I have to say I love meeting other foodies…and I especially love meeting foodies who have the same philosophy as me, so when I went to visit Jules Cooper at her 17th century cottage and six and a half-acre small holding last week, I knew I’d discovered a kindred spirit.
Although we’d never met, Jules welcomed me in to her home with open arms. It soon became clear as we chatted over a pot of steaming coffee and home-made chocolate brownies that she is the kind of person who would be happy to welcome anyone and everyone that shares an enthusiasm for nature and food. It’s an opportunity for her to share her ideas and passion and talk about her mission. Yep that’s right, Jules is definitely a woman with a mission…and one that I wholeheartedly support; that is to reconnect people with nature.
There are important reasons why people should reconnect with their surroundings and Jules’s mission is primarily about education (or perhaps re-education). Talking about why it is important to buy local produce is one thing, but encouraging and enthusing people to grow their own, as well as reviving the old skills of preserving and making the most of what nature provides us with, in the form of fruit from our native hedgerows is quite a challenge.
But it shouldn’t be and these days a return to using native seasonal produce is a band wagon that TV chefs are jumping on left right and centre. For Jules though this love for wild and native foods is not a new thing, in fact its been a big part of her life since she was a child. I empathise with that and often have conversations with my mum about how granddad picked wild horseradish from across the field and I have plenty of my own memories of blackberrying and apple scrumping.
In today’s unstable economy where the cost of living is rising (almost daily!) and families everywhere are struggling to make ends meet, a return to a more sustainable way of life makes sense. If everyone took this approach then our native British produce and hedgerows would not be dying out. I can hardly believe that 90% of cherries in the shops are imported from overseas. Watery and insipid they are not a patch on the fruit from the Kentish cherry tree that grows in my mum’s garden. While we in Wales may struggle with cherry growing, we certainly have the climate to grow a variety of apples, pears, plums, damsons (to name a few).
As Jules and I took a wander around her land it was easy to imagine her vision; a fully self-sufficient small holding, with vegetables grown to permaculture principles, thousands of mature native fruit trees and shrubs and healthy well-developed hedgerows. Although she is only 1 year into her 10 year plan things are already taking shape; a multitude of edible and medicinal fruit trees and shrubs have been planted, as has a long willow shelter belt to protect the garden from the wind along with red alder to make sure nutrients are retained in the soil. The first of her raised beds are in situ and behind all this is what appears to be a very large hole! Eventually, Jules assures me, it will become a natural swimming pool planted with a variety of edible plants.
There is also a growing interest in her method of preserving fruit in the form of fruit leathers. Fruit leathers are 100% preserved fruit with nothing added. As we passed the 400 year old hedgerows that border her garden, laden with wild plums, sloes, blackberries, hawthorn, wild cherry and gorse (yes you can make things with gorse!!) she told me how the making of fruit leathers is an old skill; more common in hot mediterranean, African, middle eastern countries where the sun does the job naturally. Back here in Wales Jules uses a dehydrater which dries fruit mixtures to produce these flat, highly transportable fruit strips. Imagine the fruit winders you get in the supermarket but with more flavour and no added crap. They are perfect for sticking in a lunch-box, or taking on a walk or hike and universally popular with the kids who seem much braver than adults at trying these things. Jules suggested another good use is to infuse in hot water to make a fruity drink. They also get better the longer they are left as their natural flavours seem to develop and mature.
As we sat around the table we played a game of guessing what each strip was. Some flavours hit me immediately; Bramley apple, pear and cinnamon, while others were extremely subtle like the sloe and apple, which wasn’t ask sharp as I thought it would be. Then there were those fruits with a subtle undertone of ginger, cinnamon or star anise. Not immediately obvious, but just enough to accentuate the fruit flavours.
I left Corn Helyg inspired clutching samples to try at home and very much looking forward to seeing how the venture pans out. Jules has already been approached to give talks and demonstrations plus she will be running stalls at various events promoting her business and handing out tasters of those fabulous fruit leathers. Hopefully she will go from strength to strength, encouraging and inspiring people to start growing again, even if it’s just one or two edible plants in a small pot on a windowsill.
On my return home I tried out my samples on my nine-year old gastro-kid who declared them all delicious, even the unusual sloe and apple, before relaxing with a hot toddy of Bramley apple and cinnamon.
If you are interested in what Jules is doing at Corn Helyg you can drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or give her a call on 01407 731 115. I’m sure she would be happy to share her coffee, brownies and ideas with you too.