• Stihl TIMBERSPORTS®: we’ve been training with Britain’s best chop and saw athletes

    Later this year the Stihl TIMBERSPORTS® World Championships will be held in Liverpool, and to get people in the mood for the event Stihl invited a bunch of journalists to their training camp at Brooksby Melton College, Leicestershire. These were mostly fit, young journalists who worked on health and fitness magazines or extreme sports websites, but to show that you’re never too old to give it a go they also included us.

    We were getting our excuses in early. Rich complained of shoulder RSI and residual pain from a hernia op, while I grumbled about a dodgy back while exaggerating a hobble caused by bruised knee ligaments. We threw poor preparation into the excuse mix – vital research into the pubs of nearby Melton Mowbray the night before – and reminded the trainers that we would be 50 in a few years. The age card was immediately trumped by one of the training team, Andrew ‘Taff’ Evans, who still competes at age 52. Our hobbles immediately intensified.

    Joining Taff to show us the ropes were Spike Milton, Global Sports Director at Stihl TIMBERSPORTS® and 10-time British Champion, and ex-pro Rob Evans, while young buck Glen Penlington, current British number 3, was on hand to demonstrate how the disciplines should be done at a competitive pace. Stihl TIMBERSPORTS® competitions feature six events that involve saws,  chainsaws and axes, and each of the athletes need to be experts in all six. For our session we were trying out just two – cutting through a log with a single buck saw and the ‘underhand chop’ with an axe that Spike informed us was “so sharp you can shave with it.” With fear jangling our dodgy joints we first joined Taff for some sawing action.

    Buck Saw Competitive Sport

    What big teeth you have…

    The single buck saw isn’t your average DIY saw. It’s a monster. £1,500 worth of shiny steel, six foot long and lined with deep, deadly teeth, and we were going to use it to cut through an 19 inch thick piece of tree (the pros use even bigger teeth, with the world record standing at an astonishing 9.395 seconds). It quickly became obvious that this event was about technical mastery as much as speed and strength, as Taff talked us through how to grip the saw, position our bodies and slice effectively. Most of this information disappeared from my memory as soon as I clutched the quivering steel, but it must’ve sunk more firmly into Rich’s noggin as he showed remarkable adeptness that had Taff purring “one of the best newcomers I’ve seen.”

    As I sweated my way through a stuttering sawing action the bit of advice that did surface was “let the saw do the work. Don’t fight it.” This seemed increasingly impossible: I fought the saw, and the saw won. Never mind my dodgy knees, when the sawn off disc finally landed among the saw dust my arms were so sore I could barely pour myself a much needed glass of water from a jug.


    Glen Penlington shows us how to underhand chop before we don the protective armour

    Thankfully, the underhand chop was a far more enjoyable ride. This event involves standing on a log while swinging an axe head between your toes to chop through it. At first this seemed like a crazy event for amateurs, but we we so well drilled by Spike and Rob with a blunter practice axe that by the time we were astride the timber with the sharp beast in our hands we were able to hit the wood without fear of severing limbs (although we wore the lower parts of armoured suits just in case). Our chopping was far from the precision demonstrated by the experts, but on the few occasions we landed the blade in the right spot and at the correct angle, satisfying chunks of wood peeled away from the log.

    At the end of our session we cleaned up the wood chop mess ready for Leicester Tigers rugby players to have a go as a fun change from regular training, stocked up on pork pies, and made the long journey home to Somerset. There were a few axe techniques we should be able to transfer to our own wood sheds, but as for the single buck saw – isn’t that why chainsaws were invented?

    The Stihl TIMBERSPORTS® World Championships will be held at the Echo Arena in Liverpool on the 19th and 20th October. For more information visit the Echo Arena website


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  • Crabbie 30 Year Old Whisky – an old name returns

    You may only know the name Crabbie for ginger-based drinks, but the booze brand was started back in 1801 by Edinburgher* John Crabbie who sourced and blended whisky and sold them under his own name. After an absence from the whisky scene since the 1970s, the Crabbie name is now back on whisky bottles, celebrating its return with two single malts carefully selected from some of Scotland’s finest cellars. That pair of whiskies is a Highland single malt, sold as Crabbie 8 Year Old, and a single cask release of 336 bottles of Speyside single malt, badged as Crabbie 30 Year Old. While the former should be readily available, the 30 Year Old is likely to have sold out by the time you’ve read this – even with its £500 per bottle price tag – but it’s not that often we get our mitts on such an expensive drop of booze** so that’s the one we’re featuring to tell the Crabbie story.

