I first came across the idea of pickled ash keys in Adele Nozedar’s lovely book ‘The Hedgerow Handbook, which I reviewed last year. I was intrigued at the time, but it was the wrong time of year to forage nice young ash keys (actually, I think I may have been a little late this year, too, but more of that later).
Ash trees have been in the news lately, at least in the UK, with the arrival last year of ash dieback, a fungal disease now threatening some of the great, veteran trees of the British landscape. Historically, oak, elm and ash were the ‘big three’ trees in these parts, majestic and long-lived, our elms sadly disappeared for the most part several decades ago, succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and it seems now as if the ash, too, may be at risk of all but disappearing from our landscape.
Before too long, ash keys (the twisted seeds of the ash tree, which hang in luxurious bunches from the branches of some – but not all – ash trees at this time of year) may be a vanishing treat, the caviar of the forager’s larder. So why not try them now, before it’s too late? Incidentally, don’t confuse the common ash with the mountain ash, or rowan tree, which produces clusters of (also highly forageable!) bright orange or red berries in autumn.
So, you’ve found a local ash tree positively dripping with lovely young, green ash keys. What now?
Well, first, you’ll need to pick some, obviously. I made rather a large batch of pickled ash keys, starting with about 800g (approximately a mean couple of pounds). The older they get, the tougher and stringier they will become, so pick them as young and tender as you can.
As well as your ash keys, you will require –
- 1.5l / 3 UK pints of white distilled malt vinegar (spirit vinegar)
- 3 tbsp of paprika
- 3 tbsp of curry powder (I used a medium madras powder, because it was what I had on the shelf)
- 1.5 tbsp of cayenne pepper
- 4 tbsp sea salt
- a heaped teaspoon of whole mixed peppercorns
- a level teaspoon of whole yellow mustard seed
- 6 – 8 garlic cloves
- 12 small hot dried red chillies (I used my own home-grown and dried little chillies left over from last year)
- A large stainless steel or enamel saucepan or stockpot, a smaller pan (also non-reactive), large colander, a fine sieve and a piece of muslin, and enough jam jars for your batch.
Pick all the ash keys free from their bunches, and wash them carefully. The first part of the process involves gently simmering your ash keys for about an hour and a half, in all, in four changes of water. This process, while irritatingly time consuming and faffy, reduces the bitterness of the ash keys which would otherwise make them rather unpleasant to eat.
The smell that this process generates is not very promising – it will smell rather like you’re boiling up a pot full of bits of tree, which you are, of course. But this abates each time you change the water, and after the fourth water change the colour of the ash keys is closer to olive green than to the bright green that you started with, and if you have a speculative nibble on one (I couldn’t resist), it’s quite stringy, not particularly strong tasting, but not noticeably bitter.
While your keys are simmering away gently, you need to make your spiced vinegar. In your smaller saucepan, combine the spirit vinegar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, bring to the boil and then take immediately off the heat.
This smells quite marvellous. Once it’s cooled a bit (you can help it along by sitting the saucepan in a sink full of cold water), strain it through the muslin in the sieve, and if you’re not quite ready to use it, you can use a funnel to put it back inside the vinegar bottles for safekeeping. Incidentally, I’d forgotten I had some muslin and initially tried to strain the vinegar through a paper coffee filter. I can report this was very frustrating and a huge waste of time, effort and coffee filters. So, now you know not to bother!
Once the ash keys have done their four turns around the simmer 20 minutes, strain, change water circuit, they’re an olive-green colour and ready to be stewed (yes, some more!). Add the 4 tbsp of sea salt, and plenty of fresh water, and bring to a brisk boil for a quarter of an hour, before turning the heat down, covering, and simmering for another 60 minutes before finally straining again.
At the end of this, they will have softened a fair bit, and have a gently salted taste, and you will probably be royally fed up of boiling up ash keys. Don’t worry, it’s nearly done!
Now, add to the strained ash keys the spiced vinegar, along with the whole dried chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds and peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring to a brisk boil for 15 minutes, and take off the heat. That’s it, you’re (essentially!) done, and your house probably smells like a very strange hybrid of a chip shop and a curry house. Set the pickled ash keys aside to cool. I left mine overnight, because it was pretty late by the time I finished them, and my big stock pot holds its heat quite stubbornly.
Wash, dry and sterilise your jam jars in the oven, then allow to cool before filling. I used 13 little ‘dumpy’ jars and two 330ml pickle jars for my batch. Assume you need at least the volume of your vinegar, and probably a bit extra, in jar capacity. Pack the ash keys, along with the chillies, garlic, peppercorns and mustard seeds, evenly but quite tightly into your jars. Once you’ve done this, fill the jars right to the brim with the spiced vinegar, and seal.
Don’t they make a pretty little lot? They need to be matured now in a cool, dark place for at least 2 – 3 months. But I did have a taste, and the omens are really promising – there’s a long but gentle heat from the combination of the whole chillies and the spiced vinegar, a little garlic note, and out of nowhere a subtle but noticeably ‘olive’ flavour from the ash keys themselves. The acidity is not at all harsh, which is unexpected, there’s an almost sweet character which must come from the keys themselves as there’s no sugar in the pickle. They are, though, still a bit stringy (though much less so than earlier in the cooking process) – I think if I’d picked in May rather than leaving it until June, this may have helped! I expect they’ll continue to soften while they steep in their jars of vinegar.
All in all, then, a bit of a revelation, these ash keys! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was much like this! I can’t wait to see what they’re like in a couple of months time, but I think they’ll make a very nice substitute for olives or capers, and will probably go a treat with a nice mature cheddar.
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