Homesteading Skills: Homemade Wine and Best Types of Trees

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by Unsplash/Moritz Knöringer

Ah, the vicissitudes of time. Two years ago, when there were no currently relevant small-scale-farming introductory handbooks available, many of us welcomed the publication of Richard Langer’s Grow It! with open arms. Now that we’re all older and more experienced, however, some folks find it increasingly easy to criticize that breakthrough beginner’s guide. Which brings us to another breakthrough book that is just as important (probably more so) now as Grow It! was two years ago . . . and which may well come up for its share of criticism in another 24 months or so.

Be that as it may, John and Sally Seymour’s record of 18 successful years on a shirttail-sized homestead in England is important now and should offer welcome encouragement to today’s back-to-the-landers . . . both real and imaginary. .–MOTHER.

Homemade Wine

Now ‘homemade wine’. Grape wine should be pure juice of the grape, with nothing added, and nothing taken away. This is because the ripe grape is very rich in sugar, has enough water in it so that it doesn’t need any more, and carries its own yeast spores on its skin ready to ferment it. But the ‘wines’ most country people make in Britain are really little more than solutions of sugar — ordinary beet or cane sugar (sucrose) in water, flavoured and reinforced with the juices of some fruit or vegetable, and fermented with added yeast.

I know a village in Worcestershire (a county of mighty wine-makers) in which at least three farm-working gentlemen have sheds in the bottoms of their gardens purely devoted to the making and drinking of wine. These three gentlemen share this in common: Half of their gardens are devoted to the culture of the rhubarb and the other half to that of the parsnip — their wives can whistle in vain for anything else. They each own two sixty-gallon barrels. In the winter they each brew sixty gallons of parsnip (this root should not be used until the frost has been on it) and in the summer sixty gallons of rhubarb. They are apt to ‘go on the barrel’ as they aptly call it, all gathering in the shed of one or other of them, and I have on occasion, ‘gone on the barrel’ with them. It is an experience.

We make elderberry (a glass a day, in the winter, keeps the flu away, and if it doesn’t then an occasional hot glass with a teaspoonful of honey in it, gets rid of it); elder flower, which is a most delicate wine, quite delicious and also, I believe, has therapeutic properties; blackberry, which is a full-bodied rather port-like wine; black currant, which is absolutely excellent; mead, which we make from the cappings of the honeycombs which would otherwise be wasted anyway; sloe wine, which is a very good port-like wine; and a few others. People make ‘wine’ out of absolutely ridiculous things: lettuces and tea leaves and hell knows what. This is simply fermenting sugar and water and flavouring it with some unlikely vegetable matter. Throw your pea-pods to the pigs, they’ll do far more good.

But the principles are always the same. Get your juice by whatever means is suitable (boiling, steeping, crushing, soaking your material), keep it as far as you can from contamination with the wrong sort of organisms, make up its sugar content by adding sugar to it, introduce yeast into it when it is the right temperature (blood heat), keep the vinegar flies out of it, and leave it to ferment. When it has fermented it is wine. If it is red wine leave it a year at least if you are able for it to mature; if white a few months. And remember that it will probably be far stronger than grape wine.

Really all wine making is pure common sense, once you realize that about three pounds of sugar is all you are going to get to ferment into alcohol in a gallon of water, you must use clean containers and you must keep the vinegar flies out. One generality is that the larger quantities you make at once the more chance you have of success. My old friends who make wine in sixty-gallon casks never get a failure. It’s the amateur who makes dribs and drabs of this and that who — although he possibly gets a lot of fun out of it — also spoils a lot of wine. My Worcestershire friends have never even heard of special wine yeasts nor of Campden tablets nor hydrometers and things like that. But none of them could even remember having had a failure in their wine, and I can vouch for it that it is always superb of its kind.

I am not running down science. I would advise any beginner in the art to get a good little book about wine making (there are scores of them), to get a hydrometer, to use special yeasts if he finds in practice they are better; but I would have my reservations about Campden tablets. They are made from a chemical which inhibits unwanted yeasts and you hope they won’t inhibit the yeast you are using. I use them to sterilize bottles sometimes but have never put them in my wine. I am fussy about what goes in my stomach. I don’t like eating off dishes washed with detergents and then not very thoroughly rinsed, nor do I like drinking mains water, which is full of chlorine. And I don’t like consuming sulphur dioxide in my wine.

Here are a few recipes for making some of the more sensible kinds of homemade wines.

