Country Matters: Squirrelling away winter stocks

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The Independent Online
IT MUST be the onset of cold weather that brings out the squirrel instinct in me: at this time of year it becomes almost an obsession to check stores and pack things more neatly - especially now that farmers are unanimously predicting a hard winter.

Looking back, I realise that the instinct has always been with me. As a 10-year-old at school I spent much of my spare time in the woods building huts, and in these dwellings made of branches and leaves the most precious areas were always the storage tunnels, dug under the corners of the walls and carefully camouflaged with boards covered by earth. These caches contained our precious supplies of conkers and sweet chestnuts, and we made them in the hope that they would escape detection if the hut was ever raided by a rival gang.

It is not always easy to draw a line between storing and hoarding. People who stock up compulsively with food are generally known as 'hoarders', but I believe that, strictly speaking, the term implies an element of secrecy. My dictionary defines the noun 'hoard' as 'a hidden stock', and the verb as meaning 'to amass and deposit in secret'. People who hide away 500 tins of baked beans or mushy peas are thus, I suppose, hoarders, but those who keep food openly, and in reasonable quantities, are only storers.

Yet another category are those who lack the ability to throw anything away - such as the wildlife artist Eileen Soper, who, when she died in 1990, left her house in Hertfordshire so packed with belongings that executors could scarcely force their way into its rooms. But it was paper, rather than food, that she had hoarded: she and her sister, Eva, lived mainly on biscuits, and what they had kept was a staggering amount of newspapers, magazines, catalogues, shopping bags, letters, bank statements and invoices up to 50 years old, to say nothing of 3,000 empty jam jars.

If there is something faintly reprehensible about hoarding, storing of food is a natural activity, practised not only by squirrels, bees and birds (which pile up fat on their bodies before migrating), but also by foxes, which often bury food that they cannot immediately choke down. In surveying my own winter stocks, I therefore feel at one with the world of nature.

Indoors, canning and freezing have put paid to many old- fashioned methods of storage. A hundred years ago our kitchen would have been festooned with hams and joints of bacon hanging down from the rafters. In the larder would have stood crocks of salted green beans, eggs preserved in waterglass, and jars of pickled onions, beetroot and walnuts.

Today in the larder we have nothing more bulky than home-made jam and marmalade, and (at the last count) about 60lbs of honey, arranged according to the time of year - June or August - at which I took it off.

Outside, many of our winter vegetables are still in the ground, as they seem to last better that way. According to the experts, I should by now have lifted the carrots and stored them in sand, but they are doing fine in the earth - as are the leeks, parsnips, beetroots, spinach and Brussels sprouts.

In the farmyard, bales of sweet-smelling hay offer advantages to a variety of creatures besides the sheep and cattle that will eat them. The chickens nest cosily among them; rats and mice take up residence in the lower storeys, and our cats spend hours sitting like sphinxes on top of the stack, waiting for a tell-tale rustle beneath them.

The apple shed is another cheerful sight, with perhaps 100lbs of Bramleys ranged on wooden shelves. On the whole we had a poor year for apples, but two trees excelled themselves, one a Bramley cooker, and the other some unidentified breed of cider apple. The best of the cookers are now neatly set out, with space between every apple, so that if one goes bad, it does not infect its neighbours.

Some years I have wrapped apples individually in newspaper, in fact, but this does not seem to make much difference: sheets of paper laid flat over the top are enough to keep the dust off and give a degree or two of insulation. Our stone- built shed appears, providentially, to have ideal keeping qualities. In spite of some severe frosts, last year's crop lasted right through until April, when mice finally devoured the survivors.

The small cider apples, which are too tart to eat, have meanwhile gone through the press, and the juice is in the deep-freeze, frozen into rectangular blocks. If you want to make your hair stand on end with sheer intensity of taste, the thing to do, on warming up a block, is to drain off the first melt-down - the premier cru, as it were - and jettison the ice that remains. That way, you get the highest-octane juice imaginable.

From now on through the winter the scene of greatest activity will be the woodshed. Even if I were a millionaire sheikh with my own oilfields, I should retain our wood-burning stoves, since the warmth that they produce is infinitely more cheerful than any form of central heating, and the cutting, splitting and storing of wood offer endlessly satisfying recreation.

The first essential of good wood husbandry is to keep at least one year, and preferably two, ahead of demand. Only after many months in store will logs be dry enough to burn without tarring-up the chimneys. For once I have managed to establish a reasonable lead- time and amass healthy stocks, mainly of ash (which in our part of the world grows like a weed), but also of beech and oak. Ash splits most easily, and its clean, white colour is a joy; but beech and oak are just as rewarding to handle because of their hardness and density: with every log, you feel you are getting value for money.

For the past few days I have been labouring at a trailer-load of poplar, given by a friend after a big, old tree had blown down in his garden. Compared with real hardwoods, poplar seems terribly light and papery: it splits well enough, but even large logs weigh practically nothing. Besides, the bark has a bitter and faintly unpleasant smell.

Becoming irritated by the lack of substance, and wondering whether I was wasting my time, I consulted that well- known artist and potter Alan Caiger-Smith. He, living near the Thames at Aldermaston, often uses off-cuts of cricket- bat willow to fire his furnace, and I wondered if he had used poplar, too.

Yes, was the answer - and what's more, poplar has high calorific value. It may not last very long, but it burns fiercely, throwing out intense heat. Alan reckons that from both willow and poplar he can create a flame 45ft long, licking right through the kiln and to the top of the chimney.

No wonder that poplar is now all the rage as a renewable source of energy. No wonder farmers are being incited to grow stands of it as a means of generating cash without adding to the grain mountain or milk lake.

Reassured that my toils were worthwhile, I laboured on; and now the load is in a stack of its own, scheduled for use in the winter of 1994 at the earliest. The idea of a flame 45ft long is not altogether reassuring, but I take it that with a little restraint it can be kept under control.