From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ with my own money, a couple of years ago.  I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Advertisements

The Butterfly Bush – a photo from the garden today

It’s been a funny year, weather wise – we had a very late, wet spring, and summer has been resolutely grey and damp with only flashes of heat and sunshine, and we’ve seen very few butterflies.  And in the last week, suddenly, they’re everywhere.

The buddleia, which grows in a scruffy bit of ground behind our pond, has really been earning it’s name of ‘butterfly bush’ in the weekend sunshine.

Peacock butterfly on buddleia flower.

This is a peacock butterfly – which are around at the moment by the dozen.  In just a few minutes, I also saw several tortoiseshells and a couple of red admirals.  I’m so pleased to see them all around at last, here’s hoping they enjoy all the lovely late nectar on offer and get a good breeding season in!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Getting In A Pickle – gorgeous spiced plum chutney

Accidents in the kitchen always seem to happen when everything’s just at that critical point… and any cook worth their salt, when scalded by a volcanic eruption of boiling sugar and vinegar, is likely to think ‘never mind my arm, have to save the chutney!’

So it was Thursday evening.  The chutney is fine, incidentally, thank you for asking!

Red plumsAs well as bringing some beautiful French apricots back from their holidays, my lovely in-laws also arrived with a couple of kilos of fabulous red plums.  This put me in a real quandary, let me tell you.  Plum jam is one of my favourite things in the whole world.  But then this spiced plum chutney (originally Delia’s, credit where credit’s due!) is my very very favourite chutney.  It has a lovely fruity character topped with just a subtle hint of Christmas spices, and is wonderful with a lovely sharp mature cheddar, or a slice of home-cooked ham.

What eventually made my mind up was my jam jar situation.  I’ve done a lot of preserving in the last few weeks – it is that time of year after all! – and the jars I have left are a motley bunch.  Quite a lot of them have held things like sauces, curry pastes, and even pickles and chutneys.  The sorts of aromas that ‘hang around’ jars and lids, despite your best cleaning and sterilisation efforts.  It’s not really the flavour sensation you want with your breakfast jam!

This chutney is full of big flavours, and will swamp any faint ‘eau de korma’ residue it might have to deal with!

My well thumbed 'bible'The recipe is somewhat modified from the one in my very well thumbed copy of the Delia Smith ‘Complete Cookery Course’, reprinted from the 1982 edition.  Conveniently, it’s also available at ‘Delia Online’, here.  I’m not going to duplicate the recipe, since it’s freely available for you to read, but I changed the quantities and slightly modified some of the ingredients to suit my 2kg batch of plums, and what I had in the cupboard.

This is a BIG batch of chutney, producing 9 jars about 1lb in size, and a further eight small kilner-type jars, plus a bit extra which wasn’t quite a full pound jar.  I estimate in total it makes about 12lb, or 6kg.  It needs a very big pan – my large stock pot was over half filled, before reducing, and has a capacity of about 15l.  Unless you’re planning on eating an awful lot of chutney, giving lots of it away, or selling it (I think it would go really well at a farmer’s market!) I’d probably suggest scaling these quantities down to half or even a third (Delia’s original quantities are for 1.3kg of plums, which is still a very big batch).

I used the following –

  • 2kg of dark red / purple plums.  The tart / acid ‘cooking’ sort are probably better than sweet eating plums for this recipe.
  • Four smallish Bramley apples, totalling about 800g in weight.
  • 5 large-ish onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • 750g of seedless raisins
  • 750g each of soft brown and demerera sugar
  • 3 pints of malt vinegar (excuse the switch to imperial measures – this is about 1.7 litres, malt vinegar comes in pint-bottles in these parts, so it’s a measure of convenience).
  • 3 desert spoons of salt
  • a large cinnamon stick, 15g of whole allspice berries, and 20g of mixed peppercorns (the mix was about 1/3rd allspice berries, oddly), and a tablespoon of whole cloves, all tied up in a muslin parcel.
  • A giant stock-pot, food processor, and enough jam jars to contain your chutney (lots, and lots, of jam jars!), which should have plastic-lined lids to help resist the vinegar.

Whole spices with muslin

First wash, then stone and quarter all your plums. I find the quickest way to do this is to first slice along the line of the plum, down the visible ‘seam’, and divide the plum in two. The stone will cling to one of the halves, and especially with the smaller firm-textured cooking plums, won’t want to come out easily.

Stoning plums - 1   Stoning plums - 2   Stoning plums - 3

Take this half, and slice in half again, across the sort axis of the stone this time. The stone will now be sticking conveniently out of one of your quarters, and can easily be pushed free.  Cut your other half into quarters, too, and you’re done.  Incidentally, stoning plums can stain your fingers and fingernails a rather attractive nicotine brown colour, I think as a result of the tannins, so if you care about this, consider wearing gloves!

