The last couple of weeks precious little has been going on in the kitchen but plenty in the garden, the reason being that I was preparing to open the garden to the public for an afternoon under the National Gardens Scheme.
The National Gardens Scheme is a simple idea: gardens that are usually private open to the public for a small entrance fee with all funds raised going to a range of caring and nursing charities. Often people (as we did) also sell teas and plants. The scheme has steadily grown into a huge fundraising enterprise with now £2.5million raised and given away every year. Last year two local friends and I took part for the first time, opening as a group, and this year two of us did so again.
Well, the day dawned neither bright nor clear but in anticipation we had erected not one but three gazebos and advertised that there would be somewhere dry to sit at least. Watching the weather forecasts had been a nerve-wracking experience as we knew that poor weather could easily reduce our turnout down to little more than our most loyal friends. In the event the rain held off and we were delighted to get nearly 120 visitors – just a fraction under last year’s total.
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I would like to say that the setting up of Fruit Magpie has been smoothly coordinated affair, with a steady supply of product matching customer demand and of course absolutely no panicking over fruit supply. Well, you didn’t really believe that, did you?! In the first few months demand rose so fast that the product meant to last until August sold out in early May. Wow, what a great ‘problem’ to have!
So, how to deal with a potential gap in supply before the new fruit season starts? My first thought was whether I could make use of surplus fruit wasted in the usual consumer supply chains. Food waste reduction has always been a core ethos of Fruit Magpie, albeit through food that never normally reaches shops or markets. (As an aside, I have been delighted to discover that there is a large and growing movement actively fighting food waste – more on this in another blog). However many food suppliers quite rightly want to donate to charities and others shamefully don’t seem to be tackling this issue at all. After a number of promising leads came to nothing, I approached my small local grocer shop. Result! I had thought they would be too small to have much useable surplus but I was wrong, and for a few weeks we happily made a daily visit to collect everything from apples to loquats.
This was a very useful experiment but it soon became apparent that this would not be a long-term solution as the vast majority of the fruit available was not really suitable for making fruit cheese. Also, unsurprisingly, much of it was older than I would have liked and I was concerned that this would affect the flavour as well as meaning pectin levels would be lower than needed. Last but not least all fruit I had used previously had been grown without chemicals and I really wanted to keep things that way. I thanked my kind collaborators and continued looking for another solution.
Whilst we were making fruit collections from the corner shop I had started to experiment with rhubarb. As every jam-maker knows, rhubarb is tremendously useful as it is the first crop of the British season that can be used for this purpose. I thought it seemed promising as a candidate for fruit cheese, that is to say tart and quintessentially British, but I certainly wasn’t about to find a recipe on the internet! Experimentation was the only way forward. Rhubarb is low in pectin and my first few attempts failed to set properly but eventually I figured out how to manage this consistently. But would the customers would like it? Wildes took a batch to Borough and Alexandra Palace farmer’s markets to find out. The report came back: “get making”!
So, a happy ending to the story. What started as a supply problem has resulted in another fruit cheese being added to the range.
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