderful thing. By tradition a tree will only prosper if planted within sight of May Hill, but a healthy tree can grow as tall as an oak, live three hundred years and produce a ton of fruit or more annually - the tree in the top picture is a perry pear. The one below, at Holme Lacy, was described in 1790 as covering three-quarters of an acre and producing 5-7 tons of fruit per year. The Blakeney Red is the best-known variety; curiously it was once used to dye military uniforms khaki...

The fruit is not for eating. Each small brown pear is a stone one day, a bag of mush the next. This is one tree you don't want to walk under in late October, when the grass underfoot is slick with pear mush and missiles are constantly dropping from above.
Perry is made in much the same way as cider, in that the fruit is first milled or 'scratted' to break it into small pieces, then pressed to get the juice out. A few months' fermentation in a barrel does the rest. A good perry is a fine drink, dry and light, and better than many wines. So good is it that the Slow Food Foundation has recognised Three Counties Perry (made in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire) as the UK"s foremost artisan drink.

Try the perry made by Days Cottage (available at Bristol or Stroud farmers' markets) or Olivers.
Dave Kaspar of Days Cottage
Find out more about the county's orchards and local varieties from the Gloucestershire Orchard Group, which conserves, promotes and celebrates traditional orchards in Gloucestershire.

And if you want to know more about orchards and their history, then have a look at this.

Monday, 2 November 2009

How to Build a Bee Condo

One day last summer I noticed something strange. In one corner of our tiny urban garden there's an old brick wall - an ugly old wall that probably needs fixing. In fact the mortar has gone in some places, and in one particular spot I saw a bee crawling into a hole. It looked like a honey bee but it was carrying a piece of leaf, a neatly cut piece shaped like a shield; dragging this leaf-shield it disappeared into the hole in the wall.

Not wanting to cause a panic I kept quiet about this. One bee wasn't going to hurt anyone, I reasoned. Besides, the willow hedge on the other side of the garden was infested with wasps, which fed off the sticky sweet stuff produced by a colony of aphids. The wasps left us alone, and so did the bees.

I forgot about them after that until, a couple of weeks ago, I met someone from the Global Bee Project at the farmer's market in town. They campaign on behalf of the thousands of species of wild bee that are declining along with many other insects, and they have a pleasingly simple approach. The needs of bees, as with other wild things, are not many.

Bees need food, which comes from flowers.

Bees need shelter, usually a hole in the wall or in the branch of a tree, or in the ground.

Bees need not to be poisoned. Insecticides aren't very good for bees.

The project's website offers tips on what to plant and also gives instructions on how to build a bee condo. Unfortunately our modern love of neatness means that insects and birds lack places to hide away or nest, but instead we can put up nesting boxes for blue tits and bee condos for bees. Have a look. They're pretty nifty.

My mystery bee, incidentally, was a leafcutter. Info and pics here.