Chopped apple in food processorThe recipe calls for minced onion and apple.  I put mine through my food processor in batches, but left some nice texture in both.  The first time I made this recipe I didn’t have a decent food processor and diced all the apples and onions very finely by hand.  It works, but I can’t say I can recommend it!

Mixed ingredients in panAfter your fresh ingredient preparation, it’s very simple really.   Add all the other fresh, dry, and liquid ingredients, and toss in your spice bundle (Delia recommends tying your bundle of spices to the pan handle, but I really can’t see any benefit to this!).  Bring everything to a simmer, stirring to mix as it all comes up to temperature.  Your kitchen will smell rather like Christmas-gone-wrong about now – festive spices mixed inexplicably with onion and vinegar.

Cooking away nicelyThen let it bubble, stirring occasionally, for about three hours (my mixture was about six inches deep in my very big stock pot – a wider pan, or a smaller batch, which would allow the mix to sit in a shallower layer will reduce noticeably faster) until the mixture is reduced, glutinous, and the vinegar mixture has thickened so that it doesn’t immediately flow back into a channel cleared with a spoon.  I had to ladle out a couple of spoon-fulls into a bowl to check this.

As it starts to reach this stage, it will tend to ‘glob’ with really big bubbles, particularly when stirred, so learn from my experience and take care to protect your hands and arms from scalding!  This is the point that it’s at risk of sticking and burning, too, so keep stirring when you think you’re getting close.  Once it’s ready, fish out the spice bag, and bottle straight away into your hot sterilised jars.

Bottled chutney

It will be at it’s best if you allow it to mature for at least three months before eating – just in time for Christmas, then! – though I had some of the ‘extra’ today with some bread and cheese, and it’s already very good!  It will keep very well, too – I’ve eaten this chutney after at least four years’ storage.

Now, I wonder if I can get hold of some more plums to make some jam, too …

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

This Is My Jam – French apricot with kirsch

We had a visit from my in-laws this week, on their way back from holidaying in France.  It’s always lovely to see them, but this time was particularly special – they brought with them 2kg each of beautiful French apricots and plums.  So today, my day off, was always going to be about preserving!

I wanted to make some really nice authentic French apricot jam, so this is as simple as it comes – apricots, sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice… and just a little ‘twist’!

For this jam, you will require –Fresh French apricots

  • 2kg of French apricots (well, OK, anyone’s apricots will do, I suppose!) not too ripe.
  • 2kg of golden caster sugar (as a general rule, I prefer to use the least-refined sugar that I can get away with in any given situation)
  • 3 slightly sorry-looking lemons from the fruit bowl (the sorry state is not compulsory, and two nice big fresh juicy lemons will do well here!)
  • Half a pint of water
  • A couple of tablespoon measures of kirsch (or other eau-de-vie of your preference)
  • Generous sized preserving pan, not aluminium
  • Enough jam jars to contain your batch.  I always wash and sterilise more than I think I’ll need, as it doesn’t do to run out at bottling time!

IngredientsObviously you can scale the quantities to suit your apricot supply – they’re very nice convenient multiples!  I find 2kg of fruit is a good useful batch size, easily manageable with the equipment I’ve got, and makes enough jam to generously repay the investment in time and effort.

Apricot halvesWash your apricots, then halve them and remove the stones.  Don’t throw the stones away just yet!  Put all your half apricots into your pan, and add the half pint of water, and bring this to a gentle simmer.  Stew the apricots very gently until they’re just soft, and the juice has run.

Apricot kernelsWhile your apricots are stewing, take your nutcracker (if you have one) and gently crack about a dozen of the reserved apricot stones.  Inside you’ll find the kernels – they look like little almonds, and this is no coincidence, as almonds and apricots are closely related, so closely in fact that you shouldn’t grow apricot and almond trees nearby one another!  You can add these to the jars of jam at bottling time (about one per jar), which will infuse a lovely subtle bitter-almond flavour into your jam – this is completely optional, of course, if you can’t be bothered with the faff (or can’t lay your hands on a nutcracker!).

Gently stewed apricotsPut your clean jam jars and lids into a cold oven and set it to 150C.  Now add the sugar and heat gently until it’s all dissolved – you might find adding it in portions is easier and results in less trauma to the apricot pieces.

At a rolling boilNow turn up the heat and boil the jam until it reaches a set.  This didn’t seem to take very long at all for me (though I have to admit to being distracted by sorting and cleaning out the *next* batch of jars at this point) and the natural pectin in the apricots seemed to be adequate.

