Following a productive AGM on 5th February the fifteen members present (including two prospective new members) enjoyed a great meal towards which everyone had contributed. Following the meal the group took a competitive spirit as they challenged each other in a gardening quiz for a prize of Green and Black's organic chocolates. The quiz included sections on the latin names of weeds and wildflowers, the counties of famous English gardens, vegetable varieties and the hardest part, significant dates in the history of the organic movement. No surprise that of the 24 questions David Searle came closest with 22 correct answers. No surprise either that he generously shared his prize!
Saturday 12th March proved to be simply a classic evening hosted generously by Julia and Tony in their wonderful kitchen in Balsall Common. It was a pretty eager and expectant crowd of members and friends who gathered, anticipating the prospect of eight wines. Thanks to Julia, we had Sarah McCleary who works as a buyer for organic wine supplier Vintage Roots along. Sarah proved to be a professional, enthusiastic and experienced wine taster whose mantra was "Wine tasting should be fun!" She led us on a pre-prepared journey through the wines, telling us both about how the wines were grown, and how the organic wine trade selects and processes wines from individual growers.
The group had brought along a veritable feast which proved important to soak up the rather generous quantity of wine which had been consumed by the halfway stage. The wines Sarah brought along ranged from a £5.99 Spanish Pinot Noir / Merlot to the grand £16.50 Mendocino Syrah! The list of eight also included a really surprising Austrian Qualitatswein Pinot Noir. Sarah's fascinating style included looking at the colour and giving the glass a good swirl and a sniff. To remember the wines we were taught to distinguish which supermarket aisle the wine smelt like it belonged to - i.e. dairy, fruit and veg or bakery. It really was a good fun and informative evening. Many of the members use Vintage Roots for mail order delivery so they come well recommended.
On a clear and bright Sunday afternoon on the 24th April we had a great turn-out at the woodland walk - with apologies to those who felt left out in the crush. We had planned with Eddie Asbury of the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust for a joint group event with a turnout of 20-25. Great weather and an unexpected newspaper advert conspired to give us a turnout of 60-70 which rather took Eddie by surprise! Still, it was a lovely walk, even if rather crowded.
Wappenbury Wood is 181 Acres of ancient woodland which is rich in plants, butterflies and birds owned by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. Eddie is the Trust's woodland project officer, and took us on a two hour walk to see the display of bluebells and other wildflowers in the woodland. Eddie's job was quite interesting to hear about. As a woodland officer he is responsible for managing a number of nearby woods which he believes if carefully connected through green paths and other initiatives, could actually create the largest ancient woodland in the Midlands.
The kitchen at Gate Farm was packed on Thursday 12th May as we met expectantly to see what Susie Hammett would prepare for us. Susie Hammett has been delighting us with her homemade breads at group events and so she agreed to share her experience with the group. Once again, everyone contributed something by bringing along various dips, spreads and salads to help the bread down.
The evening had been chosen by Susie because she has found that following the flower days in the biodynamic calendar produces the best results. Susie buys her yeast fresh from a bakery in Knowle and looks for organic flour from local mills wherever possible. The range she prepared included white and wholemeal loaves and rolls, pitta breads, fruit loaves, Chelsea buns, unleavened bread and garlic bread so fragrant it probably turned the heads of people sitting outside in Italy! She showed how she prepared both by hand and by using a mixer.
The evening was memorable both for the variety and sheer quality of the product, and not least for the awe we all felt as Susie worked at a rate where she was preparing at least three different breads concurrently all the time!
We had a good turn out on a sunny but windy Sunday afternoon on June 12th at Elmhurst Farm in Withybrook near Coventry. Some of the group had seen the farm a few years ago on an earlier visit. Rod and Ann Pattison were very generous in hosting the afternoon. The farm is really a labour of love. When Rod and Ann had the opportunity to buy the farm they did so and have worked to convert it to traditional organic methods, buying adjacent land to increase the wonderful wildflower meadows. Rod gave us a full afternoon of his time as he guided us around the farm.
The wildflower meadows were fantastic with a range of colours with the different wildflowers and grasses across the fields. Rod told us that the colours had been different a fortnight before and would have changed again in a fortnight's time. After flowering Rod cuts the fields for (rather upmarket) hay and rotates some of the cuttings across the fields to ensure that the different flowers take hold in the right soil. Rod is also very proud of the restored hedgerows and woodland belts which he has built as drives around the farm and many of which have now reached glorious maturity.
Back at the farmhouse Ann gave us a restoring cup of tea and cake whilst rod told the group of his forthcoming cycle ride across Spain for cancer care charities. Afterwards we found a quiet sheltered spot by Rod's pond and settled down for a picnic.
