Archives for the month of: February, 2012

It seems like ages ago now, but towards the end of last summer we were busy in the orchard at Swan Barn Farm picking the apples.

Our volunteers worked with us to process them through our scratter and press to extract the apple juice.

We also held a community apple pressing day at which we pressed well over a tonne of apples from around the town. All in all quite a number of people left Swan Barn Farm last year with quite a lot of apple juice. Some of it was no doubt kept in the fridge and consumed over the next few days, but we also provided people with instructions for how to turn the murky looking (but delicious) juice into cider. If you were one of those people, I hope your cider turned out well. Most of ours is still sat in Speckled Wood waiting to be bottled, it fermented quite slowly as it was out in the cold, but I took a couple of demijohns home and fermented them out in the kitchen where it is warmer and the process works faster. I bottled it around christmas time, and figured today might be a good time to try it (In case you are wondering it is after midday and I have the day off!).

It has cleared really well, and because I put a tiny bit of sugar in each bottle is lightly sparkling. Now, I’m not claiming it is going to win any awards, but, it is definitely not completely awfull, which friends will know is where the bar is set for my home brewed efforts, and therefore I have decided to pronounce it a success and entirely drinkable! I hope yours turned out well too. If you missed out last year look out for our apple pressing and cider days later in the year at Swan Barn Farm.

Last year I also tried out something new with the products of the orchard. Towards the back of a cuboard I discovered a 2 litle bottle of undiscovered cider that had been pressed in 2010. Aha I thought, what about making some cider vinegar! In fact I had been saving the dregs of a couple of bottles of unpastuerised cider vinegar for just such an occurance, they had gone slightly cloudy and as such I knew contained the perfect starter culture to make some vinegar of my own. I’m no expert, but the following is my (probably pretty basic) understanding of the process and how to try it our for yourself.

Yeast turns sugar into alchohol, thats how apple juice is fermented into cider. At a certain alchohol strength the yeast dies, this allows the cider to clear and at that point it needs bottling and protecting from the air to prevent bacteria spoiling it. Some of these bacteria can be useful though. Acetobacteria live off alchohol and turn it into acetic acid thereby turning the liquid to vinegar. Fermenting and vinegar making are, as I see it, the processes of allowing these natural organisms to go about their business in a controlled manner. Here’s how I did it.

I took a plastic demijohn and put my cider in it, adding the dregs from the old vinegar bottles. I only put enough in so it could be safely stored on its side.

The lid has a hole in it where you would ordinarily put an airlock. For making vinegar I just put a bit of cotton wool in it. This kept flies and other nasties out while allowing plenty of air in. Keeping it on its side let the air reach the maximum possible surface area of the cider giving the bacteria the best chance of working well. I then stuck it on top of a cuboard and forgot about it for a couple of months.

Over this time the bacteria had done their job. They had turned the cider into vinegar (one smell made that obvious) and in the process had formed (as expected) a bacterial mass, otherwise known as the mother, which was floating in the vinegar. The mother of vinegar has been known about for centuries, the bacteria form a mass in the liquid which looks like a sort of strange jellyfish. The idea is that you save the mother and then use it to start your next batch of vinegar with. I put it into a jam jar to take a photo, not sure when I am going to need more vinegar, and I know I can always start it from the remains of the last batch, but if I need it I know it will last a while at least.

The rest of the vinegar was simply passed through a muslin filter into a couple of bottles I had been saving to store it in.

I am pretty chuffed, it tastes great, and I have already been searching the internet for some culinery ideas to start using it. I am also told that it is prized by many people as a health tonic for poultry. Apparently a small amount added to their drinking water once a month is supposed to be very beneficial for their digestive system, so it looks like my chickens have a treat coming their way.

We will be pruning the orchards soon (ok I know we a re a couple of weeks late, but its been so hectic here) and just the thought of that has started me thinking about spring. The orchard behind the High Street in Haslemere is such a treat at blossom time, if you live locally I couldn’t recomend more highly a walk through it when the blossom starts to come out. The air will be alive with the sound of the bee’s and the scents from the trees. It really is quite a special place, putting something on the dinner table which came from there is always a real treat.

I thought a bit of a progress update would be a good idea this week. We have been working hard on the walls and the verandah, and I am glad to say that things really seem to have started moving along again. Most of our time has been spent lime plastering the internal walls.

Getting the internal walls right has been a bit of a journey for us all. We are all hoping we have got it right this time. I quite enjoyed the lime plastering in the end, it was quite a forgiving substance to work with. A base coat which is mixed with animal hair was applied first, then left to go off for a few days prior to being scratched to provide a key for the top coat to adhere to. The top coat was left to go off as well, then while it still had some give it was rubbed down with a slightly damp sponge.

This gives the wall a textured finish by evenly distributing the particles in the plaster. It also helps smooth out any trowel marks and other dents and marks that were created during the plastering. The finish is still a long way off a modern plasterboard wall, but that wasn’t what we were trying to achieve. The lime on the straw bale walls is full of curves and bulges, the internal panels are hand cleaved sweet chestnut laths and are a lot flatter, bit still have plenty of character in them. The next stage is numerous coats of limewash, this creates a protective, but breathable skin over the surface of the plaster. We are still in the midst of limewashing, as well as decorating over the remaining splatters of mud.

The other progress that has been made recently is outside on the verandah, where we have been starting to cut out and screw down the oak floorboards.

When we were sawmilling beams for the building last year we kept the falling boards from the logs and stacked them to one side. These are now being re sawn to make our verandah floorboards. The oak for them came from the woods at Swan Barn Farm, when the verandah is finished you will be able to sit on it and look out over the woodlands that provided the timber to make it.

Its one of my favourite features of the building, its a big space and is really going to come into its own on a summers evening, when it is going to be a lovely place to sit out in the sun.

The boards are still pretty green, so we are laying them tight against each other. As they season over the next year or so they will shrink a bit forming gaps between them to help shed the weather.

Meanwhile on Black Down there has been a bit of a stir caused this week by the arrival of a particularly rare bird. I didn’t manage to get a picture of it, but Matt did take this photo of the people who were watching it.

There have been up to 60 people up there all with their binoculars and telescopes trained on the pine trees at the top of Boarden Door Bottom. The fuss was caused by the arrival of a parrot crossbill. There are lots of common crossbills on the hill, they feed on the seeds from the pine cones which they use their specialised bill to pry open. The parrot crossbill is a much rarer species, I’m told the last recorded sighting in Sussex was in 1870!


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