Parsnip Wine

4 pounds parsnip
3 pounds sugar
1 gallon water
some lemons or citric acid

Cut the parsnips up and boil ’em, but not too soft. They should just be easily prickable with a fork. Boil a couple of lemons up with them if you’ve got them. Strain off the liquor, stir in the sugar while it’s still hot so as to melt it; some people put some raisins in too; put in some lemon juice or citric acid; put in a vessel and ferment with your yeast. Of course you must wait until the temperature has gone down to about blood heat before putting in the yeast. Like all other wine, ferment under a fermentation lock, or a wodge of cotton wool in the neck of the vessel, to keep the vinegar flies out and let out the CO2 . Rack it well a couple of times (that means pour it gently off its sediment into another vessel; we have had difficulty clearing parsnip — but I think we boiled it too long —  and then keep it as long as you can lay your hands off it.

Now the citric acid and/or the lemons in the above recipe was to give the yeast enough acidity to feed on, parsnips being lacking in acidity. With anything that common sense tells you is not very acid — shove in some lemons or some citric acid.

Rhubarb Wine

15 pounds 2-1 /2 pounds sugar
1 gallon water

Chop up rhubarb, pour on the water boiling and mash the rhubarb. Don’t boil any more though. Leave it to soak until next day, strain off your liquor and press the `fruit’ to get as much out as you can. Stir in the sugar and bung in the yeast. Multiply everything by sixty and that is how my Worcestershire friends make it.

Elderberry Wine

4 pounds elderberries
3 pounds sugar
1 gallon water

You are supposed to get all the berries off the stalks but I have shoved stalks in and all and not found any difference and, after all, if you can save a lot of work by departing from slavish convention why not do so? Pour the water on boiling, mash hard with a potato masher, and leave to soak for 24 hours — but cover it up. Put the yeast in and let it get on with it. The longer you keep it the better. Of course when it has finished fermenting you will rack it into bottles or other containers, so as to leave the sediment behind. You will do this with all wines.

Make redcurrant or any other berry wine the same you make elderberry.

How To Make Mead

As much comb cappings, and odd bits of `wild comb’ that you couldn’t put in the extractor, and perhaps some pure honey stolen from the main storage pot when your wife isn’t looking to supply what in your estimation is about three pounds of honey to a gallon of water. Melt the honey in the water and ferment. Honey is deficient in acid, so put the juice of two or three lemons in a gallon or some citric acid if you can’t get lemons. Mead also likes some tannin to feed the yeast. Apples supply tannin, so some crushed crab apples are a good idea. Last time I dumped some rose hip syrup that the children decided they didn’t like into my mead, which wasn’t fermenting very well, and it started to ferment like blazes. I have heard of people putting tea in mead to supply tannin. Mead goes on fermenting for a long time, so don’t hurry it, and if you can leave it in bottle for a few years so much the better. But can you? Some people spice mead well, and it is a good idea.

A metal (not a wooden) corking tool is a good buy, such as you knock on the head with a hammer. You can then cork your bottles professionally and leave the wine to mature in bottle much longer and more safely. Boil the corks before you use them and use new ones.

Types of Trees for Their Wood

There is just one other natural product which we must discuss, although it is not something that we can eat. And that is wood. But we cannot manage our little self-supporting estate unless we know something about this.

Nobody should ever cut a tree down without planting several to take its place, and the question is what trees to plant.

If it will grow at all on your soil the tree to plant before all others is the sweet chestnut. It has absolutely every advantage and, so far as I know, no disadvantage. For a hardwood tree it is quick growing; it makes the finest fence or gate posts of any tree; it will rive (split straight — a most important achievement); it is magnificent firewood (if anybody could bring themselves to use this splendid timber for such a purpose); it is straight grained; it is hard and lasting. The long fairly straight trunks rive as sweet and true as a nut, and the resulting posts, driven into the ground, will last until you are in the ground. Just why the Forestry Commission has been allowed to blanket the countryside with millions of acres of Scots or Corsica pine, or Sitka spruce, when they could in many cases have been planting this magnificent tree is a mystery that I suppose will never be solved.

The softwoods, unless you like the look of them, are of practically no value on the estate whatever. They don’t even make good firewood. You can pressure creosote them until the stuff meets in the middle and they still won’t last many years in the ground. They were good for pit props — until the pits went over to steel — and are now good for pulp. Unless you intend to make pulp, or run a coal mine, don’t grow firs and pines.

