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The Priory Inn summerHerbs and beesSummer market Stroud

Cotswolds local and seasonal food - July 2017

Bees blew like cake-crumbs through the golden air, white butterflies like sugared wafers, and when it wasn't raining a diamond dust took over which veiled and yet magnified all things” *

Sweet, nectar-filled July sings with summer life. The hedgerows are laced with heavily scented honeysuckle and billowy elderflower and countless butterflies waltz through rich fields in frenzied pairs. Buzzards dot the skies, floating on thermals and skylarks perform with sky-high symphonies. Nature cycles through her seasons, as spring arrivals such as fox cubs hone their clumsy hunting skills and young furred or feathered prey learn to become alert to constant threats. Long grasses and fields of swaying wheat and corn will provide excellent cover until the late summer harvest. Sustained sunshine is now the final ingredient needed to add sweetness to the soft fruits and ripen this year's crops. *Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie

Local gardeners continue to bring their surplus produce to our “Barter at the Back Door” scheme. Anyone with an overflow of freshly harvested herbs, vegetables or fruit, can exchange them at current market value for vouchers to be used here in the restaurant or bar. Most summer seasons we print out vouchers for more than £1,000 and the range of food we receive is immense. At the moment, strawberries, beans, peas, gooseberries, spinach and rhubarb are the stars of bartering. The chefs came up with a delicious white-based pizza using the rhubarb that continues to arrive, and are now making pickles, coulis (simple purées) and chutneys to see us through the soft fruit starved winter.

The weather so far this year has been good in the main for the fruit and vegetable growers in our 30 Mile food network: ample (but not too much) rainfall; no suggestion of a drought (yet); and, mean temperatures above the long-term average. The result has been healthy for the seasonal produce that we so look forward to through the long winter months. One of our favourite market gardeners based on the sweet flavours that run throughout all their produce is Hotch Potch organics from whom we buy each week at Stroud Market. Jim describes himself as “peasant extraordinaire” who likes nothing better than resting on his hoe and surveying his brassica patch...a proud cauli grower and a whirling dervish behind the market stall” (he has to be as his queues are always so long...) His tomatoes are delicious and have taken many of our dishes to new summer-flavour highs.

The best strawberries (and now raspberries) are coming from Over Farm as well as our local barterers, and as a result there is an ever-growing fan base of our strawberry, basil and Blue Brie pizza. More a fruit than a berry, what we know as the modern strawberry was first cultivated in France in the 1750s from a cross between a wild North American and South American variety. Part of their appeal is the relatively brief outdoor growing season from June to early August. The ubiquitous Elsanta is the most common variety mainly due to the supermarket and agri-businesses focussing on high yields and shipping qualities. This is not necessarily Elsanta’s fault as commercial pressures favour easy handling over taste or juiciness. A crucial element of our ethos is selecting strawberries from small-scale family growers who put quality before mass production and who plump for lesser-known varieties with a better flavour.

We buy milk direct from Melissa Ravenhill's Woefuldane organic 110 acre farm 6 miles away in Minchinhampton. The herd of 50 dairy shorthorn cows graze outside every day of the year – only taking shelter in the yards during the cold winter nights. They live in family groups which contain a few generations of mothers and sisters and they stick together by surname - the Speckys and the Hoggins - maintaining important patterns of hierachy when it comes to who is milked first and in which milking bay – politely waiting for family members before they enter the yard for milking. The milk is pasturised onsite but not homogenised which means it is a very natural product – great in our coffees and an exceptional quality when tasted against bland, mass-produced supermarket milk.

Last year we visited the horticultualists at the very pleasant Hortico Garden Centre near Sherston and planted a bed of different varieties of Nepeta ('catmint') infront of the restaurant windows. The plants have settled in beautifully under the “Tetbury in Bloom” hanging baskets and are attracting bees, butterflies and other insects. Local felines may also be enticed by the Nepetalactone (in the leaves and the stems) which when sniffed cause curious and unusual changes in cats' behaviour! Just in case you are wondering what the prehistoric plants are, they are “cynara cardunculus” or cardoons and can grow to 2.5m high. They will soon produce large thistle-like blue/violet flowers within their silver grey leaves on which the bees and butterflies feed voraciously. The flower buds of wild cardoons are widely collected and used in Spanish and Portugese cheesemaking - the pistils of the flower being used as a vegetable rennet. The versatile plant is also being investigated as a possible source of biodiesel fuel, as the oil that can be extracted from the seeds (“artichoke oil”) is similar in composition and use to sunflower oil. Our chefs experimented with slow braising leaf stalks in the Spring to a mixed staff reaction!

Other herbs which add to our garden's thriving display are French and orange scented thyme, Greek oregano, winter savory, French tarragon, hyssop, many varieties of mint, beautiful feathery bronze fennel, tarragon, rosemary, garlic chives, purple sage, chamomile and borage. The grape vines from Sunny Bank Vines are now sending out masses of shoots and have claimed the pergola as their home, creating a Mediterranean canopy. This Autumn we shall again harvest some juicy bunches of grapes for our cheese board and breakfast buffet.

Live Sunday music is an integral part of The Priory Inn's product and starts every week at 8pm - entry is free.  On the 2nd, Blind River Scare's Tim Manning plays original Americana, folk, country-tinged songs, followed on the 9th by Shuwanfey, a Welsh indie-folk artist and songwriter. Lewis Clark's lyrical blend of folk and blues will entertain on the 16th and a stripped back acoustic brand of funk rock will be played by The Funkinsteins on the 23rd. The last Sunday in July sees the always popular Steve Degutis playing a wealth of self-penned songs. See our website for information on each performer.

“I am Summer, come to lure you away from your computer... come dance on my fresh grass, dig your toes into my beaches.” Oriana Green