Julia and Tony were once again generous hosts at the Elms in Balsall Common for the long awaited finale to the HEOG 2012 event calendar, and they welcomed every one of the twenty three hardy souls who ventured out on that chilly winter’s evening.
The group’s hapless secretary had succeeded once again to mess up the booking, so with the expected professional beer expert elsewhere, Ross stepped in himself. Through the course of the evening he demonstrated that what he doesn’t know about beer, he has generally spilled down his front.
As Ross opened the evening he explained that the objectives were; to explain a little of the history and background to the drink, to taste many different styles of beer, to showcase some organic beers you never see in the supermarket and last but not least, to convert one or two of the non-beer drinkers in the audience. With the simplicity of a drink made just from chemical-free barley, hops and yeast and a 7,000 year history the evening had a lot of scope!
One of Ross’ personal favourite organic breweries is the Stroud Brewery in Gloucestershire so their catalogue was used to taste the range of English beers. Their founder Greg Pilley had been helpful by sending the group a sample of organic malted barley and hops which we tasted and sniffed. The European organic beers came from www.beersofeurope.co.uk which has a good number of organic choices in its comprehensive range.
First up was the simple but reassuring Stroud Tom Long Amber Bitter followed by the fuller Teasel Best Bitter. Whilst some found Teasel to be their favourite of the evening, the non-beer drinkers had their noses fully turned-up by this stage! Next, the Dutch Budels lager showed the clean but rich taste of a real top-fermented lager (rather than the gassy stuff normally available) which was followed by two amazing beers; Stroud’s floral Budding pale ale and their wintery and rich Five Valley Ale. By now, even the non-beer drinkers reported they had found something they liked and the regular beer drinkers were merrily contributing to the hubbub.
At this point we stopped for a supper of baked potatoes and a chilli prepared with Tony’s personal crop of hot and tasty peppers. As the tasting recommenced (5 down, 3 to go) Ross revealed that it had taken a whole evening and the hard work of good friend John to work out the order in which to test these eight beers. The next beer up was a real surprise – Williams Brothers Kelpie seaweed ale. It has an interesting tale - having been prepared in a Glasgow homebrew shop from a customer’s family recipe – and is now very popular in the US as YouTube demonstrates; (https://tinyurl.com/a6shz8s). It is not certified organic but brewed with organic malt and hops – no-one can account for the seaweed! The taste is phenomenal with a powerful taste of cocoa and coffee. Not to be beaten, next up was an organic treat Ross remembered from his time working in Germany; Lammsbrau Weissbier. Weissbier is made from wheat and unlike other German beers is bottom fermented to bash up the malt and yeast producing a strong, cloudy and fruity beer. The evening’s finale was back to Stroud and their special dark and flavoursome Christmas Ding-Dong porter (porter is so-called as it was one of the first mass-produced beers in the 18th century and a favourite of the porters at Smithfields).
With the tasting formally over, and glazed expressions all round, the evening continued for a couple of hours as people chatted away and the remaining beers evaporated. Thanks to Tony and Julia for such a warm welcome and to our hapless secretary for what he doesn’t know. RMT
We had a great turn-out of twenty on a dry but chilly day which seemed to mark the start of Autumn at Bondon Farm, about half a mile from the village of Birdingbury near Rugby. The group had come to learn about the farm through the chance event of our chairman Steve sitting next to farmer Wallace McCurdie at a software course - a chance but very forthcoming meeting!
Wallace along with that of his wife Josie and two daughters, kindly gave up his afternoon to show us around the land they have brought under organic stewardship since the mid 1990s. Wallace has proved a longstanding exponent of organic management, weathering the economic ups and downs. As former chairman of the Lleyn Sheep Society he also proved passionate about his sheep, not to mention his pastures and stock.
As Wallace introduced the farm and the modes of transport he had planned for us, we were amazed to hear that he farmed Bondon Farm’s total of 820 acres across three adjacent holdings with the fixed labour of just himself, Josie and one hired hand.
The afternoon had been billed as a farm walk – but the only walk we need to do was to climb up to a very comfortable set of straw bales on a large trailer. Even better, one seat was reserved for Tracey in the business class Kubota 4WD cabin with Wallace’s daughter (our president John unkindly suggested they were going off to play golf).
