Posts Tagged ‘blackthorn’

Loose Ends 2011

January 12, 2012

Here are some of the things I intended to write about last year, but which got heavily procrastinated and failed to make it past the event horizon. Until now…

1) – Holm Oaks. Also called Holly or Evergreen Oaks because they hold onto their tough, waxy leaves all through the year. A few weeks after writing about them in a comment on my Balanophagy post I was walking up a road I’d not been on for a while and bumped into this huge sucker:

He had lovely wrinkly-grey bark and was the largest of three, apparently of the same species, providing a hefty barrier to the road on the right and completely shading out the small houses on the left. A quick hunt around on the floor confirmed my suspicion – a thick layer of half-rotted leafmould, practically nothing growing and lots of small, pointy, shiny brown acorns:

Jackpot! I bent down and gathered a couple of pockets’ worth, earning the usual suspicious glances from people walking past. I noticed that many more of the nuts showed signs of nibbling by small mammals than I’ve found with regular acorns, perhaps confirming the lower tannin content I’d heard about. A quick taste test revealed only a slight astringency at the end, coupled with a lingering starchy sweetness which was in a different league to any other acorns I’d nibbled on. I’ve since noticed several more trees on my winter walkabouts – they’re much easier to spot when all the other trees have dropped their leaves.

Unfortunately it took longer to process a decent amount of the acorns, using the usual method of cracking, peeling, rubbing off the inner skin and roasting for around half an hour, but then I’d done Beechnuts earlier in the season, so couldn’t really complain…

Overnight soaking improved the raw flavour of the second batch (I had to do it because most of them had dried to stone-hardness by the time I got round to them), but I think I overdid the roasting in the end. The first lot came out better, approaching Ken Fern’s description of ‘a soft, floury texture and a sweet flavour that is rather like sweet chestnuts’ (Plants For A Future, p.36). I’ve put them into morning porridge, meat stews, lentil dishes and even a couple of fry-ups, and they seem to keep rather well in their glass jam jar – better than the regular acorns I kept in a paper bag which had to get washed and re-roasted to kill the mould that was growing on several of them.

2) – Linden Leaf Stew. As promised I finally got round to making a Creole-style ‘gumbo’ dish using the Lime leaves I dried and powdered previously. I loosely followed this recipe, frying ground beef and chunks of chicken with onions, carrots, garlic, spinach, misc. herbs and spices, then pouring boiling water over the top, adding the lime leaves, salt’n’pepper, some baking soda and, even though the idea seemed pretty strange to me, a dollop of peanut butter.

This then stewed away for about half an hour and eventually got served with plain rice:

Incredibly rich and flavourful, I was the only one who managed to finish their plate. Unfortunately I have to report that the meal gave me pretty terrible gas for the rest of the night 8O . Hopefully that was due to the baking soda and not the lime leaves or anything else essential to the recipe…

3) – Cattail Rhizomes. Ooh boy, this wasn’t successful! I maybe gave a false impression of abundance with my picture of two plastic bags full of rhizomes gathered from a local pond during a conservation task back in September. In reality my harvest wasn’t as substantial as it looked because the root material is very spongy with only a thin solid core going through the middle.

Well, I washed, scrubbed and cut them into manageable segments, keeping the tender young shoot separate. Then I tried boiling and roasting them like you would with potatoes, as recommended by several sources. The yellow outer skin remained tough and indigestible, but it was possible to tease out the inner fibres with my teeth and basically suck the pure starch off them – not the most satisfying culinary experience!

Then I spent a good long time peeling the outer skins off and chopping the white centers into smaller chunks. At first I tried drying these in the oven and whizzing in the food processor as a short-cut for flour, but the fibres just lumped together on the blade and didn’t show any signs of breaking up into smaller particles.

Then I decided to try and separate the starch by soaking them in tepid water, squashing by hand, boiling (after which they were vaguely edible in a chewy, fibrous kind of way), mashing and more squashing into several bowls of starch-water, which I then allowed to settle before pouring the water off the dirty white sludge at the bottom.

This then got poured into trays, dried out in the sun and the oven, then finally ground in my coffee grinder. I was NOT impressed by the amount of flour I ended up with.

