Last day of summer at Moseley Folk Festival

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The end of a glorious day at Moseley Folk Festival. This park is run by a trust set up over 100 years ago and is a real haven for local people. It hosts a couple of events like this each year as a means if supplementing its income. The respect that people have for this space is tangible and the festival is run very much on these lines.

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Yew - Taxus baccata

Yew trees can often be found in churchyards - this one is growing in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth in Arden, Warwickshire. This is because the tree is extremely poisonous, especially to cattle but needed to be cultivated as its wood was very valuable for making long bows. Yews grow to a great age and there are many specimens well over 1,000 years old.

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Lily of the valley on a headstone, Tanworth in Arden churchyard, Warwickshire

I’ve not seen this plant on a headstone before and it’s a flower I would normally associate with weddings. The stone is from 1913 and the inscription doesn’t give any clues as to its significance to the grave’s occupant. In the “language of flowers”, a Victorian code used to communicate sentiments, usually to sweethearts, lily of the valley symbolises a return to past happiness.

Music fans might be interested to know that Nick Drake is buried a few yards away in the same churchyard.

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We’ve had some great weather this summer in the UK, with lots of hot sunny days and warm, still evenings providing lots of opportunities for al fresco eating and spending time outside. It’s been a real tonic as we’ve had some pretty erratic weather in recent years, topped off by a wet and stormy winter with widespread flooding and storm damage.

Unfortunately, since the remnants of hurricane Bertha swept across the country a couple of weeks ago, the weather has been much more unsettled. This morning however was lovely and sunny with just a light breeze so I took advantage of my freelancer’s privilege and headed off into the rolling hills and lanes of Worcestershire and Warwickshire on my bike for a few hours. Where I live in south Birmingham, I can be out into proper countryside within 15 minutes. I passed through some lovely villages with ancient churches and half timbered cottages with delightful gardens. Everything was still lush and green but beginning to show the first few signs of autumn, with hedgerows laden with fruit and berries and a few yellowing leaves in some of the trees.

I wasn’t completely away from work - I do some of my best thinking while walking or cycling. 27 miles later, I’d blown away my cobwebs and had the structure of a staff development and planning day I’m delivering tomorrow all mapped out in my head, ready to type up when I got home.

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Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel pollen is appearing more and more on fancy restaurant menus and the recipes in the Guardian’s weekend food supplements seem to be incomplete without an artful scattering of its tiny yellow flowers. Fennel pollen is incredibly expensive and at £25 for half an ounce, it rivals saffron for cost.

However, I’m going to let you into a little secret; it is incredibly easy to grow. I laughed out loud at the description on an American website describing how this rare and precious substance was harvested by hand from wild, organic plants in California. The truth is that fennel grows so prolifically, it has naturalised itself all over the world and is an invasive species in North America, so you’re doing everyone a favour by eating it. I’ve picked it on mountainsides in its native Spain but also in car parks, harbours and road sides in the UK. There is even a row over a mile long alongside the M6 motorway as you approach the Spaghetti Junction on the southbound carriageway, although I wouldn’t recommend you tried foraging there.

As a lover of all things aniseed, I have several large clumps of fennel herb growing on my allotment. I grew my original plants from seeds bought from an Asian grocer, which cost less than £1 for four ounces. It seeds itself prolifically and I’ve passed on its progeny to several other allotment holders who have admired this tall, graceful plant. It’s a perennial, so once established will come up year after year.

I’ve been using fennel flowers and pollen for years and put about ten quid’s worth on my dinner last night. In fact all parts of the plant are edible. I use the feathery leaves in that appear in spring in more dishes that I care to list, the stalks as barbecue skewers and the seeds fresh or dried as a tea, with fish and in baking. It has many medicinal uses such as a diuretic and for upset stomachs and is the main ingredient in gripe water used to treat colic in babies. I haven’t tried growing Florence fennel, which is essentially the same plant but a variety that has a swollen bulb instead of a long stalk, but it’s on my list for my new allotment.

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Raspberry vodka

Many people will be familiar with sloe gin, made by infusing the tiny, bitter members of the plum family in gin for several months. As autumn approaches, foragers in the UK start to hunt them out in hedgerows to make this warming liqueur.

It’s very simple to make and the same principle can be applied to other fruits and spirits, such as this raspberry vodka I’ve just started. Being a softer fruit than sloes, it infuses much quicker and so this will be ready by Christmas, for home consumption and to give as presents. I’ve two litre jars of this on the go plus another two with blackcurrants. I’ve also had great success with blackberries in brandy.

My recipe for sloe gin or vodka and some variations can be found here and for detailed exploration of different methods and fruits, including options for countries outside the UK by a community of real fanatics, visit the excellent and entertaining forum. There’s no biz like sloe biz after all.

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Elderberries - Sambucus nigra

I found these luscious examples growing alongside the River Alne, Wootton Wawen, near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire.

Elderflowers are widely used for culinary purposes but not everyone realises that the fruit is also edible, although they must be cooked first. They can be used in fruit pies, syrups and preserves and are traditionally used to make a very tasty wine.

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Victoria plums

I filled a washing up bowl with these from the small tree in my garden yesterday, some like these, ripe and delicious. I’m going to poach several pounds of them and free them for winter breakfasts and puddings and might make a small batch of jam.

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Firing up the earth oven for pizza

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