Note: Rod completed his ride across Spain in October and raised £22,000!
On the lovely summer's evening of Thursday 14th July a large group assembled at John Cattell's Hopwood Organic Farm in the village of Catherine-de-Barnes, not far from Solihull. This was the second visit for some members of the group, and we were surprised to see so much which had changed in just a few years. John is always very open when he talks, describing what works well, as well as what he's tried and been unsuccessful with. He walked us around the farm, paying particular attention to the areas which had changed, including the polytunnels, the chickens and the additional 5 acres being farmed.
The farm is just about the right size for you to appreciate the problems of commercial growing in the context of our own gardens. It was amazing to see the volumes of leeks which had been prepared in the polytunnel nursery. We climbed across the electric fence to look at the new chicken house. The blackrock chickens run free range and are rotated across the fields to provide nutrition to the ground. The new field had literally acres of brassicas growing protected from pigeons under industrial netting rolled across the fields.
At the end of the tour we enjoyed a cup of tea and then stocked up on groceries from the wide and particularly fresh range available in the shop. The main business of the farmshop is delivering organic vegetable boxes, and this high turnover guarantees the stock is always fresh, even those items bought in.
It was a lovely evening in the company of the Cattell's, many thanks!
On Sunday 11th September we had a really nice evening at Gate Farm, eating wonderfully prepared fresh food in one of the Midlands' most stylish venues; the cow shed at Gate Farm! Arriving by car, guests followed the toll-road to the car park (yes, the farm track really does rival the Midlands Expressway for surface quality). The Cow Shed is unpresupposing from outside, although inside its minimalist almond walls, carpet and leather sofas were a treat. The wooden bar (with illuminated pump) and trendy DJ booth completed the scene. If we thought it had been laid on especially for us we were assuming too much, the cow shed had been prepared for the wedding party of Steve and Susie's son in August!
We had a tour of Steve and Susie's ever expanding vegetable garden, admiring in particular the wonderfully filled polytunnel. Afterwards we sat down to a great meal, including breads, salads, crumbles and bakes and admired the wedding photos!
Thanks Steve and Susie for a truly exceptional evening.
The weather was extremely variable on 25th September as a large group prepared to meet at Odibourne Allotments in Kenilworth. The heavens opened with a downpour just five minutes before we set off, although luckily it was fine as we walked around. Two members, Barry and Ross, have plots on the site and had been seen putting in extra effort for a few weeks beforehand so as not to embarrass themselves!
The Odibourne is the local name for this stretch of Finham Brook and the allotments are on council land which covers a flood plain. In recent years the brook has burst its banks several times, which always means that the tenants have to put in extra work, although nature restores itself pretty quickly. Lily Brownjohn is secretary to the Kenilworth Allotments Tenants Association (KATA) which manages the site and she showed us around the site with other members of the committee. Lily has put a lot of work into making the allotments an active community with group projects clearly visible: the scarecrow competition, the restored bridge and the site of the new shed. Roger from the committee carefully showed us one of the nests of slow worms which are known to be native to the site and to the nearby Kenilworth common. On Barry's plot we admired his wonderful cardoon, and as we walked various tenants invited us onto their plots to demonstrate what they grow.
In the dip of a flood plain, the allotments are an oasis of peace and the group appreciated a very pleasant walk around the site in the company of the chatty and knowledgeable committee.
It was a very icy evening on Thursday 17th November, with some members deciding not to make the journey across to Olton Library where Dr. Jenny Houghton was setting up to do a talk. It was clearly much warmer in Alan and Julie's kitchen, where Julie had been baking fantastic biscuits for us!
Jenny was very friendly and informative speaker about her role as an Ambassador for the charity Send-a Cow, www.sendacow.org.uk . The Charity was established in 1988 to support a crisis in Uganda and now operates successfully across East Africa. The very surprising element of the talk was how the cows which are sent to families become the mainstay of the domestic economy. The charity insists on extensive training for families in organic methods before they can receive a cow. We saw many personal photographs from Jenny's trips where the cow was sustained on fodder such as banana leaves, the milk taken to the table, urine used for pesticide and the manure composted for organic production of vegetables. The cows are taken to stud to create wealth and when they die naturally are eaten with the hides used for leather.
At the end of the talk we looked at and purchased some of the goodies (including "moo-ing" cuddly cows) which Jenny had brought along with the proceeds going to the charity. Jenny also circulated details of the 2006 Organic Bag Competition, which may be of interest to members. Thanks to Alan and Julie for organising the event and to Dr Jenny Houghton for being informative, entertaining and inspiring!
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