So either people are talking bollocks when they say, for instance, that ‘Yields of 8 tonnes of flour per hectare have been recorded’ (Plants For a Future, p.135) or one way or another I’m not doin’ it right. Maybe I went for them at the wrong time of year, or perhaps I needed to go for the main root matter at the base of the stem rather than the creeping rhizomes. Either way I’m thoroughly sick of the plant by now, so probably won’t be revisiting it (at least for its roots) for a good long while. Sorry Cattails!

4) – Angelica & Sweet Cicely. Dug up a bunch of these on a gardening job and decided to save them. Both got washed, scrubbed and fine-sliced in the food processor (a grating attempt on the Cicely didn’t work too well). Angelica got tinctured in vodka and also dried in the oven for tea

…while Cicely got dried in the same way and simply ground to a fine powder, the idea being to use it as some kind of sweetener, as well as for a nice aniseedy tea.

Both gave the house a really strong aromatic smell (somewhat like gin!) during the various processing stages.

5) – Rosehips. Went out and made my usual harvest and my usual laborious attempts at making jam (too runny this time).

My main thought recently was about wildcrafting. Reading Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild over the summer and going on a gardening course that touched on the principles & practices of pruning for trees, shrubs, hedges and, yes, roses made me start thinking about actively managing wild plants for an increased harvest, rather than passively taking what they had to offer come fruiting season. Perhaps I should be bringing secateurs/loppers or a pruning saw with me along with the hooked stick (useful for pulling down long rambling rose stems) and plastic bag? I would like to get my eye in with cultivated roses first, but maybe next year I’ll start on the wild specimens. I’m guessing it would be the same approach as pruning for an abundance of flowers, except you would leave them on through the winter as they swelled up to form the hips. A mindful approach would do miles better than insensitive hedge-trimmers cutting them back to the same height each time.

Still need to figure out how to make flour from the seeds…

6) – Sloe Gin. My camera ran out of battery so I couldn’t take a picture of my harvesting technique. Basically I find a nice overhanging branch with bare ground or relatively short grass underneath (sometimes I bring a tarp or just lay out my jacket), then I thwack at it with a stick until most of the berries have fallen and finally just pick them up from where they’ve landed. This year I seemed to have the timing right, as the berries tasted almost sweet right off the bush, with just a hint of the normally face-shrivelling astringency after a couple of frosts had caused the tannins to retreat back into the body of the plant (I’ve heard the recommended practice of simulating frosts by putting the picked berries in the freezer doesn’t work because the tannins have nowhere to go to. Also it’s a pain handling frozen fruit, especially if you have to pick bits of iced mud, grass and wood off them.) Last year’s batch of sloe gin was too acidic for my taste, so this year I wanted to put more sugar in, as well as trying some nice warming spices – ginger, ground cloves & cinnamon. I used an old fondue fork to stab 3-4 holes into each berry and thus ease percolation of the juices and the supposedly almond-like flavour of the inner seed. One 75cl bottle of cheap gin became two 75cl bottles half full of sloes with the spices and sugar stirred into the gin and then poured over the top. I had just enough berries to plop in and raise the level of the liquid to the top of both bottles.

(It may have been a mistake to use dark brown sugar, as for the moment it looks rather like poo-water… (!) Hopefully that will change as the dark purple-redness of the berries seeps out in the coming weeks & months.)

Also, on a tip-off from R, I re-used last year’s sloes to make sloe cider with my last bottle of home-brew from 2010. Should have quite a kick to it!

7) Acorn germination! I planted nine fatties from tree d) of the Autumn harvests.

Still don’t know where I’m going to plant them…

That about covers it for plant happenings. Otherwise I’ve got posts brewing on food vs. population, cultivation & the production imperative, disturbance revisited, plus various summer reports and perhaps even the long-awaited ‘Coming Down From the Mountain #2′. Plenty of time & no rush to get into all of that :)

Enjoy the predicted cold snap in the next couple of days. It might be the only winter we get this year!

Early Autumn Wild Food News Bulletin

September 19, 2011

Everything does seem to be coming on thick & fast at the moment! I only have about 500 photos to upload here, having gotten into the habit of taking a camera around with me and photographing plants and scenes, where before I would have just stopped a while, looked, said or thought “that’s pretty cool” and walked on. I’ll concentrate first on the food stuff going on right now or very recently to hopefully get your fire up (if you needed it) and going into wild food projects and/or experiments of your own.

