Vino and Dino

The very night I wrote that last post we changed our minds. Another look at the grapes and I grew a little more nervous about the start of the rot, the weather didn't look like it would do anything positive for the bunches and the start of a few cold nights meant the leaves had stopped being able to soak up the sunshine and shove the sugars along in the grapes. There was little to be gained and some to be lost, so eight hours after I posted that blog and after a little phone piggy-in-the-middle with Ulrich the winemaker and Trent, we decided to get up early the next morning and pick the grapes.

I had enough presence of sleepy mind to charge the battery for the camera up so we could record a few bits. I may not do this again because it has taught me three things: I have a laugh that occasionally tends towards Walter Brennan* when I'm a little over-excited; I say 'get in' mindnumbingly frequently when I'm a little over-excited; and I occasionally forget to tell Trent what a lazy sod he is when I'm a little over-excited.



I know...the tedious among you will have noticed that the grass needs mowing but you can't mow near to when you pick the grapes as the clippings stick to the bunches when you put the crates on the ground: upstairs for thinking, downstairs for dancing.

The even more in-want-of-something-to-do-in-life would've noticed (around 8mins 30secs in) that Trent appears to have a mechanical right arm.



Ulrich emailed a couple of days later to say that the weight of the grapes was 300kg and the juice that was extracted around 200 litres. Allowing for a little to be lost along the way to bottling, we may get 250 bottles of lovely sparkling wine...but not until spring after next when the process is complete. More about each part of the winemaking process as takes place, if I don't get distracted.


* You have to wait until the last half a second for the chuckle but don't dodge the singing....I'd be very happy if I could sing/drink/wear a suit like Dean Martin

One foot over the pond

Trent will be off in 6 weeks. It's a sod but even my tedious powers of persuasion have failed. I'd hoped to bore him into submission*...making his life a misery with endless reminders of exciting things happening over the next year, the dullness awaiting him him in the States...I even started a search for some loose women to try and convince him to stay but all I got was interest from the Village People (check the comments). All efforts were unsuccessful.



I think he may have wavered when we were in Malvern - the show was huge fun but it may have been the daily cooked breakfasts that caused a few moments of doubt. I even got my 5 year old daughter to lay it on thick...but that Trent has a heart of stone: he's bought his plane ticket.

Six weeks is a long time though and we have much to do. Starting with the planting of an orchard of Japanese plums, which I'm very excited about. More about them next time (if I remember). And planting out the polytunnel forest garden with the more tender things (like this orange) that are getting tired of their life in a pot.



Next week, probably on Monday, we'll be picking the first grapes. Those of you paying attention may remember that a month or two ago I was trying to find a way of having this year's first, small grape harvest turned into wine without it being mixed with somebody else's grapes. It's no problem to have it made into wine but the harvest is too small for most wineries to want to make into its own separate batch.

I asked small wineries near here and one I know in Hampshire but no joy. A very fine man suggested I try a small, young winery near him, in Sussex.

I rang. No way, quarter of a ton? Forget it. I'd love to, but no...needs to be 2 tonnes at least...shame though, it would be fun.

We chatted some more, mostly about the varieties I was growing and where he'd learnt to do what he does. He liked the mix of fairly reliable grapes (Seyval blanc) with more adventurous ones (Sauvignon blanc, Pinot Noir and Gew├╝rztraminer). I smelt a change in the air...we kept talking. He, Ulrich, started talking about maybe there is a small tank he could borrow...



So a deal has been done, a pricey deal, but for that I get wine made only from grapes grown here at Otter Farm and Ulrich gets what's fair for the mess about of dealing with such a small quantity. It has it's compromise - 350 miles added to the carbon footprint of the wine isn't ideal but on the upside that will be spread between (hopefully) 200 bottles.

We now have to watch the grapes very closely. The balance between development of the sugars and the onset and spread of rot is critical. The warm wet patch last week kicked off a little light rot but the cold wind is keeping it from spreading too quickly. Monday looks like the day.

Trent and I will be up at dawn's crack to pick as quickly as we can - crating up the bunches and driving away from home up to Hayward's Heath immediately to deliver the grapes to Ulrich. It had to be the same day, so after a few hours dawn picking Trent and I will be in for that 350 mile round trip. Then a long wait....the grapes will be crushed immediately but, as we're making sparkling wine, it'll be over a year until we might even think about tasting it.

So that'll leave 5 Trent weeks. Five part-time weeks to plant a couple of hundred plants into an extended forest garden as well as a couple of small orchards of plumcots and Szechuan peppers.



The forest garden expansion means these dark evenings are bein spent planning very quickly so that we can get planting as soon as possible, so that the plants get as many days of warm soil and root growth before the winter as possible. There are hundreds of plants to consider - the product of overambitious purchasing last winter (and the winter before to be fair). We also have to pick the rest of the apples, the medlars and all the autumn olive, which is looking fabulous.

And I have to keep Trent's mind away from being on the other side of the Atlantic for a short while yet. It may not be easy. The Elaeagnus ebbingei is in flower and the scent is incredible. Five or six feet tall, right at the edge of the forest garden by the pig pen, the Elaeagnus lets out invisible clouds of fragrance that's not a million miles away from the scent of broad bean flowers - which may well be my most happy-making smell.



