Sunday, 14 October 2018

Apples, Blackberries and Sloes

Today’s autumn sunshine highlighted the red hawthorn berries and rose hips in the hedgerows down the lane. The blackberries were long gone but there is a good crop of navy-blue sloes. You are supposed to pick them after the first frost, which usually happens around the end of October. This year we had the first frost last month. And the sloes look ready to pick now. It is also worthy of note that the humble sloe is the origin of all plums, for these were all bred from this source.

It has been a very variable year of weather, with many cold and stormy periods but redeemed by a long, hot summer. This very variability is what makes the character of this place. You do not usually know, from one day to the next, what the weather will be like. We have to adapt to these changes. I realised this when living in California and in Queensland for a while. There the weather is very stable. Strangely enough, you can get fed up of blue skies every day. It does take a few months. But you are then longing for some winds of change and even for rainclouds to appear.

We picked blackberries from the hedges early and put them in the freezer; the crop was not as good as the previous year. Like the blackberries, our apple crop was also ready several weeks earlier than usual. We had a good crop this year of about six hundred apples from our single tree. This is roughly double what we would get in a normal year, but far short of the record which was over a thousand. The branches were heavily laden and T and I harvested them about a month ago. We laid the apples out on newspapers in the front room. There were so many it was difficult to walk around them. They gave the house a lovely harvest aroma.

I don’t know the variety of the apple, as the tree was planted by a previous owner of the house. They are crisp and juicy but they don’t keep well. We have given away plenty of bagfuls to friends and neighbours. I suppose we might have eaten about a third of them. Latterly they have become somewhat faded and wrinkly so we have been cooking them into apple pies and latterly apple and blackberry crumble (see pic). We only have about fifty apples left.

I make sloe gin each year. I can usually harvest enough sloes from the hedges in and around our garden. The picking of the new crop of sloes is the sign to decant last year’s crop. A year ago I’d filled several large bottles with sloes, sugar and gin and left them to mature, shaking them from time to time. They have been sitting in the hot press since then. I strain the sloe gin through muslin and funnel it into screw-cap wine bottles. Then I reuse the old bottles for the new crop of sloes. Sloe gin is a lovely liqueur. It tastes very akin to tawny port and ages well. It also gives a great flavour to trifle. The new sloe gin is normally ready by Xmas, but I prefer to mature it until autumn comes round again.




Monday, 1 October 2018

Squirrel

We have acquired a cat. Perhaps, I should say, he has acquired us. He is small and ginger and seems to be about a year old. He has identical markings to our previous cat, Cyril, who disappeared just over a year ago. So we have dubbed him Son of Cyril, in short, Squirrel. Over a relatively short time, he has become a fixture in our lives.

We first saw Squirrel around five months ago. We were walking Rex down the lane when he startled a ginger cat in the hedge. The cat climbed up an ash sapling and glared down at us. Then we noticed there was another ginger cat staring at us from a different branch of the same tree. It was an uncanny sight. The cats were identical. They must have been twins. After that we saw a single ginger cat occasionally in the lane. We never saw the ginger twins again; one of them must have moved on.

After Rex died, Squirrel began to come into the garden. One day we noticed him in the back yard. I opened the back door to give him some food but like all the feral cats around here, he ran away at the sight of a human. We left out the food and milk and they disappeared, so he must have returned to eat and drink. We continued doing this and the food and milk continued to be taken.

A few weeks later, I went out with the food and milk and saw that Squirrel was sitting on the back wall. He turned to leave but he didn’t spring way into the shrubbery and hide. I put the food and milk down on the patio. He glanced at them and watched as I went back into the house. Shortly after I had closed the back door, he jumped down and consumed his dinner. After he finished, he sprang back up onto the wall and groomed himself.

As he gained more confidence, Squirrel would jump down from the wall onto the patio as soon as I opened the back door. But he would come no closer than ten feet. He stared inscrutably at me as I put down his food and milk. And would only come and take it when I had retreated a safe distance. One day shortly after that he cried out as I put down the food and milk. It was a feeble and rather squeaky miaow but it was communication.

Over the next few weeks, the safe distance reduced and we were eventually allowed to stand only a step away when he was eating and drinking. One dramatic day, I bent down and stroked him as he was eating. Amazingly, he didn’t stop and run, he kept on eating and even began to purr a little. I turned to T and she smiled back. It was a delicious experience to have gained the trust of a feral animal.

After that Squirrel began to stay in the back yard most of the day. At first he slept on the wall, but then he found an old flowerpot on the patio and curled up on top of it. We called it his tuffet. Quite quickly, he began to enjoy being stroked and would break off from eating to push his back up into your hand as you were stroking him. Shortly after that I picked him up and stroked him. He purred, but did jump down fairly soon.

Not long after that, he began to roll around on his back after eating. He would roll from one side to the other with all four paws in the air. We called it his ‘cat yoga’. He was inviting us to stroke his belly; which, of course, we did. Squirrel got to enjoy this so much that he would take a swipe at you with his forepaw if you stopped stroking before he was ready.

We were astonished at how far we had progressed with him. We reckoned he must have had human contact earlier in his life. None of the local feral cats would allow any human to get within ten feet of them. Squirrel and his sibling were probably raised with a family and then abandoned at an early age. They had learned to fend for themselves the hard way.

Squirrel is very wary of coming inside the house and likes the freedom of the outdoors. But he is small and is regularly beaten up at night by the bigger local feral cats. Each morning he waits, miaowing, to be given his breakfast and we notice new scars on his ear and face. But this hasn’t driven him away. He is staunchly protecting his territory – our back yard.