Archives for category: Foraging
Rose hips, see also Rose hip

Image via Wikipedia

I have a cold again. I feel as if I’ve had a cold constantly since autumn arrived – sometimes it’s been on standby, but it’s always been ready to send me running for the tissues at a moment’s notice. And this time I’m feeling particularly self-pitying about it. Good news, then, that rosehips have twenty times more vitamin C than an orange – according to my Richard Mabey  – and that I had picked a whole stash of them in a more energetic point in the cold lapse.

I made a rosehip syrup last year but found it disappointing on the flavour front. I’ve since had it pointed out to me that I probably picked my hips too early – this may seem blindingly obvious, but like any other fruit, they ripen. While they appear from late August, at first they’ll be hard; later on they’ll soften and have more flavour. You can eat them raw if you want to see how they taste, but avoid the little seeds which are not good for your insides.  Be careful, also, if you’re picking them at the squishy stage: they have tiny inner hairs which will itch like crazy if you get them on your skin. I speak from uncomfortable experience.

This year I used the recipe in Mabey’s book, which is in fact an old Ministry of Food recipe used when citrus fruit was scarce and the aforementioned vitamin C status of rosehips became particularly valuable. It’s more time consuming than the one I used last year, so best to do it on a day you’re planning to stay in, but the results just about capture the flavour – something like a cross between apple and rose. It’s also recommended that you bottle the syrup in small portions as it will only last a couple of weeks once it’s open. Since this recipe yields a lot, you will end up with several small bottles of syrup. In other words, that’s a few Christmas presents sorted.


Rosehip syrup

Makes about 750ml

1kg rosehips
900g sugar

Wash and drain the hips (they can be frozen if you don’t want to make the syrup straight away). Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and roughly chop the hips in a food processor. Toss them into the boiling water, turn off the heat and leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Pour everything into a jelly bag or piece of muslin or clean tights and leave it to drip into a bowl until just about all of the liquid has dripped through. Put the hip residue back into the saucepan, add another 750ml boiling water and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Put it back into the jelly bag and let it drip through a second time. Put the first cupful of liquid back through the jelly bag for a final time (to make sure you don’t get any of the tiny itchy hairs in your syrup). Measure the final amount of liquid and put it back into a clean saucepan. Bring to the boil and reduce until you have about 750ml left (measuring it first makes this easier to judge). Add 900g sugar and boil for 5 minutes. Pour straight into sterile bottles and seal. Store in a dark cupboard.

The syrup can be used as a cordial or flavouring for milk puddings or ice-cream – the flavour is quite delicate so it needs to be paired with something subtle.

From Richard Mabey’s ‘Food for Free’

prunus spinosa

Image via Wikipedia

The bad news is it’s too late now for your sloe gin to be ready in time for Christmas. The good news is, that means you won’t feel obliged to give any of it away as Christmas presents. Hooray! You’ll probably be in more need of it in January, anyway. In fact I recently learned that if you make your own booze by mixing vodka with blackberries, elderberries, sloes etc. in a jar, leaving it in a dark place for a few months, and shaking it every day, then you have made ‘tincture’. I.e., it’s medicinal. If you want to make it more drinkable, you have to add a considerable amount of sugar, which no doubt reduces its healing benefits somewhat, but the link is clear.

If you live in Oxford, plentiful sloes are available in Brasenose woods (at the bottom of Shotover). If you don’t, I’m afraid I can’t help you, except to say that the branches of the sloe have lots of sharp thorny bits which are apparently slightly poisonous, so avoid getting scratched by them if you can. And don’t eat the berries raw, they make your mouth taste all furry.

It goes without saying that you should not use your finest gin for this – any nuances of taste will be smothered by the sugar and fruit. I used Tesco’s value range, but I’ve heard good things about Lidl gin in this context.

Sloe gin

Makes approx. 2 x 70cl. bottles

700g sloes
350g sugar
2 bottles gin

You will need 2 large kilner jars, or similar. Sterilise them by washing them in hot soapy water and drying them in a low oven. In the meantime, wash and dry the sloes and prick each one several times with a (sterilised) needle. This is the tedious bit. I read that you could bypass it by putting the sloes in the freezer so the skins burst, but it didn’t work for me. So put the radio on, or listen to a podcast or something. When all the berries have tiny holes in them, divide them between the  warm jars, cover each with half the sugar, and top up with a bottle of gin each (keep the gin bottles to reuse for the final product if you like). After 3 months the gin will be ready to drink – apparently it benefits from being kept for longer, but I’m not able to comment on that. You should shake it every day for the first couple of weeks or so and then whenever you remember after that. Keep it in a dark, cool place.

When the time is up, strain out the berries and pour the finished gin either back into the original gin bottles or into something prettier (the rather cute Christmassy bottle in the picture came from Ikea).

From Darina Allen’s ‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’

I don’t know if it was deliberately difficult to attend this event, but after finding nothing about it on either the Vaults’ or Wyldheart’s website, no-one behind the counter at the Vaults having heard of it and there being no actual tickets, we managed to get our names written down on a piece of paper and get through the door last Friday night. Encouraging the dedicated personality of the forager, perhaps.

