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Saturday, 24 September 2011

A crab apple challenge

I suppose in any family we will have our favourite. Well, it is certainly true in the Malus family. There is no doubt that the apple is by far the most popular fruit in this group, and why not when it is so versatile and will sit so happily in your fruit bowl all week without going off, ready to be snatched up for a convenient snack. The pear is probably the next most popular Malus but there is a big gap between the first and second places in this popularity contest. The pear is an awkward fruit, even in its shape, and can go from too hard to too squidgy in the blink of an eye. And then there is the quince... Quince... who on earth eats quinces? And finally the crab apple. Well, there are lots of those in the world. Sure, they look pretty for a short while on the tree before they start dropping in abundance, just to be squished under foot. Such a shame to see all this fruit dropping onto the path, making a mess, but what can be done with them. It's not as if they are nice to eat and even if I went to trouble of making crab apple jelly, it is so out of fashion no one would what to buy it.

But then my friend Jane handed me half a bin bag full of crab apples from her neighbour's back garden. Hmmm... what to do with them?

One of the great things about crab apples is that they are so small and fiddly that you don't even think about peeling and coring them. So where doing anything with apples is a bit tedious because you first have to peel and core every fruit, with crab apples you just bung them straight into the pan and start boiling them up. They don't take long to cook either as they are small and within a few minutes they are soft and pulpy and ready to be strained through a jelly bag. Job done, sit down, cup of tea... walk the dog... cook dinner... have a bath... go to bed... In fact, it needs at least 8 hours to finish dripping through the jelly bag.

But what then? Really, no one is going to want to buy 20 lbs of crab apple jelly!

Well, it took a week to work my way through the whole bag and I did make one batch of crab apple jelly. Towards the end I added a couple of spoonfuls of rose water just to add a bit of a twist to the flavour and when my daughter tasted it she said it tasted like lemon meringue pie. But I also made chilli jam, Jamdelade (sweet orange jam) and blackberry jelly from the crab apples. I also froze several pints worth of the liquid to use in any recipe that uses a low pectin fruit so expect crab apple pectin in the pear jams I shall be making next.

So in the end I was pleased with my supply of crab apples and of the creative challenge they presented. Next year they shall be an essential ingredient that I actively seek.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Food waste

There is a lot of food waste going on at the moment and a lot of talk about it too. Everyday when I cycle the school run I ride past fruit and nuts falling off trees. Firstly it was cherries, then apples and now hazelnuts, elderberries, blackberries and crab apples. If I wasn't quite so over-run with my own supplies of fruit and vegetables I would see about picking this lot. I'm just surprised that nobody else does.

I pondered the reason that hedgerows don't get stripped of their crops these days and I imaged it was mainly due to our familiarity with buying our fruit and vegetables conveniently washed and packaged in supermarkets. But then a couple of things made me wonder if there was more to it than that.

Firstly, whilst flicking through an old-fashioned preserving book I came across recipes using both rowan berries and hawes from hawthorns. I had to admit that I hadn't previously know they were edible, instead stirring clear of these red berries. And then, earlier this week, my daughter found a small, lemon-shaped fruit on a tree in a park and brought it to me for identification. I would guess that this fruit is a mirabelle - a member of the prunus family and related to plums, gages, cherries and apricots. It can be made into a lovely fragrant jam but I wasn't sure that my identification was correct so I left them be. So it was then that I wondered whether it is because we are taught as children to regard all hedgerow fruit and berries with suspicion and not to eat them that we are reluctant to harvest anything from them in case we get it wrong. We just don't seem to have a strong foraging culture anymore so we are not taught what we can and can't safely pick. Instead, we leave well alone and buy our clearly identifiable and well-labelled produce in the supermarkets.

So that is one form of food waste but of course there are huge issues with food waste all over the place in this country and I was heartened to hear this week that the government are considering simplifying food labeling to help reduce the amount of edible food being thrown away (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14925046). The plan is to remove "sell by" and "display until" dates from the food. These labels are there to help shops with their stock rotation but should be meaningless to the customer. Instead, the customer often throws out food which has gone past these dates, despite the food still being OK to eat. I agree that scrapping these labels would be a good thing.

It is also the case, of course, that food is also thrown out when it goes beyond its "best before" date. Best before dates are put there as an indication that the food may not taste so good after this date. Foods with best before dates are not dangerous foods and any deterioration in the food will be one of spoilage rather than of any health issues. Really, the consumer needs to use their judgement to decide if the food is still pleasant to eat and only throw it away if it has "gone off".

"Use by" dates are a different matter and need to be taken seriously. These are put on foods that could potentially cause food poisoning. It is advisable to throw away food that has gone past its use by date.

Currently, the situation is rather confusing and its hardly surprising that people choose to err on the side of caution but hopefully new food labelling can go some way to resolving these issues. Of course, food poisoning is no joke and both off food and inedible berries can kill people but I feel that somewhere along the way we lost our collective common sense and the necessary skills to be identify safe and poisonous food correctly.