1) – The basics: have I said anything about jams & jellies since this blog has been online? Ridiculous, really, considering how much time and effort I put into making them each year. It involves ::deep breath:: collecting your fruit in a saucepan, covering with water and boiling until mushy (helping this process with wooden spoon or potato masher with the harder fruits), separating pips, hairs, stones, dead bugs etc. by passing through a sieve, food mill or jelly bag, then mixing with sugar (the books say an equal weight, but I usually go for a 4:5 ratio of suagr:fruit, eg: 800g:1kg) and boiling fast until a drop of the mixture gets wrinkles on the surface when you nudge it with a finger on a cold plate. Then ladelling into jars that have been washed and sterilised with boiling water ::phew!:: (look it up if you want more details.)

Here’s one I made this year using the garden rosehips – which for some reason went squishy about three months earlier than usual – plus some larger rosa rugosa fruits and a bowlful of Hawthorn berries:

This needed quite a lot of mashing, after which it went through the food mill and then I spent the best part of an hour squeezing the maximum possible amount of liquid through a jelly bag (I hate rosehips – they contain loads of tiny hairs that can irritate your innards if ingested so you have to fine-strain them or gut each one individually with a knife and then run under a tap – but then I love the taste so what can you do?)

Books say not to squeeze the jelly bag if you want a clear jelly. To me this represents a criminal waste of fruit matter, although a compromise I’ve found works is to wait until the solid mass cools a bit, then pick a handful and squeeze inside the bag leaving the juice free to percolate through of its own accord. Another problem with rosehips is that they’re a bastard to thicken/set, especially so when you’ve processed them in several batches of water. Like many of the softer fruits it helps to mix in some harder ones like apple or haws (as above – remember their ‘crazy-high levels of pectin‘) or lemon juice sometimes helps. I boiled mine extra long this time to make sure:

Note the bigger pan: jam often gets excited in a fast boil and can spill over and make half your kitchen sticky for a week. This has happened to me far too many times than is good for my reputation to admit, and invariably leads to the surrounding air being turned blue by my cursing… It all worked out pretty well this time, though. Four jars contributed to this year’s haul so far:

Mum gets the credit for maybe half of these, which include: Plum, Blackberry, Blackberry/Apple, Damson (ugh, not ripe yet), Elderberry/Hawthorn/Apple, and oddities of marmalade, honey, ‘Cherry Plum’ (from H’s garden), Chilli and one unlabelled Misc. which came as a gift.

2) – Syrup. Pretty much the same process except you try harder to minimise the amount of solids and keep it liquid at the end by not boiling so much. Here are the various stages of my ‘Elder Rob’: first a load of elderberries popped off the stalks with a fork and washed, cooking in their own juice before being joined by handfuls of blackberries, blackcurrants, last year’s sloes from the freezer, chunks of apple and a bunch of ‘warming’ spices:

Then mashed through a sieve (I put the leftover pulp through a second time after cooking it again with more water), measured out into a bigger pan and boiled for a bit, again with 4:5 sugar, until slightly thick and ‘syrupy’, then poured into sterilised bottles and kept somewhere warm & dry.

Great for when you feel a spot of ‘flu coming on (the elderberries have antiviral properties) or you need something hot and comforting in a cold winter evening – best mixed with hot water and a shot of rum/whisky/brandy.

3) – Harvest-time! I find it very satisfying to be out and about with a shoulder bag, a knife and a few ‘just in case’ plastic bags. Not even necessarily with any plans to forage for particular items – just if you happen to find something interesting or bountiful and find yourself in the right mood to stop and harvest a few things…

…then you can stop and do so for as long as you please (not having to be somewhere else as fast as possible helps with this) and come back feeling you’ve accomplished something wonderfully simple and direct but powerful at the same time: you’ve actually ‘put food on the table’ in a way that most Breadwinners never even approach:

I gathered all this (Lime leaves, beech nuts, hazelnuts, Hawthorn- and Elder-berries) on the way back from the station over the course of perhaps an hour and a half. Processing took maybe the same again or slightly longer, leaving me with this:

Now they say that hunter-gatherers, even in the harshest environments on the planet (the only places they still exist since we farmers booted them off the best lands) can meet all their caloric and nutritional needs with an average of two hours per day of what we might consider ‘work’ (though hunting, fishing, foraging all come closer to ‘play’ in most peoples’ definitions). At times like these I almost dare to think the same would be possible here, even with a heavily degraded landscape and no tribe of many hands and much ancient wisdom to make the work lighter. How long could the above sustain me for at approximately four hours in one day? Hard to tell – there’s less volume than I would usually go through in, say, a week of farmed foods, but then it probably punches above its weight in terms of nutritional density. How sick of this would I get if I had to do the same thing three times per week? Probably not so much as I would do with farmyard chores! Also the same abundance doesn’t make itself available all through the year so this would be a time for harvesting more than to simply meet day-to-day needs. Thought experiments like these bring home to me the importance of engaging in subsistence efforts with a large group of people who pool their resources and, while they may specialise to some degree through preference or aptitude for one particular task, they would also keep the freedom to shift their activities into other spheres of differing utility to the tribe.*

4) – Chutneys. Something to do with surplus vegetables and a variation on the endless sweetness of jam. Chop everything up to your preferred fineness, fry it for a bit in the bottom of the pan, then cook in vinegar (I hear cider vinegar is best) for several hours with a reasonable amount of brown sugar and loads of herbs, spices, seeds, chopped nuts, dried fruit and anything else you can think of until it reaches the desired consistency. So far I’ve done a ‘Hawthorn, Sloe & Apple’ (Haw/Sloe + vinegar mush has to go through the food mill to get rid of the stones before you mix in any other ingredients):

…and a ‘Marrow + Omni-Veg’ (if I remember: onions, peppers, garlic, carrots, runner beans, tomato, celery, beetroot, apple with ample lovage, sage, rosemary, chili powder, cloves, mixed allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, salt as well as raisins, various chopped nuts, mustard seed … juniper berries … erm … other stuff):

5) – Other experiments. Lime leaves, as gathered above, seem to be having a second wind at the moment:

…which is lucky because I didn’t get the opportunity to try something I heard earlier on in the year – an intriguing method for drying and powdering masses of the edible leaves for use as a thickener (thanks to high mucilage content) in soups & stews and as an adulterant for flour. Apparently this comes from a French hard-times tradition, but also relates to African practices with the Baobab leaf, both of which were perhaps distilled in the ‘Creole’ cooking traditions of Louisiana that use Sassafras leaves in much the same way:

It just happens that Louisiana Creole cookery is, at its heart, an admixture of French and African cookery traditions with a few bits and pieces of native Arawak culture thrown in to the bargain. One of the mainstays of Creole cookery is the Gumbo a rich stew made with seafood, sausages and meat that, typically is either thickened with okra (from West Africa) or with sassafras leaves (filé powder) as it’s most commonly known.

The use of filé powder is always thought to be a native Arawak tradition (which it is)… But what made the use of dried and powdered sassafras leaves so acceptable. From the African slave population it’s possible to see that the use of sassafras as a thickener echoed the use of baobab leaves back home, it gave them an echo of their lost homeland.

But what about the French colonialists? Could it be that the use of sassafras leaves also gave them an echo of their homeland? Perhaps the easy adoption of sassafras leaves as a thickener in stews also provided them with a taste of home, reminding them of the use of linden leaves in their homeland. (‘Clues to Lost Recipes with Linden – A Culinary Detective Story‘)

So that’s what I’ve tried, with all of the above leaves duly dried and condensed down to this amount of powder after a minute-or-so in the food processor:

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Otherwise, this fruit leather made from elderberry leftovers might not have enough flesh in it to make it palatable, but I might break it into small chunks and turn it into fruit tea:

Also, Poppy seeds are quite fun and easy to gather (albeit rather tasteless), if you get to them before the winds! If you leave them in a hole-free bag and shake it about a bit, you’ll find most of the seed comes out and gathers at the bottom. If you want to be fastidious you can squeeze each individual poppy head over a bowl & sieve and break it apart if it feels like there’s still something in there. This was a yellow-flowered variety which apparently self-sowed itself in a neighbour’s garden. I’ve not had much luck with the wild ones you sometimes find growing on (non-sprayed) field margins.


And I’m coming for you, Burdock (your roots, that is – as pictured on my original banner photo from, what, four years ago?):

What an abundance! I’ll try to keep you posted with any new developments over the rest of the season.


* Some of these insights come second-hand from Rebecca Lerner, who has actually experimented with eating a wild-foods-only diet for a week, first on her own and then with friends helping her out – scroll down this page.