    Crabbie 30 Year Old

    Type this whisky name into google and you’ll see a flurry of excitement about its release. The whisky is a Speyside single malt, bottled at 48.6% and, besides praising its taste and showing excitement for the return of the brand, you’ll also find a lot of conjecture on what distillery it was sourced from. If you’ve asked the ‘what distillery’ question of google and found us, then sorry, we haven’t got the foggiest idea.

    The long-term plan for Crabbie’s Whisky, owned by spirit giant Halewood, is to begin continuous single malt distilling in Edinburgh but, until those barrels are ready for bottling, the brand is reviving its founders expertise at sourcing other whiskies for its own label products.

    Tasting notes

    My initial sniff of this expensive tipple revealed a lovely clean whisky perfume with an almond sweetness to it. The taste was, at first, very intense with oaky spices engulfing the senses and boozy goodness penetrating deep into the bones. I added a splash of the Mendip’s finest tap water to the glass which allowed the hints of almond to nudge forward while the rich spicy notes remained in tact.

    I shared the dram with whisky connoisseur David*** who added that it had the deep, woody spice flavours you might expect from a high class bourbon while praising its exceptional smoothness. Even my mum snuck in for a wee sip. She wouldn’t normally go for a whisky with such a strong flavour but claimed “I could drink this.” I hope that wasn’t an early hint for Christmas…

    Fascinating fact

    Not content with his whisky sourcing and blending business, John Crabbie also dabbled with ginger wine and records show that a first sale of the two drinks was to ‘MacDonald of Glenalbyn.’ Not content with blending just whisky, it is from this liaison that whisky and ginger wine first joined forces in a glass, originally known as a Whisky MacDonald and now referred to as the Whisky Mac.

    You should still be able to get yourself a bottle of the excellent Crabbie 8 Year Old at Whisky Exchange

    John Crabbie 8 and 30 year whisky

    *What are people from Edinburgh called?

    **We were sent a dram, so don’t come knocking on my door expecting to take a snifter of rare, expensive whisky. It didn’t last long.

    ***Generous, huh?



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  • A Thirsty Gardeners Guide to… Sárpo potatoes

    In the battle against potato blight, one name stands proud above all others: Sárpo. We find out a little more about the fantastic fungal fighters…

    You say potato, I say potahto. You say sarpo
    …I say sharpo. Try it in your best Sean Connery voice with the very opposite of a silent ‘h’. Oh, and NO-ONE says potahto.

    Hmm… doesn’t sound especially Scottish to me. Eastern Europe maybe?
    Yep, Hungary to be precise. The Sárvári family (SARvari + POtato, geddit?) began developing blight resistant spuds over forty years ago, an enterprise that has now expanded into the Sárvári Research Trust (SRT) which trials loads of new varieties from its base in Bangor, Wales.

    Bangor and mash! Ahem. How do they resist the blight?
    ‘Late blight’ is a fungal disease which is incredibly hard to control. The Sárváris produced their varieties by crossing spuds with wild plants from the potato family that were naturally resistant to blight.

    So we’re trying a few on our blight-prone plot this year?
    Indeed we are. Joining our heritage spuds will be Sárvári stalwart ‘Sárpo Mira’ – a red skinned tatty which, according to the blurb from Thompson & Morgan, produces “huge yields of tasty, floury tubers”. Other approved varieties include ‘Sárpo Axona’, ‘Sárpo Una’ and ‘Sárpo Gwyn’.

    Super Sárpos. Is there anything else that suffers from late blight?
    Tomatoes also suffer badly from blight and the allotment is currently a no-go zone for tomato growers so Nick’s greenhouse is the where the tomato action happens. There are a few resistant varieties available but they’re nothing to do with the SRT and, apparently, are much less successful than the spuds.

    I say tomato, you say tomahto
    Lets call this whole thing off.

    If your spuds do succumb to blight then read our top tips on what to do about it here

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  • Pine, Juniper, Thistle. Three beers with ingredients that tell a story

    Every February we make our way down to the Truman Brewery in London to attend Craft Beer Rising where, along with sampling some of the best modern beers around, we also hold talks about home grown or foraged beer.