Ash is a splendid tree to grow. It grows fast, rives well, makes the best firewood there is (`seer or green it’s fit for a queen’) and it looks beautiful. But it won’t last long in the ground. I have been using small pickets of ash for fifteen years now for holding up electric fencing, but they are never in the ground for more than a few months at a time, and when they are out — if it happens that I am having a creosote boiling at the moment — I boil them. The principle of boiling stakes in creosote incidentally is to boil them in it — and let them cool in it. It is when they are cooling that the contracting air inside them sucks in the juice. A big oil drum with the top out of it perched up on some concrete blocks is fine, with a fire under it — but beware — seven times beware –letting the stuff boil over onto the fire because it is highly inflammable. I once set fire to a jeep by making this mistake and I’m still paying for it. You should buy it by the 44-gallon drum, to get it in penny-packets will break you. Green wood will take in very little creosote. It is when you use posts twice that you should boil them. But boil them green too–even the little they do absorb helps.

I made a dozen gates of split ash when we came to Wales six years ago, and excepting one which disintegrated they are all still as good as new. I rived the ash as soon as I cut it down, nailed the members together with well-clenched nails, drilling holes for the nails first for otherwise they would have split the wood. I went to the trouble of dolloping creosote into the nail holes before I drove the nails in, for that is where rot starts. Hinges I found lying about. I used little bolts for the main joints which, like the nails, I did have to buy. But I don’t suppose each gate costs me half a crown. They look very good and do the job well. If I could have got sweet chestnut instead, of course, I would have used that: Ash was a faute de mieux. I wash them with creosote every three years or so though.

Oak (which is very closely related to the sweet chestnut) will rive too, but nothing like as easily and sweetly as chestnut. You cannot easily make small members of it by riving. If you have a rip saw you can rip it down of course, and most professionally made gates in this country are of sawn oak ( never buy softwood gates). Heart of oak makes the best posts — as good at least as chestnut, and many an oak post is still holding up a gate after sixty years in the ground. The sap wood, though, which makes up most of the volume of a young oak, is not much good at all. Dried oak makes magnificent firewood. Oak is traditionally the best wood for smoking fish or meat — but it doesn’t matter all that much.

Birch is a long-lasting wood indoors, but no good for posts outside. When really dry it is a very hot and good firewood.

Alder is tree-weed, and is good for very little. It makes indifferent firewood when it is dry. We burn a lot of it fautede mieux, and because we want to get rid of it.

Willow is good firewood when it is really dry. If you plant a willow post it will grow into a tree. Not a bad way of holding fences up. We have planted about a hundred basket-withy willow on boggy ground.

Elm and Beech I have had little to do with, for we have never had any. Sycamore is fine for turning and surely the ability to make treen (turned and carved implements and objects) would be a good one for the self-supporter to possess.

Larch is a good tree. Larch posts are quite good in the ground, particularly if well creosoted when seasoned. It’s a good firewood, though spits, and if you can’t kindle a fire with the brittle dry twigs that a larch keeps shedding you can’t light a fire with anything.

The trees I should plant are, in this order, sweet chestnut, oak, ash, larch, walnut. The latter would be an investment for my posterity.

How to Build A Smoke-House

To make a smoker for bacon or fish. An old outside lavatory is perfect and in Suffolk that is what we used to use. Any construction inside or outside the house about that size or shape will do. Put a big old enclosed stove (the Forester is fine, because it’s made for wood burning, but any stove that will burn wood will do) outside the `little house’ and poke the chimney pipe straight through a hole in the wall. You thus get fairly cool smoke going straight into your smokehouse. If you want hot smoke, supplement this by lighting a smouldering wood and sawdust fire inside the smoke-house on the floor. An obvious economy is to have the smokehouse up against the outer wall of your house and the wood-burning enclosed stove inside. Thus you warm the house as you are smoking the bacon. But there is nothing to beat the good old open fireplace, with pipes put across at various levels according to what heat you want. Oak is the best smoking wood — but it is not all that important which you use.

Edible Seaweed

Samphire (Crythmum maritimum), an edible seaweed, beloved of the Fenlanders, can be pickled thus:

Fill a jar with it, add peppercorns and some horseradish shavings, pour over it a boiling mixture of dry cider and vinegar (50-50), infuse it in the oven for an hour and seal. You can also just boil it fresh. It is stringy, but you pull it through your teeth so as to leave the succulent flesh in your mouth.

Sea Holly(Eryngium maritimum). Eat the flowering shoots like asparagus, and roast the roots. ( I’ve never tried it.)

Laver Weed(Porphyra vulgaris). Soak for a few hours in fresh water. Dry in slow oven and powder in mortar. Boil for 4 hours, changing water. Drain. Fry. Serve with bacon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This has been the final installment in our serialization of John and Sally Seymour’s classic, Farming for Self-Sufficiency.