I came, I saw, I conkered

conkers from horse chestnut tree

Around the perimeter of our garden stand some huge horse chestnut trees that were probably planted a hundred years ago. From the kitchen table, we watch each year as the first green buds appear and the tree bursts into leaf and then the candle like spikes of blossom appear. Ignoring the lower branches where the leaves turn brown because the caterpillars of leaf-mining moth attack them, the trees in summer are a majestic sight providing shade and effectively screening that which lies behind.

Now that autumn is just around the corner, everything starts to drop from the horse chestnut trees. In the middle of the night, when all is quiet, conkers drop noisily onto the tin roof of the garage and bounce down. Walk under horse chestnut trees at this time of year and you’ll hear the thud as the conkers hit the grass. Just watch out that you don’t get hit on the head by a spiny cased conker plummeting downwards. Under the trees, conkers and their cases lie amongst the fallen leaves. Some cases fly open as they hit the ground, sending case and conker in opposite directions while others sit in the grass, slowly splitting to reveal the glossy mahogany coloured conker or sometimes two conkers inside.

Conkers can’t be eaten, they lose their shine almost overnight if you bring them inside and appear to have little practical use other than that for which they’re designed ie growing more horse chestnut trees. Some people swear that conkers placed strategically around a room prevent spiders or that a handful in your clothes will deter moths, but I’m not sure there’s any scientific evidence to back up these claims.

It seems that the only thing to do with conkers is to admire them where they fall or gather up a few and spend the evenings dangling a conker on the end of a piece of string while someone else tries to bash the hell out of it. I had hoped to show you my “conquering conker” (a 2-er because it had beaten two others) but Bill smashed it to smithereens last night. Never fear, I have another one ready to string up for tonight’s return match.

We country folk have simple pleasures.

You can find a detailed explanation of playing conkers here

the edible hedge in September

autumn fruits

In September, the edible hedge and all the other hedges around the fields are filled with berries and fruits. It is certainly one of the best months of all for foraging. The blackberries are in their prime just now, the rosehips and hawthorn berries are ripe, wild pears and crab apples are ready to use and the sloes are almost soft enough to pick.

edible hedge jelly print

Even the foliage can be used for jelly printing.


Mostly though, I’ve been picking blackberries. They’ll only be usable for another couple of weeks so I’m making the most of them. We’ve finished picking blackberries for Slamseys Gin, so now I can just wander along the hedgerow with a couple of containers, picking as I please. We eat them fresh and unadorned by the handful, mix them with autumn fruiting raspberries or throw them in a saucepan with a sprinkling of sugar and heat them long enough for the juices to run but not so long that they cook and fall apart. A dash of Blackberry Gin is added sometimes or a little cream. We’ve feasted on Blackberry Ice Cream, Blackberry Fool, cocktails with Blackberry Gin, a Blackberry Slice (from The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook) that’s like a Bakewell Tart made with a meltingly soft shortbread base, used them for Uncooked Porridge (sometimes in a jar and sometimes not)  and there are a few jars of Blackberry & Crab Apple Jelly (always preferable to jam with its pesky blackberry pips) lined up on the pantry shelf ready to spread on warm scones and pancakes on dark winter evenings.

My favourite preserve though is Bramble Spread. A delicious, utterly blackberry intense spread. Not solid and sliceable like a Quince Cheese, but half way between a butter and a cheese; more concentrated than jam and jelly because it’s little more than a sweet puree. Glorious on toast or scones. There’s no faffing around with jam thermometers or testing for set, no worrying whether I’ve made a super firm set jam that can be prised from the jar in one rubbery mass or whether I didn’t boil it for long enough and have a sauce to pour straight from the jar. Even if the Bramble Spread sets too firmly, I just call it Bramble Cheese and slice it to eat with cold meat or cheese.

To make Bramble Spread

800 g blackberries
800 g sugar

In a large pan, slowly heat the blackberries with 300 grammes of sugar and 120 ml of cold water and gently cook until the berries are soft.

Push through a sieve to get rid of the pips, then put the juice and pulp back in the (clean) pan with the remaining 500 grammes of sugar.

Over a low heat, stir to dissolve the sugar and simmer (not rapidly boil) for 20 minutes, still stirring.

Pour into ramekins or small jars, cover and label. Best eaten after two or three months during which time it will thicken a little more.

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