I told Trent about it, urging him to have a smell. He pushed his face in smiling, like a man having a waterfall shower. He couldn't place the smell at first. Like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, he felt for it 'It smells like....like...Hawaii'.

* I used to be good at this. In the first house I lived in when I left home, I would have a winning strategy if no-one wanted to come down the pub. I'd stand on the stairs outside my best friend's room with my chin on the landing level of his door. He knew I was there and couldn't concentrate on a thing. He try and ignore me but he couldn't. I knew I was winning if the stereo volume went up - he was trying to drown out the voice in his head that was compelling him to open the door to see if I was there. I'd stay there as long as it took. I knew, in time, I'd break his resolve and that pint would be mine. I'm not a nice man.

Malvern

An unusual week, or should I say 9 days. 216 hours ago Trent and I were pulling pots of plants out from within and around the polytunnels, bunching them into groups and deciding which might make the cut for the trip to the Malvern Autumn Show.



I'd been asked to dress the stage, all 10m by 3m of it, plus the steps and floor level at the front. My garden design skills stretch little further than 'throw enough mud at the wall and see what sticks'...we had far too much to take, so we piled in the essentials. An hour's Darwinian selection left a jammed van and a few too many leftovers for comfort, but when you've no room for more than Trent's idle arse (above) and two packets of Extra Strong Mints you're unlikely to squeeze in that last 20l pot of Vietnamese coriander.



It's 120 miles from here to the Malvern showground. It's almost all motorway. You could stop for a three course lunch served by Albert Riddle at Robin's Nest and still do it in two hours. Unless you're Trent. Trent was following in the landrover when we drove up last Thursday, while I drove the van. Trent drives like he still has the handbreak on, as if there is a child on board with a rare kidney complaint, as if he has both the President and a vial of nitroglycerine on board, as if he is being sponsored by the minute to drive there. As if he was in a remake of The Straight Story. Everytime I got out of second gear I saw his red landrover recede into the distance.



Three weeks later (it seemed) we arrived and unloaded. Within minutes Claire Potter, who had dressed last year's stage so beautifully, brought cakes. Very fine homemade cakes. I managed to save one for my daughter.



It got dark. We stopped and headed for the hotel, which is always marvelous, as is the view from my bedroom window.



Much moving around followed on the Thursday until we got the stage looking reasonably pleasing to the eye. I now feel qualified to offer two pieces of advice: put the tall stuff behind the short stuff and wear your old clothes while doing it. I must remember to include that in the next book. I've made a very long and tiring day seem very simple, but essentially that's exactly what it was - simple, long and tiring. Followed by a long evening being verbally abused over dinner in the hotel by James Alexander Sinclair and Joe Swift.



Most of the weekend was spent on stage, the early part of which being reminiscent of the evening before - ie being verbally abused by James Alexander Sinclair and Joe Swift. Thankfully the not inconsiderable skills of compere and MC Katie Johnson retained at least a veneer of order. Here she is: the meat in a Trent/Swift sandwich.



The rest of those two days was taken up talking about and passing round a few unexpected flavours including szechuan peppers, apricot chillis, yacon, the best english sparkling and still wines; being Debbie McGee to John Wright's Paul Daniels while making seaweed pannacotta; talking with Delny Britton about homeopathy*; and making nectarine salsa with Joe. The audience also got to eat nectarines, peaches and figs picked 3 days before in Italy and France and trained up to London, then posted to the showground. In between the nibbling, we talked rubbish which seemed to fit the occasion. Joe accidentally snorted part of a szechuan peppercorn. It all seemed to work rather well.



During any gaps, Joe were called upon to visit the show gardens, stands and exhibits, where we saw flowers (see, above) and got roped into lifting the world's second largest marrow, although we weren't called upon to help extricate it from the Toyota Corolla which had apparently carried it to the Show. Here, look, it's true...and helpfully filed under 'Odd News'. Although I'm not sure who that fool in the blue shirt is - perhaps the lovechild of Stephen Merchant and Lembit Opik. In the interests of journalistic balance, here's Joe in need of a haircut.



At the end of both days Joe and I made nectarine salsa, partly because it's in the new book and very delicious, partly because it's a fine excuse to make a homegrown version and a supermarket one - you can see the difference in colour way before to get to taste the difference.



A lady came up to me after Saturday's nectarine salsa demo. She'd loved it, and loved the English sparkling wine even more. She had to have my book. Luckily I had plenty of copies on the table that was between us. Would I mind signing it, no message, just signed please.

I've lost what little ability I have to write on account of typing morning, noon and night. My writing always looked good, even if you couldn't actually read it; now even my signature looks like it was written by a turtle. An ill turtle.

She didnt seem to mind.

'I love you on TV' she said as I handed the book over.

'Thanks' I said, as I considered how much of a River Cottage fan she must be to have noticed me popping up when forced into it every series or two.

'Shame you've had all your hair cut off..'

Oh dear. Unless she remembers me from the best part of two decades ago with long hair, she has me mistaken for someone else. And I think I know who.

'And do you have the restaurant?'
'Me? No'
'Oh..I see...just for TV is it...well, I MUST say, I'm most disappointed'

She turned on her heel and shot off into the mist.



* Delny was gracious enough to let me start the interview with 'Now this homeopathy...it is a load of old bollocks isn't it?'


Apologies for the quality of the images - all taken by mine or Trent's phone.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D