Taking it sloe

Last week I mentioned that I’d heard news of a sloe disaster. A sloe emergency, if you will. Shrivelling sloes. In September! This is baaaaad news. Usually I am late with my sloe picking, and that’s at the end of October. But to have them going over at the start of September? Well, that’s just nature turned on its head. Autumn is weeks early this year.

So to the shire for a morning of seasonal hunter gathering. First up, apples and pears. There’s only one place to go, Clives Fruit Farm. I love Clives. This is a farm shop in the old fashioned sense, with huge bins of fruit, chooks running around, and a few old men sporting overalls and boots that have possibly been in use since the 1940s.

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Don’t chase the chickens

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A few bins of their own fruit

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I leave with plums, bramleys, some other apples that I’ve never heard of, cider, bacon, pork, beef…it’s all good.

Next up: sloes.

Over the years I have had to learn the art of protecting oneself against the wickedness that is the blackthorn tree. This is one spiky bugger. There are three essential bits of kit: wellies, leather hat, leather gloves. Of these, the most important is the wellies – not for protection against mud, but against brambles that come up to the knees. Long sleeves are a given. You might look like an idiot, but better that than a scored arm. Though actually I love dressing up in my yokel country clothes.

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Essential sloe gathering kit

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This is why the kit is needed

The berries are abundant this year and I’ve come home with a trugful of fat, round sloes with a special bonus picking of blackberries. To be in amongst the brambles and grasses, with the sweet scent of autumn in the air…this is the essence of living.

Only a fool discloses their special place for foraging so suffice to say that I was near a hill, could hear the sheep having a chat amongst themselves and also the geese who appeared to be losing their minds at the dogs on walkies.

I was right to go out now – some of these sloes are already going over. The effects of an early spring, hot summer, dry early autumn combine, and in a week’s time they will be gone.

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Some are already rotting on the bough

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Thistles turning into cotton candy

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Bonus pickings

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Old man’s beard

I’m not a particularly patient picker and usually give up far earlier than perhaps I should. But today was a good picking. Next up: sloe gin.

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The trug full

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The day’s haul

An autumn loaf

Gertie has changed from a tiny ball of fluff into a slightly bigger ball of badness. Today she discovered the dustpan and brush, which as it turns out is the perfect size for a mid-morning kitten nap. Who knew?

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Last week I did one of those soul-destroying visits to Morrisons, the kind that make you grateful that you don’t go every week (one major bonus of having an allotment). It is quite incredible that some of the finest brains in retail have produced a shopping experience that is so uniquely energy sapping. Yet in their defence, on that visit they came up trumps: fresh yeast, hidden next to the butter, at the bargain price of 50p for 200g. That’s about enough for, what, 10 loaves? Best get baking.

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Fresh yeast

Fresh yeast is by FAR the best stuff for bread. The dried stuff is all very clean and efficient but always ends up tasting, well, yeasty. Fresh yeast is a different beast altogether, with a complex depth of flavour. It’s also easy as pie to use. None of that messing around with sugar and water and waiting for it to froth…just crumble it in the flour and you’re good to go.

It’s autumn so I thought I’d make a cider loaf (autumn…orchards…apples) but no cider in the house. What we do have is apple juice and lots of it, from Clives Fruit Farm in the Shire (Upton on Severn), squeezed from their own apples. This is a single variety Cox juice. Cider, apple juice, it’s all pretty much the same. I’d go for one that is dry-ish.

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Single variety apple juice from Clives, Upton on Severn

Cider wholemeal loaf:

250g strong wholemeal flour

250g strong white flour

10g fine sea salt

150ml milk

250ml dry cider or apple juice

25g fresh yeast

This is a recipe I’ve adapted from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries (he uses spelt flour and honey).

Put the salt at the bottom of a large bowl and add your flour on top – combine to mix. By doing this there is no chance of your salt killing the yeast. Next rub the yeast into the flour, just as if making a crumble.

Warm up the milk until when you put your finger in it, it feels neither warm nor cold, just wet. Good bit of advice that. Slosh it in, and then add the cider/juice. I do it in this order as if you mix the liquids in the jug the cider makes the milk separate into a claggy mess.

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Slosh it all in

Mix together with a scraper and then tip out onto your work surface and knead. I use the Bertinet technique (google: Richard Bertinet) which I won’t repeat here, only to say that it will make you a good baker of bread. After a few minutes you will go from having a wet mass of stodge into a springy bouncy ball of dough. Shape it into a round and place it back in your mixing bowl.

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Place a cloth on the bowl and leave for about an hour or until roughly doubled in size. The milk and cider means that it may take longer to rise. That’s OK, just be patient.

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I like this bread shaped into a round, so I use a proving basket for the second rise. Turn out your dough onto a lightly floured work surface, shape it, and then place presentation-side-up down in the basket. Dough has to be properly shaped with a ‘backbone’ to give it the structure it needs to rise properly. Just google Bertinet, he’ll tell you everything you need to know.

Leave again, this time for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven as high as it will go – 220c or higher – and place a baking sheet in there to warm up.

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After the second rise


To bake, have ready some baking parchment on top of a lightweight flat board, pizza peel or suchlike. Turn out the dough onto the paper and slash the top (I use a razor blade). A lot of bakers don’t use paper but it’s so much easier to manage if you do. Then slide the loaf and paper onto your heated baking sheet, directly into the oven. Bake for 10 minutes or so at the highest temperature, then turn down to 190c and finish the bake. This one took 40 minutes in total.

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The finished article

I think this loaf is actually a little over-proved, which you can tell from the way the slashes have (or haven’t) opened. No matter, it still tastes good. It’s isn’t apply, just…earthy. This loaf will keep for a good couple of days and is fine for toast after.

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Autumn cider loaf