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Cotswolds local and seasonal food - October 2017

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless; With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run..."*

October is a month of preparation in nature - hunkering down for the cold months ahead. The countryside changes colour as trees relax into their dormant state, having stored energy during the summer months. They slowly close down their food-making factories and green chlorophyll gradually disappears. The reason behind the beautiful red hues seen in the collections at Westonbirt Arboretum is due to glucose being trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. The sunlight and cool autumn nights turn this into spectacular red and orange displays. Many plants are dispersing their seeds at this time of year - oak trees rely on avid gardeners like squirrels and jays to bury their future generations. It is a season for many animals and insects - boar, bats, deer and spiders, as they gorge themselves to store fat for the months ahead. Also it's the time of year for finding a mate and so the dramatic seasons of deer rutting and bat serenading begins. Migratory birds (of which there are around 4,000 species worldwide) seek sunnier climes in Africa, and incoming visitors such as Bewick Swans, redwings and fieldfares who deem the British climate warmer than their normal homes arrive to feed through the Winter. *John Keats

The agricultural season of 2017 allowed the arable farmers to deliver a successful harvest, so crops and animal feed are now bursting in the barns. The cyclical nature of the farming calendar means that the farmers are now looking ahead to next Spring. The healthy seed bank of plump and bold seeds for the winter crops are being drilled, hopeful for rapid germination and thereby a positive outlook for the season ahead. The fattest Spring lambs who are still in the fields will be off to the abattoir – producing a flavoursome meat, having dined on rich grass all summer. And as the grazing quality thins, rams are introduced to the ewes to produce next year's stock for the local farms. And the cycle continues.

October is the time of year to celebrate the harvest. “Harvest” derives from the old English word 'hærfest' meaning autumn and its associated festivals dating back to times when the success of the crops governed everyone's lives. Legend tells of harvesters singing “harvest home!” as they decorated the last sheaf of grain with ribbons and flowers and carried it on the top of the last cart coming in from the fields. Religious ceremonies and autumnal rituals now play a familiar part in our celebration of the successful delivery of the fruits of the land. Singing, praying, baking, decorating and feasting reconnect us and our children with the importance of our farming community and reminds us how hard life can be without access to good food. Our tight relationships with the local farmers, growers and producers of all the food and drink served at The Priory Inn demonstrate that many businesses – and families' lives - are still very much driven by the success or otherwise of the crops and the reliability of the weather.

An eloquent dairy farmer speaking on behalf of his trade during a local harvest festival said: “we aim to farm as though we are going to live forever – and live as though this is our last day”. Our network of many local suppliers enjoy this admirable common thread, sharing a deep-rooted commitment to producing high quality, sustainable products whilst respecting and improving their environment.

We are nearing the end of our 7th year of running “Barter At The Back Door” which is a scheme asking local gardeners and growers to bring us their surplus fruit, vegetables, and even flowers for us to use in our restaurant and kitchen. In exchange, we hand out vouchers to the current market value of the produce which can be used against food and drink at The Priory Inn. The growing year of 2017 was a pretty good one for the 50 gardeners who have contributed to the scheme, receiving a total of over £1,200 in vouchers. The “winner” received just over £200 and enjoyed family get-togethers during the summer. The top three products received this year were strawberries (at 130 kilos they maintained their top slot from last year) closely followed by courgettes, and a big gain this year in the form of 110 kilos of rhubarb. Runner beans, pears and kale were also close runners at 77 kilos, 65 kilos and 57 kilos respectively . We wish all our barterers a productive winter tending to the soil that is the “engine” and heart of their operation, and we hope to see them and any new gardeners after the hungry gap in 2017!

Aside from the occasional staff tour of Bow-in-the-Cloud vineyard, just a couple of miles from Malmesbury, we never generally have the opportunity to “talk grapes”. However, having planted 5 varieties of vine at the foot of our oak pergola in early 2015 and after two growing seasons, we now have some delicious sweet bunches in our front garden. Our vines were sourced from Sarah Bell at Sunnybank Vines in Herefordshire, who is extremely helpful and exceptionally knowledgeable - and came very well recommended. The varieties we have are: Solaris - a white grape which ripens early in September with a good dessert taste; Vitis Purpura Spetchley Park which is quite decorative, with red canes and small bunches of grapes which have a herbaceous flavour; Brandt provides the delightful Autumn foliage now in full view and delivers dense bunches of red/ black grapes; Kempsey Black is a larger dessert grape, still to ripen later this month; and, Rembrandt is a vigorous, strawberry flavoured black grape, with big berries and loose bunches. Patience is crucial with grapes and picking them too early before the sugars have developed (even if the colour has already changed) leads to a sour result. The proof is in the picking!

Live Sunday music is an important part of The Priory Inn and starts every week at 8pm - entry is free.  On the 1st Steve Page combines the best of modern country and old time mountain music. Wildwood Jack plays on the 8th - inventive folk and roots blending fingerstyle acoustic guitar and ukulele. Sunday 15th October welcomes Larkham and Hall mixing jazz & classical piano playing with sultry vocals. The Plinks duo perform covers and original material on the 22nd and Steve Degutis rounds out the month on the 29th October. See our website for information on each performer.

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers" L.M. Montgomery