November 10, 2016
We accidentally stayed in a brewery near Monmouth recently. It wasn’t quite like that, it just ended up being the best place to stop on our trip travelling around the UK visiting producers and farmers, and some friends and family. As summer ends and Autumn arrives, it feels like the countryside is exhaling, relieved, after the crescendo of the harvest... I mention the brewery as a shameless segue*, mainly because the ‘hobbies’ Venn-diagram heavily overlaps when beer, artisanal food, and, of course, sourdough are involved...
We start off in Norfolk, helping my family to pick a few apples. Early October sees the Cox, Russet and Bramley ready but in early September, when we can still remember what warmth feels like, the sun-worshiping Discovery are falling off the tree. Predominantly bright red, the Discovery’s inner flesh is stained a pinky hue; they make a stunning juice as a solo variety. Usually the crop gets taken to Mike, who juices (and ciders) relatively incognito in Attleborough in a range of barns that resemble the Bugsy Malone boot-legging operations; a disarray of intentional and unintentional fermentation. However, he is too busy this time- “come back after the weekend” is the short reply on the phone. Our apple alchemist is notoriously bad at saying no to anyone, seemingly juicing 24/7 from mid August till late October. So either someone is onto Mike, or Norfolk’s apple crops have been very good this year.
We head to West Sussex, where juice-makers of other sorts are still waiting to harvest: the grapes in the Wiston Estate vineyard are in the last stages of ripening before having their great pressed finale. They have a little way to go, and there are murmurs of ‘hens and chicks’, or millerandage, where the wet weather (probably) has caused uneven growth on the vines. But this is no word on the final result, which as much down to the skill of the winemaker. Regardless, the transformation that has already occurred to the pruned vines is no less than extraordinary. We are told, in all sorts of places, that we must prune to see new growth, but so severe is the annual trim served to these trunks, the remnants resemble fire-wood sticks. When I was here in March, the brown-grey stumps appeared a mere memorial to the furtive life of the earlier months; but, of course, it is here again. Wherever we move we are reminded nothing is so reliable as the circus of seasons.
Our next stop is Stream Farm, an Organic collective of sorts in the stunning Quantock Hills, Somerset. I’m blown away by the rhythm and harmony that transcends the seasons here. The livestock and the presence of a family at the very heart of the valley they occupy: it is one of the more contained places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. You could spend a bit of time at Stream Farm, but there is always a job, always a lively flow of activity beneath the tranquil surface.
Here the apples are a few weeks away still, but are the trees are heaving. The honey yield is a bit under, but the quality is remarkable. The bees have also made a home in the roof of the farmhouse, and a crew is sent in to remove and retain anything that can be accessed. This crop is not for selling but is preciously kept and jarred. Nothing is wasted. We bake bread, talk in earnest terms and laugh a lot. A pre-birthday supper is fantastic trout from the lake followed by bramble bakewell tart - equal parts butter, ground almonds and eggs, studded with fruit and baked until just set - served with fig-leaf ice cream.
In Herefordshire, our final stop before we head to our Monmouthshire Brewery, is Bio-dynamic farm Fern Verrow. Run by Jane Scotter and Harry Astely, they sell almost everything they produce to Spring, Skye Gyngell’s restaurant based in Somerset House, London. Having struggled with the demands of a weekend spot at Druid’s Street market for many years, the certainty of the contract with Spring is an enormous boost, and provides a degree of stability. Still their ‘day off’ is an occasional Sunday afternoon, and you can tell there is an eagerness for the shorter days that are not far off. The pre-winter months are the final pudding-proof of all the labour: what comes out of the ground, off the tree, vine or shrub, is relatively set now. There is work to be done but very little can truly be altered for this batch. And then comes that exhale. Harry said the end of Autumn is his favourite time of year and you can see why; all this assembling and tending will be finished, this abundance of fruit in its last stages of growth will no longer need attention- for a few precious moments before its next iteration. Even hopes for quite a significant amount more are tinged with relief of the end-in-sight.
*If you are interested, the main detail in the Kingstone Brewery’s favour is the case of very decent, quite traditional unfiltered beer we were given as a consolation prize for the lack of hot water. Eighty percent of the time I would take a beer consolation prize over a hot shower. Zero percent of the time my wife would time take a beer consolation prize over a hot shower but fortunately we had just navigated successfully through the opening part of her Birthday Week so she was, as mostly she is, very content.
Pete Hartley Booth, Oct 2016