We started with a glass of blackberry-spiked local champagne (from Bridewell, where they have therapeutic gardens tended by people with mental illness). I had just had a pre-event Negroni, thinking I might need to be fortified in case we were the only people who had made it. I felt quite giddy. We managed to sit next to a couple I worked with for a few months circa 2003, strangely enough. Becky does not eat nuts and Jamie does not eat cheese, so the starter of wild herb soup with hazelnut pesto bruschetta was greeted with ambivalence; I liked it. I later found out that the wild herbs were young dock leaves, nettle and something called jack-in-the-hedge, although the flavour of those was fairly matched with potato in the soup. I don’t mean that as a criticism – I think it’s very possible to overdo the taste of nettle.

Main course was a venison stew with a sort of champ-like mashed potato thing and salad. I remember the menu advertising it as containing rowanberry jelly, but I don’t know if it did. It was nice all the same. I ate as much as I could but had to concede strategic defeat in order to manage what turned out to be a pretty generous portion of crumble. Accompanied with, and this for me was the highlight of the meal, sloe gin custard. Not only did it turn the custard a pretty shade of creamy violet, it infiltrated the crumble with an extra warming hit of sweet booziness. Very good. And reminded me I need to go on a sloe foraging trip soon.

In between mains and pudding, Sophia, who runs Wyldheart, the organisation which put on the event, talked to us about her mission to reconnect people with the wild. She spent some time in Australia with Aboriginal people and this underpins her philosophy; the rightness of traditional ways of life that interdepend in a careful and respectful way with the natural world. We watched a clip of a film about an Aboriginal elder, Bob Randall, who was taken from his family and put into a Christian institution (these Aboriginal children, forcibly removed from their families between 1869-1970s, are known as the Stolen Generations).  It was very moving – if you thought you were only interested in the foodie aspect of the wilderness, this was inspiration to look deeper.

To finish, Sophia passed round a selection of leafy bits and pots of hot water for us to make our own herb teas. I went with water mint, which was actually delicious – slightly sweeter and gentler tasting than real mint. It felt like a very civilized end to a very wholesome meal. Wyldheart also run foraging walks, which I intend to go on as soon as I can.

I realise this might seem a bit two-weeks-ago, now the elderflowers are shedding their bloom and fading from the hedgerows, but I couldn’t write up the recipe until I was sure it had worked, and now it has I’m all over-excited about it. Plus, there’s always next year, right?

When the elderflowers were in full throttle, back when it wasn’t raining like every single day, I picked so many that I needed to find ways to use up the ones that hadn’t gone into cordial. I turned to my trusty copy of Darina’s ‘Forgotten Skills’ and found recipes for elderflower vinegar, elderflower tempura and elderflower ‘fizz’. The elderflower vinegar I dutifully made, bottled, and have not used. The elderflower tempura fell by the wayside because I can never be bothered to deep-fry things. The elderflower fizz was more intriguing and seemed almost too simple (‘this magical recipe transforms perfectly ordinary ingredients into a delicious sparkling drink’), but I weighed the ingredients into a bowl, left it overnight and bottled it as directed, leaving it on its side in the wine rack until…a week or so later I realised I hadn’t put the seal in properly and half of it had leaked all over the worktop. What was left looked pretty flat and I assumed it needed pressure to work and I was looking at a big fat fail.

But then! Tonight we decided to open it anyway. The top came off with such an almighty pop I shrieked like a very girly girl. I poured it into a glass. It fizzed! It was delicious. And so I can only urge you to make this as soon as possible, which I’m sorry may well be May 2012, because it does seem to be completely foolproof. Magical, even.

*It’s not actually alcoholic. Well, maybe a very little bit.

Elderflower champagne

2 heads of elderflower
zest and juice of 1 organic lemon
600g sugar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar

Shake the elderflower carefully to remove any insects (it helps to do it onto a pale surface so you can see them, they tend to be tiny). Remove the zest from the lemon with a swivel-top peeler. Put all the ingredients into a bowl with 4.6 litres of cold water and leave for 24 hours.

Strain the liquid and pour into strong screw-top or flip-top type bottles. The bottles need to be well sealed (ahem!). Lay them on their sides in a cool place for 2 weeks, after which they should be sparkling and will be ready to drink.

From ‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’, Darina Allen

It started with an Ottolenghi recipe in the Guardian: blackberry and star anise friands. I love a friand, those little moist, almost chewy, almond cakes, delicious and helpful despatchers of leftover egg whites. We headed to the local park under the threat of rain to pick the last of the stunted, soggy blackberries. “Better be quick, there won’t be any left soon”, advised a cheerful dog walker.

We got a bit carried away, ending up with far more blackberries than were needed for a lightly speckled friand batter, and more besides: a carrier bag of sloes painstakingly gathered at the expense of lacerated arms and a tub of dirty rosehips. I also found a mushroom, but threw it away again when it wouldn’t match any of the mushroom descriptions in my only foraging book.

I baked the friands while the rain thrashed the windows, which is the best way to bake. They turned out cute, though I’m not sure I don’t prefer them plain and un-star anise-adorned. The rest of the blackberries are in a box earmarked for crumble and the sloes have been pierced and deposited in a kilner jar with a large amount of sugar and cheap gin. The hard part now is waiting for three months – three! – until we drink it.

As for the rosehips, a lengthy preparation process yielded a small amount of pale syrup which tasted mainly of sugar. Oh well.