Cold saucerI tested the set using the cold-saucer technique (I often forget to freeze the saucer, so this is my usual approach – placing a saucer on top of a freezer block, the sort you’d use to keep a chill bag cool).  I’m not after a firm set for this jam so I was satisfied as soon as I got a bit of a wrinkle on top of the sample.   Once it looks like you’re getting there, juice the lemons and stir the juice into the jam.  Get the first batch of jars out of the oven ready to go.  Finally add the kirsch and stir in briskly.

Bubbles at bottling timeNow start bottling your jam immediately, using a large-aperture funnel if you have one.  If you’re doing this right, you’ll be able to see bubbles rising in your jam as it hits the hot glass of the jam jar.

In the jar with the apricot kernelsFill a small number of jars at a time (2 or 3), don’t forget to add a kernel or two to each jar before adding a wax disk (if you like).  Secure the lids down tightly, before getting the next few jars out of the oven.

I was pleased with the yield of this batch, five good big jars with about a half litre capacity, five little mini-kilner-alikes (it would have been six, but one developed an alarming crack during sterilising!), and a cruet-worth for my breakfast over the next few days.

Finished batch

It’s gorgeous jam, too, with the subtle note of the kirsch just evident against the lovely deep rich apricot.  The balance of sweet and acid is very pleasing.  The set seems to have come out as I wanted – not a firm set, but not runny either, just like a traditional French apricot jam should be!

Now all I want is a crusty baguette, some unsalted butter, and an excuse to really tuck in!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

A Taste of Summer – strawberry and lavender jam

The last of the Scottish strawberries are in the shops right now, at bargain prices.  I saw some yesterday and couldn’t help myself – jam making was really not on my list of things to do this weekend (which is dedicated to sitting in a field listening to folk music!) but my timing is impeccable as usual – and they won’t be there next week.  So, 2kg of fresh ripe strawberries came home with me.  My garden is full of lavender, so the match was too good to ignore.  Why make something that you can buy anywhere, when you can make something really special and a bit unique just as easily?

Strawberries & lavender flowers

To make this jam, you will require –

  • 2kg of fresh ripe strawberries
  • Two dozen (freshly picked!) lavender flowers.  You could substitute dry lavender, the quantity will be a matter of guesswork though!
  • Juice of two lemons and one orange.  Also some of the grated zest if you wish.
  • About 700g of sugar (I prefer unrefined golden sugar)
  • Pectin (optional – but will improve the set)
  • A large mixing bowl, big enough to contain all your fruit
  • Large saucepan
  • Enough jars to contain your jam

Ideally, start this in the evening before you want to cook your jam.  If you haven’t got the luxury of time, though, starting four hours or so ahead will still make a big difference.

Layering lavender with sugar and strawberries.Wash and prepare your strawberries, removing the little green ‘hat’ (I use a finger nail to dig these out – but the tip of a knife or the point of a potato peeler do very well) and halving or quartering to a consistent sized piece.  You can leave the smallest fruits whole. Layer these in a large bowl, sprinkling sugar over each layer as you go.  Every couple of layers add a few sprigs of your lavender, you’re aiming to add about half of them to the bowl at this stage.

Filled bowl of strawberriesCarry on until you’ve added all the strawberries, about a dozen lavender sprigs, and nearly all the sugar (hold a few tablespoons back if you’re planning on using pectin powder).  Squeeze your lemons and orange and add the juice to the bowl. Grate some lemon zest, too, if you fancy it.  Then cover your bowl with cling film and place it in the fridge overnight (or at least for a few hours) to macerate.

After four hoursAfter a few hours you can see the sugar has already started drawing liquid from the fruit, and is essentially all dissolved.  Our aim here is to somewhat dehydrate the strawberries, increasing the chance of them holding together through the jam-making process rather than collapsing into mush, while providing ourselves with a cooking liquor without having to add liquid, which would ‘water down’ the flavour of the finished jam.

Strawberries in syrup, next morning.By morning, this syrup will cover the strawberries.  Just on it’s own, this would make a gorgeous desert, with ice cream and perhaps some meringue?

Before you start to cook your jam, prepare all your jars.  I sterilise my jam jars by running them through the dishwasher for a good wash (you could wash by hand instead) before placing the jars and lids in a cold oven and bringing it up to 150C.

Mini kilner-type jarsFor this batch of jam I was using a few small kilner-type jars for giving as gifts, as well as some from my usual recycled stock for personal consumption!  The little kilner jars were disassembled for washing, and then put back together before sterilising in the oven.