The plot of land is beautiful, spanning three miles of the River Leam with river meadows and arable land. First we drove past arable to the top of the hill where we could see the Leam valley sweep beneath us with Draycote Water at the far end. Driving down the valley we passed through pastures of clover lay, where Wallace described how he built fertility through rotation of grass and legumes followed by wheat oats and roots. An area of fallow each year allows weed control to take place.
Wallace had warned us that we were visiting after harvest and with the stock sold down but despite his concerns there was still plenty to see including a large flock of Lleyn sheep and a small herd of Soth Devon’s by the river. The Lleyn sheep are well suited to organic rearing as they are self-sufficient and need little input.
Finally, down by the Leam, the trailer pulled over and we built a picnic area out of straw bales in the lea of the wind. Thank you Wallace, Josie and family for such a generous afternoon.
Visit to Log Home Farm – 19 July 2012
Mark was our guide for the evening, bringing us up to date with developments since our last visit, the most obvious of which was the imposing Finnish log cabin style farmhouse, completed this year. We first set off to see the cattle and Mark explained that he believes the quality of the meat comes from the quality of the grass the animals eat, and he concentrates on this as his main priority. He also plans to introduce some Hereford cattle soon, which will produce a larger animal.
They have reduced their beef herd slightly, to keep pace with the demand from the organic market, and the flock of Black Rock hens is down from its peak numbers after they ceased supplying eggs to a national organic box scheme. However, local demand remains firm, even to the extent that some customers will go without eggs when the hens stop laying during their annual moult, rather then go elsewhere!
There was much discussion about the practicalities and economics of small-scale organic farming, and we returned to the farmyard as the light was fading. We thank Mark for an interesting and informative evening.
Visit to Kites Nest Farm – 17 June 2012
I had done little research before the visit to Kites Nest Farm except to look on Google Maps, so I didn't know enough to say NO. Maybe that's how one becomes Prime Minister, because no-one in their right mind would want the job, and those who get it all become as mad as a tea cosy. Well it was a good job that I had looked on Google, as Kites Nest remained as hidden as a Government nuclear waste dump to the casual driver. Just ask Tracy who drove back and forth frustratedly whilst at the same time trying to penetrate the suspicious comms blackout that enveloped the site.
In spite of these difficulties there were quite a few who made it to Kites Nest including some guests or potential new members - always welcome, especially to Ross who urgently interrogates each one of them to see whether they have any secretarial skills, as he desperately seeks a successor to take on his role.
We assembled in the garden and our guide - Rosamund - addressed us on the format of the visit etc, and then we set off up the lane to look at some common spotted orchids - both red and white ones, gaze in admiration at a 600 year old oak which had just fallen over - the admiration came from wondering how it had managed to stand up for 600 years with such a small root ball, and then off we went, crocodile fashion, into the wood.
Coniferous woods are always dark and scary places with no signal, and this was no exception, so I kept Guide Rosamund well in sight. We visited another 600 year old oak which was still standing - I kept well away just in case, but braver (?) souls approached, and some instances of tree hugging were observed (names withheld). Then in the middle of nowhere, amongst the dead undergrowth, we came upon a patch of clover 4-5 times normal size growing happily away - there was something odd going on (radioactivity?), so I got nearer to our guide, just in case. [Later I was informed that this was wood sorrel, which likes growing in such dark remote places] Onwards we trudged and into daylight - up the hill to see the view, and hopefully get a signal. Dyers' green weed, betony, bird's foot trefoil, pignut (+chimney sweeper moth), and lots of grasses recorded.
Then back to the farmhouse, and all aboard for the spectacular trailer ride. A Range Rover was provided for our club class members. At last the wild cattle were sighted and we approached cautiously, as they gathered menacingly - we had just changed guides, and Guide Richard was now in the driving seat. He drew to a halt and we were surrounded by a herd of hungry beasts. "Keep your hands inside the trailer, and look out for that one" we were instructed. Well, I kept my eyes closed, so I can't tell you much else. However, we did make it safely back, and had tea in the garden, where I learnt of one casualty sustained on the trip - David bitten by a horse fly. I missed the horses (that must have been when I had my eyes shut).
