Archive for the ‘Jam/Jelly’ Category

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.

Hawthorn Chutney

September 16, 2010

The Hawthorn tree is another of my favourites. I’ve munched on the flowers and young leaves for two Springs, and this year made a tea from drying the same, most of which went to my grandmother who has been using it as a heart tonic*. This will be my third Autumn making preserves from the small red fruits or ‘haws’. Two years ago I came to them rather late but full of enthusiasm after seeing what Ray Mears did with them in his ‘Wild Food‘ series on the BBC:

My berries were more the purple than the orange side of red, and mashing them by hand in the sink they quickly turned a highly suspect, sticky brown which was up to my elbows by the time the bell rang and I answered the door to my mother (with a rather quizzical expression on her face!) Still, the resulting ‘fruit leather’ tasted okay after a few hours in a low oven, and I quickly nibbled my way through the lot.

Last year was my first big jam/jelly season and hawthorn berries got squeezed through sieves and muslin into a variety of preserves. They tasted good just on their own, but my favourite was a mixture of ‘hips, haws and crabs’ which came out a lovely clear, dark red. The crazy-high levels of pectin in the berries, as the Mears footage demonstrates, helps with other fruits (eg: rosehips) that have trouble setting.

I don’t know what it is – whether I’m noticing them in an earlier, juicier phase, whether there’s an especially hard winter coming, or it’s just that they’re showing a special exuberance because they see somebody (human) finally paying attention to them – but the haws in my locality have never looked so fat, juicy and plentiful (hahaha – say it out loud):

Growing a little tired of eating jam (ie: a half-weight of sugar) all the time, I thought I’d try a chutney recipe I found in Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. I gathered a plastic bagful of the berries, mostly from the above bush. Just grab clusters of them by hand and twist them off the main stalk. Mind the thorns which are much harder & spiny-er now than they were in the springtime. Then comes the rather arduous process of stripping away stalks and leaves. Best done with a friend, and sharp fingernails come in handy:

It took me about an hour to fill the above bowl – slightly less than 1.5kg in total. But I was in an OCD frame of mind and you don’t have to be so fastidious 😉 I saved the best-looking leaves (center-right) for tea, which I find looks & tastes different depending on what time of year you harvest.

A couple of days later I got round to buying some cider vinegar, into which went the berries (after a good wash under the tap). The recipe suggests 500ml for 1kg of haws, but I put all of my fruit in. After an hour’s simmering (covered, occasionally stirring/squishing with a wooden spoon, with 1tsp salt), which got the whole house smelling of vinegar, the mixture was pretty thick and starting to attach to the bottom of the pan, so I added a few more glugs of vinegar from another bottle. I didn’t have much success mashing the pulp through a specially purchased metal sieve or even a colander, but had more luck when I dug out the trusty Moulinex†:

Perhaps it’d be easier to do separate the seeds by hand, ‘aboriginally’ as Mears does, only adding cider vinegar (how easy is this to make from Mesolithic Crabapples?) instead of water at the early stages to help the juices run, then proceeding with the jelly for the rest of the recipe.‡ For the next step, I measured out 300g of demerara sugar, plus an extra 125g of raisins + dried fruit, and added 1tsp each ground ginger and ground nutmeg and ¼tsp each ground allspice and ground cloves (though I put slightly too much of the latter as I had to grind them myself). Then I milled black pepper over the top for about 30 seconds.

This then went in with the fruit/vinegar pulp and got cooked & well mixed for a further 20 minutes after I brought it to the boil. The spice mix smelled incredible. Here it is, steaming away:

And for the final stage ladle into warm jars and label:

Michael writes:

It is good with all cold meats and poultry and makes a lovely ploughman’s lunch with bread and cheese. The little berries are so plentiful that it is worth making several batches of chutney to store through the winter. You can vary the recipe by omitting the dried fruit and cooking the mixture or only 10 minutes, which results in a spicy-sweet sauce which can be bottled and stored.

As I find myself doing fairly often these days, I’m wondering if it’s necessary to put all (or any) of that sugar in. It’s only been in the British diet since the Jamaican slave trade, after all. How did people preserve without it during all the previous centuries and millennia?

Okay, let’s finish with some Hawthorn folklore. This from Margaret Baker’s Folklore of Plants:

Interference with thorns, fairy or holy, was reckless. At Redmarley Farm, Acton Beauchamp, Worcestershire, the farmer, annoyed by sightseers, chopped his tree down. Retribution came swiftly. He broke first his leg, then his arm and finally his farm burned down to the ground. At Clehonger, another axe-wielding gambler saw blood flow from the tree’s trunk and stopped work in terror.

If felling were unavoidable, a prayer must be offered first. In 1877 a County Meath man felled a whitethorn without precautions, pierced his hand with a thorn and died of septicaemia. Felling must be for ritual or healing purposes only, never merely to tidy the farm. To fell a hawthorn in preparing a house site means misfortune or even death for those who will live in the house.

When firewood ran short one winter at Berwick St John, Dorset, Walter Grove, son of the manor house, is said to have cut down an old thorn standing on an earthwork. The horrified village soon found that no chickens would lay, no cow calved and no babies were conceived. When the tree was replaced everything quickly returned to normal. (p.70)

Farmers beware!


* – PFAF write:

Western herbalists consider it a ‘food for the heart’, it increases the blood flow to the heart muscles and restores normal heart beat […] Both the fruits and flowers of hawthorns are well-known in herbal folk medicine as a heart tonic and modern research has borne out this use. The fruits and flowers have a hypotensive effect as well as acting as a direct and mild heart tonic[222]. They are especially indicated in the treatment of weak heart combined with high blood pressure[222], they are also used to treat a heart muscle weakened by age, for inflammation of the heart muscle, arteriosclerosis and for nervous heart problems[21].

† – Hand-crank grating machine present in every French household from around 1950.

‡ – I found out too late that you can use the discarded seeds, roasted and ground, as a coffee substitute (ibid.)