Once your jam jars are all ready in the oven, it’s time to start cooking the jam.  Pour all the strawberries and syrup into a generously sized pan (avoid aluminium – my ‘jam pan’ is stainless steel, and is actually a big stock pot, one of these days I’ll get my hands on a lovely traditional copper preserving pan, but that day hasn’t come yet!).

Strawberries & syrup, in the preserving panFish out the sprigs of lavender that have been marinading in the syrup overnight, and throw these away.  Add your pectin powder, if you’re using it.  It helps to combine it well with a few tablespoons of sugar first, as this will help it dissolve evenly in the jam and not form clumps.  I only had one sachet of pectin in the cupboard, which was a bit under half the recommended amount for the batch size, but decided to chuck it in anyway.  Strawberries are notoriously poor in pectin and if you’re going to use extra (or preserving sugar, to which it’s already added – often also with some citric acid) this is the jam to do it with.

Lavender 'bouquet garni'Now, go and cut another dozen lavender flowers, and tie them together with string in a little posy like a bouquet garni.  If you’re not using fresh lavender, you’ll want to tie a couple of teaspoons of dried lavender flowers in a muslin bag – or I tend to use a tea ball.  Using fresh flowers rather than dry sprigs will greatly increase the chance the flower heads will stay attached to the stem, rather than breaking off and floating around in your jam.

Jam, coming to the boilAdd your bunch of lavender to your strawberries in the pan and bring the mix up to the boil, making sure all the sugar is fully dissolved.  I simmered mine gently for about ten minutes before brining the heat up to get a hard rolling boil.  How long you leave your lavender in is to some degree a matter of personal taste – and tasting is exactly what you need to be doing here!  I took my bunch out after the initial simmer, but then decided I didn’t have the flavour I wanted and threw it back in for another ten minutes or so of the hard boil.

Stir gently, trying to avoid breaking up the strawberries any more than necessary.  Now you’re trying to find the setting point, which you’re expecting to start to arrive after about ten to fifteen minutes of hard rolling boil.  Use your preferred method (mine is usually the cold-saucer approach), there’s a useful little ‘how to’ here.  As I mentioned, strawberry jam can be difficult to set without additional pectin, and I was struggling to get a set – rather than risk over-boiling my jam and ruining the fresh flavour, colour and texture of the strawberries, I decided to go ahead and bottle, expecting I would get a jam that would come out of the jar with a spoon, rather than a knife… not going to win any prizes at the show with these, but these are the crosses we bear!

Jam, in jarsOnce you’re happy that your jam has reached setting point – or not! – pour it boiling hot into the piping hot sterilised jars fresh from your oven, and seal the lids down immediately.  I don’t feel post-bottling steps are necessary for jams, whose acidity & sugar level should produce really good preserving qualities.

I had a taste on lovely freshly baked bread for breakfast yesterday.  It’s a runny jam, but the pieces of whole strawberry give it a really lovely texture.  The lavender flavour is clearly perceptible, but subtle and not intrusive.  All in all, it’s a really great preserve that I fully intend to make again in years to come (though I may go the whole hog with the pectin to get a set next time) – highly recommended!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Under Pressure – this elderflower ‘champagne’ is a lively brew!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making this year’s batch of elderflower champagne, which included my usual warnings (shared with anyone who’ll listen at this time of year!) about the hazards of bottling a rather wild, actively fermenting brew in glass bottles.

Here’s why –

Under Pressure!

The bottle on the right is the ‘donor’ bottle, containing half a litre of sparkling water.  The bottles on the left are my elderflower champagne, about four days after bottling.  They were filled, originally, to about 5mm below the neck of the bottle.  You can see the pressure in the bottles – despite ‘degassing’ daily up to this point – has inflated the bottle like a balloon (it reminds me of one of those cartoon moon rockets!) creating a whole heap of extra headroom in the process. The bottom of the bottle is also noticeably pushed downwards.  Perhaps a passing materials specialist will tell us what internal pressure is required to produce this sort of effect, one of these days!

The little bit of ‘give’ in the plastic has allowed this to happen without catastrophe, which is a luxury that glass doesn’t give you.  So please, please, use plastic bottles for elderflower champagne.  The reinforced sort that have held fizzy drinks (lemonade, tonic water, or sparkling mineral water, like these), not the sort designed for non-carbonated water or drinks.  Yes, I know it looks a bit tatty, but really, why take the risk of a spectacular and dangerous bottle bomb?

And how’s the champagne, you might ask?  Why, very nice, thank you!  For all the hassle involved, I’m really pleased I just managed to make this year’s batch!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>