Ahhh, can you feel it? The air is starting to get that buzz to it that happens at this time of the year. Holiday markets are sprouting up and the smell of mulled wine and spiked cider wafts through the air inside normally beer-smelling bars.
With Thanksgiving a mere two weeks away, we wanted to find some decorations to use around our apartment. While some stores have been selling Christmas decorations for a while, we have not been able to find any real Thanksgiving ones. Heck, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s got rid of pumpkins before kids had gotten out of their Halloween costumes, meaning that our plans to use a pumpkin with an intricate design drilled into it to allow the candlelight to shine through as a centerpiece were pretty much shot down.
So we had to think hard to find our own decorations, and to make the most of our storage space, try to make convertible decorations that can be used for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. We thought that pine cones would be a great touch. Of course, we could have purchased fake pine cones or even real ones, but a) fakes are never as good as the real thing and b) if we’re using real pine cones anyway, why spend the money on them instead of picking them up from the ground?
But there was a problem. Well, despite keeping our eyes open for pine trees during our long walks for a couple of weeks, we didn’t come across any. So we did what most 21st century inhabitants do — we took to Google. Thanks to Victoria, over at Skinny Latte, we learned that there are some pine cones at Hampstead Heath.
Now, the Heath is not exactly a quaint little park. It’s enormous — 320 hectares to be exact. And quite spectacular too, especially on a crisp but cloudless day.
Thankfully Victoria did the hard work for us and pointed us to the exact spot where we could find pine trees, and therefore pine cones. The area is known as Vale of Health, to the West of the Heath, an actual hamlet within the greenery. So a few Saturdays ago we took the Northern line to Hampstead and walked over to The Vale of Heath. Victoria was right, there are quite a few pine trees in that area. Unfortunately, we weren’t quick enough and the areas underneath the trees had been cleared of the cones, or at least any decent ones that weren’t completely covered in mud, or at least what we hope is mud.
Which left us with one alternative — go deep into the growth and find the trees that others hadn’t yet been discovered. And just in case you’re wondering, we didn’t want to pick cones that hadn’t yet fallen; that sounded wrong.
Luckily we didn’t have to look too far. A couple of minutes of off-roading we came across our first tree that had quite a few, although small, cones surrounding it. We picked a couple of handfuls and put them in a bag we’d brought along (we had come prepared) and continued walking through the increasingly more overgrown area, until we came across this tree.
The shrubs surrounding it don’t seem too problematic, but believe us, there were thorns all around. And we spotted a couple of large bees which made us wary — the last thing we needed was the be attacked by the whole nest. The other concern was poison ivy, or anything of the sort. We have no idea whether there was anything like that surrounding the tree, but we were still treading carefully. But our efforts and some scrapes and cuts paid off because we got quite a stash.
Picking anything from the outdoors always puts you at risk of bugs. We definitely didn’t want those in our apartment so we had to carefully clean the cones. The first step was to soak them in a mixture of water and distilled vinegar. Then we scrubbed them with an old toothbrush to remove the gunk.
The next step was to put them in a hot oven to kill anything else that survived the vinegar bath. The benefit of this step is that the cones start opening up once they dry. Of course, this will happen if you leave them outside for a few days, but what’s wrong with instant gratification?