Nature 2010 October

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl

Perhaps one of the scarcer trees we encounter along the hedgerow or in oak woodland is the crab apple. This autumn we appear to have a bumper crop of fruit locally, with apples ranging in colour from yellow through orange to crimson and brightest pink. The name, ‘crab’ is said to be derived either from the Norse word skrab, which means ‘scrubby’ or from the Viking word scogs, meaning ‘fruit’. Because of their white blossom they were distinctive long-living features in the landscape. In Anglo-Saxon charters they are found frequently recorded as boundary and way marks.

As apples need to be cross-pollinated, crab apples may also be found as the pollinator amongst more recent varieties in old orchards. Through cultivation, this tree is the precursor of many of the 6,000 or so varieties of ‘eaters’ and ‘cookers’, of which but a fraction survive for us to enjoy today. With their distinctive tart flavour, crab apples also make excellent pickle, jelly and jam; or in an Elizabethan dish they can be roasted with meat until they sizzle. Historically, a most valued wine (or more correctly cider) called verjuice was fermented from the apple. Verjuice is from the Medieval French – verjus – referring to the green colour of both grape wine and raw cider and is still referred to in modern-day recipes. Medicinally, it has apparently long been used to treat scalds and sprains.

Some readers may be familiar with the writings of Richard Mabey: a naturalist and author who used to live nearby in Hertfordshire. He relates the story of walking on Cholesbury and Hawridge Commons and noticing the number of apple wildings which had sprung up. Wildings result from those discarded apple cores. As nearly all apples are combinations of rootstock and cultivars, the resultant fruit may be a throwback to an early known variety more like a crab apple or maybe an unknown and tasty find. There is one apple variety, first found in 1883 and unique to this area, known as the Bazely Apple – thought to be a corruption of By- or Best-of-Lee, which can still be found in one or two gardens locally.

In October, over the past 21 years, there has been a celebration of our heritage of English apple varieties. This year ‘Apple Day’ is on 21 October and a number of pubs in the Chesham area are participating in the celebration, including our own Rose and Crown, by putting on real cider and apple dishes and raising a glass to celebrate the apple!

Swifts are one of only a very few birds that never purposely alight on the ground. By now the swifts are on their migration to tropical Africa. On this journey they sleep and feed on the wing, collecting flying insects in cheek pouches. Temperatures above the Sahara overnight fall to well below zero. Whilst larger migrating birds such as geese can tuck their legs into their down-filled rumps, swifts are built for speed and agility so there is no facility to insulate their legs. Instead, unlike their cousins the swallows and martins, swifts have uniquely evolved legs with their own downy feathers for protecting their legs from the cold.

After a wretched winter, and what some would say an indifferent summer, we are experiencing a few warm sunny, if showery, late summer and early autumn days. Not ideal for most insects, but one of the more prominent late summer visitors to the garden, the dragonfly, does well in such humid conditions: and does a great job for the gardener hunting down pests.

From our back garden over the last three months there has been a near daily plaintive outcry of a juvenile buzzard mewing and competing with a couple of guffawing adolescent great-spotted woodpeckers. At first the youngster was atop a tall tree and the parents were spiralling above, encouraging their reluctant ward to fledge. More recently the parents have not been seen so frequently and are probably travelling further afield. Buzzards favour wooded valleys and in the Chilterns their numbers have been steadily increasing over the last 30 years.

Aside from the odd crab apple there are several other autumn fruits on show. The elderberries are almost ripe as I write and each day the wood pigeons that keep noisy company with us dive bomb nearby bushes to quality-check the produce. In medieval times elder was believed to have magical powers. Grown near the house it acts as a deterrent to vermin, the devil and warts. The superstition continued well into the nineteenth century as it was also used to make horse whips to scare off evil spirits. Elder was commonly used in hedgerows as it was seen as a cheap and quick growing stock barrier.

There is a heavy crop of ripened haw fruit already weighing down the slender hawthorn boughs. This bounty of fruit is a consequence of last winter’s extreme harshness. In turn this will support the anticipated large flocks of redwings and fieldfares we should see this winter.

I read the other day that the latest threat to our bumble bees comes from inbreeding due to the risk from population isolation, which makes them increasingly susceptible to disease and pests such as the parasitic mite. There are several bumble bee species that particularly populate upland parts of Britain such as the Chiltern Hills. I don’t suggest they are particularly in peril but we can do our little bit to encourage them. Rather than throw out those old bean bamboo canes, cut them into six inch lengths, bundle together with some old twine, and lay on some old bricks to provide a winter refuge – much cheaper than those sold in garden centres! Instead, use the money saved to buy some lavender bushes, hollyhocks and foxgloves to encourage more bees to your garden.

I have several books on mushrooms and other fungi, and I studiously trailed around with Clive Carey pointing out which are safe to eat and which to avoid on his annual fungal forays across the Commons. Despite this and the bumper crop of fungi, I do not feel confident to try any out with bacon and egg yet. However, it’s still fun to play I-spy and see how many different colours and interesting shapes and distinctive odours there are around this autumn.

The quote in the title above is from Love’s Labour’s Lost by the Bard.