Down By The River

April 23, 2010

I’ve started taking my Wild Flowers pocket book around with me. Am actually grateful for the thing’s relative unsearchability because having to leaf through the whole thing every time I come across a new plant to identify has really helped a lot of information seep into the old subconscious. The other day I was looking at a leafy plant with big yellow flowers on a piece of boggy ground. The name ‘Marsh Marigold’ just popped into my head out of nowhere. Reach for Wild Flowers, search index, flip to page, sure enough, Marsh Marigold – ten second ID! Anyway, another plant it has recently helped me put a name to is the Cuckooflower, aka Lady’s Smock. The book says that its name comes from the fact that it ‘starts to flower about the same time as the cuckoo begins to call’ – although I think I read somewhere that cuckoo populations have crashed in the UK, and I haven’t heard a single one so far this year. Anyway, here’s a huge bank of the suckers:


Picture one shows them growing in a ditch by the side of a trackway. As they’re ‘new acquaintances’ I’ve started to notice them popping up all over the place, but they do seem to prefer to grow near water or on otherwise damp soil, sometimes by roadsides (which get a good ‘run-off’ when it rains). Picture two shows the lovely four-petalled flowers which vary from cream-white to more violet-tinted. Click on the picture for greater detail on the purple veins and the ‘pinnate’, finger-like leaves further down the stem.

Rubbing a leaf in my fingers uncovered an intriguing smell which I couldn’t help but get a second opinion for from the taste-buds (generally I spit after a couple of front-tooth nibbles; one piece of advice I took from this page). After a few seconds I got hit with a powerful taste like really strong mustard. It was kindof a thrill to get such a reaction from a pretty unassuming-looking plant. I’ve wondered about the condiment plants (mustard, horseradish, etc.) before – whether the strong flavours actually represent a defensive tactic which we’ve perversely come to enjoy: “Hey, Plant: you’re feisty but I’m gonna eat you anyway!” Anyway, I kept waiting for an unpleasantness to kick in but it never did. Books & the internet later confirmed what I already knew about its ‘pungent’, ‘cress-like’ flavour and suggested using leaves and flowers to give salads or sandwiches an extra kick.

It’s a ‘Blackthorn Winter’:


The river flooded last winter and swallowed all the sloes before I could collect more than one batch (for three pots of plummily astringent jam) from the thick bushes that grow along its banks. I like nibbling the flowers for the weird shifts of flavour from sweet to bitter to almondy when the cyanide kicks in. Before you go crazy, let Plants For A Future (henceforth: PFAF) reassure you that ‘[it] is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm’ and further explain:

[...] all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water [or saliva? - ed.] to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being[238].

Still, I wouldn’t go overboard… I’ve dried the blossoms to make a yellowish tea which tastes pleasant enough and is supposed to help with ‘diarrhoea (especially for children), bladder and kidney disorders, stomach weakness’ (ibid.)

The weather has been really kind to us for the last week-or-so. I’ve been paying attention to the clarity of the sky since the Iceland volcano knocked the planes out of action. There seemed to be a special deep kind of blue in the blissfully empty sky, and I thought I could see much further and more sharply from the various local vantage points. Also the relative quiet was wonderful – the birds didn’t sound so much like they were straining to make themselves heard. I took the above photo just after missing a particularly splendid crow in mid-flight between the tree and the moon (above-left). This was the day the airports were just beginning to get back to ‘normal’ (climate destruction renewed – yay Normality!) so the plane in the top-right is probably one of the first to come back. “Brave pioneers … *sniff*”

‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ as they say. In this case it took their absence and subsequent return before I realised what a knife to my senses these abominations truly represent. I couldn’t help but give the finger and shout out at the first few low-flying growlers to ‘get the [expletive] out of my sky’. I had felt such a thrill a few days previously seeing signs on the motorway (as a passenger in somebody else’s car) warning of the closure of both Gatwick and Heathrow airports, fantasising about this continuing into a permanent condition (and maybe then a series of earthquakes could take out all the motorways?) Now the knife was slowly sliding back in… Once I wrote a poem about shelving and beasts of burden, with the key idea being that:

good shelving will hold beyond its capacity
but will buckle immediately
after you’ve taken the load off
you try to put it back on

I wonder what it’ll take before people stop relying on distant volcanoes or other acts of God or Nature to shut down the airports for them. How long a break do they need before enough of them realise that actually, no, they don’t want air travel’s constant imposition back in their lives; how long before they finally make the connection between their needs (e.g. to not get poisoned) and the clear-if-daunting course of action to get these needs addressed?


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