Well that was a good trip and all inclusive in the subs we pay. I don't know how the committee do it. I'm going to call HEOG the "Big Value Society" from now on. If only Cameron had had a slogan like that he'd have got in with a massive majority of his own, as all we Wilko shoppers would have voted for him.
The one on Cows (The Secret Life of Cows) had good reviews, and is good.
The one on self-sufficiency (First buy a field) had terrible reviews, and is a real hoot. It's a 'what you shouldn't do guide' rather than a 'how to'. One chapter on wheat, or rather bread-making, mirrored my trials 2-3 times each week for the last quarter of a century. Ginny is even growing wheat on her allotment this year, so I'll never escape the treadmill....
Visit to Hill Close Gardens - 15 April 2012
Our guide Randall started the day by introducing the history of the gardens which were first created in 1846 as 32 leisure gardens for the merchants living in the centre of Warwick. The gardens were allocated to families who would use them both to grow fruit and vegetables but mainly to provide outdoor space for children to play. Over the years people moved to the suburbs where they had gardens and the plots were sold down to 16 and fell into disrepair.
In 1993, under threat of redevelopment, the gardens were saved by local residents and with help from the Lottery Heritage fund they were restored to the original plans from 1998 until 2006.
Outside the weather cleared and we toured the wonderful variety of gardens, many of which are still tended by individual families. One pleasant feature is the wide range of heritage apples like “Beauty of Bath” and “Peasgood Nonsuch”.
A real surprise among the laid out gardens, hedges, paths, lawns and walls were the historic summer houses. More than sheds, these provided shelter for the family during the day and may even have been used overnight at weekends. The summer houses, brick built, each individual and four of which are Grade II listed may indeed have saved the gardens.
As the tour came to an end at the new children’s garden our own John excelled himself by lifting the lid on their successful wormery and demonstrated how best to make it work to us all. We finished with a round of applause for Randall and then sat down to a convivial afternoon tea.
A fantastic turnout of 38 meant that we were adding extra chairs to squeeze everybody in to listen to this topical and informative talk by Dr Adam Bates. Adam is an ecologist at the University of Birmingham and participates in the OPAL (open air laboratory, www.opalexplorenature.org) to help people connect back to the natural world.
He tackled the issue of honeybees and colony collapse disorder, whilst steering us towards understanding the vast diversity of types of bee which pollinate the UK. For example, he explained how the shape of the apple flower means that only pollen foragers who stand on the outside of the petals can pollinate the plant. He explored the 250 types of bee (many of which bore little resemblance to our expectations of a honeybee or bumble bee) and 230 wasps and described their lifecycles.
Looking at studies over the last fifty years it is clear that bee diversity has reduced enormously, as the diversity of habitats has reduced. He suggested we grow old local varieties, leave the lawn to grow longer and cut the hedgerows less.
There were many questions after the talk. Adam demonstrated the skill of the scientist to base his opinions on observable fact and refused to be drawn on the causes of some of the issues which are topical today. Where Adam’s knowledge on the honeybee reached its limits, a number of beekeepers in the room contributed with what they knew. Thanks to Adam for an enjoyable and informative talk. Only Barry finished with an unanswered topic – where do his bees fly off to every day?
We had a good turn-out of members for the AGM, and an even better turn-out of dishes for the bring-and-share supper! The AGM is of course formally minuted and these will be issued in due course. The meeting was the first attempt at a new format to reduce our carbon impact – avoiding the wasted sheets of paper left behind at previous meetings – the formal papers were all projected on screen. Despite nearly 25 years working in IT, Ross was clearly left bewildered by the various wires and controls needed to get the picture onto the screen. Once complete the meeting was underway and progressed at speed towards dinner. Only a few questions were asked from the floor, namely Barry who traditionally keeps the committee on their toes regarding the production of the organic directory!
Supper was a fantastic affair – a wonderful collection of salads, bakes, soups, casseroles, breads, cakes, cheeses and desserts. This group can cook. After dinner the group reconvened to discuss events which gathered a number of new ideas including garden and farm visits, the new CSA at Ryton and speakers on apple varieties among many more.
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