    This year Rich had to make an unscheduled trip to Leicestershire instead, meaning that I would have to run our session solo. Without Rich’s jokes to back me up how could I possibly keep the punters entertained while attempting to educate them with my foraged beer ramblings? Fortunately we stocked up with booze samples containing some of the featured ingredients and, although many of them were stuck with Rich in the East Midlands, I had just enough to distract the audience with regular sippings of free beer.

    One of the beers we included was Tomos a Lilford’s stout Crwrgl, which is brewed with two varieties of seaweed. You can find more about this fine drop in a blog about our trip to the brewery, here. The other three beers – craftily prized from our pals at Beer Hawk – each use ingredients with equally interesting stories to tell, so here are short versions of each of those tales…

    To Ol Frost Bite brewed pine

    To Øl, Frost Bite, 6%

    Foraged ingredient: pine

    Spruce and pine are among our favourite forageable ingredients. We’ve written about them in the past, including how you can use them to infuse vodka or even pickle the tips for a cheap woodland snack. Those vivid green young spruce tips have an interesting slot in the history of brewing: such is their high content of vitamin C, Captain Cook served a beer made from molasses and spruce tips to help his crew fend of scurvy.

    Although far from common, there has been a steady trickle of beers produced using pine or spruce in recent years. Scotland’s Williams Brothers make an excellent Christmas ale called Nollaig which has been spruced up with the flavoursome needles, but for our demo we turned to Denmark’s To Øl for a wintery American Pale Ale called Frost Bite. Many modern American hops have aromas and flavours that taste of pine and orange, so To Øl picked out a hop combination that would give their beer this profile (Aurora, Citra, Tettnanger, Simcoe and Amarillo) and then doubled the effect by adding actual pine needles and orange peel.

    The result is an invigoratingly fresh and zesty affair, with the pine flavours subtly through the crisp, frosty ale.

    Buy now

    Beer brewed with juniper and smoke

    HaandBryggeriet, Norwegian Wood, 6.5%

    Foraged ingredient: juniper

    Our next beer is another Scandinavian effort, this time from the outstanding Norwegian brewery HandBryggereit. The brewery’s commercial description of Norwegian Wood includes the historical inspiration behind the beer: “Once, every farm in Norway was required by law to brew its own ale. All of that ale had a natural smoky taste because the malt was kilned by fire, and most of it was spiced with juniper berries.” Neighbouring Finland is also well known for a beer style that relied on juniper – Sahti uses the branches of the plant as a flavouring and beer-making tool, with the mixed-grain brew being filtered through a trough lined with juniper twigs.

    We’re such big fans of juniper as a beer ingredient we even managed to create a home brew recipe for a juniper rye ale which features in our book, Brew it Yourself. But for anyone wishing to taste juniper in beer-action without having to brew their own, HandBryggereit’s is well worth trying. To stay true to their local inspiration it’s a smoked ale, although the smokey grain flavours don’t dominate as they do in other smoked beers. It has a lovely sweet toasted grain backbone and quite mix of herby, citrussy and spicy flavours dancing on the tongue, with some mature woody notes and a lovely dry finish.

    Buy Now


    beer brewed with blessed thistle

    Brouwerij de Kazematten, The Wipers Times 14, 6.2%

    Foraged ingredient: blessed thistle seeds

    Last year I visited Brouwerij de Kazematten in the Belgian city of Ypres. The local tourist board is keen to promote the area for its beer heritage, along with its more well known association with the first world war, and the brewery – established with the support of the city council – is a destination that covers both subjects. It’s housed within the 17th century fortified wall that surrounds the city and its flagship beer, The Wipers Times 14, is named after the trench gazette that was produced in the same location (‘Wipers’ being the soldiers nickname for Ypres).

    To further the links with the paper’s history and locality, this blond beer is brewed with local hops and four herbs, including seeds from the blessed thistle, an illustration of which forms part of the old Wipers Times masthead and the new bottle label. Brewery founder Rudy Ghequire, also a brewer at Rodenbach, wouldn’t reveal the other herb additions and was very cagey when I asked how he worked out what quantities of blessed thistle to use, responding simply “because I am a brewing expert.” But as with many botanical additions, you’re not necessarily looking to impart the exact flavours of those ingredients into the finished beer but instead alter the taste and texture of the overall brew to create something unique.

    So The Wipers Times 14, while being typical of Belgian blonde ales in many ways, also possesses complex herby and grainy flavours, a slightly sweet and creamy body and some delicate soft fruit aromas.

    Buy Now

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