A field guide to foraging in Autumn’s hedgerows to make jam, chutney and GIN
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2008
It's got no packaging, no chemicals have been used to grow it and it's growing in abundance on your doorstep. Foraging for food in the countryside means bringing home the harvest for dinner - or more importantly, making our sloe gin and sloe port to have AFTER dinner.
The time was when every child who lived in the countryside would be able identify the edible feast growing in hedgerows, fields and woods and confidently bring home a basket of mushrooms to be turned into a delicious autumnal soup.
For our ancestors, the countryside was like a giant supermarket aisle, packed with a ready supply of gastronomic goodies waiting to be picked, plucked or gathered and transformed into a wild food feast that was ethically sound and enormously tasty.
In his foraging bible Food for Free, Norfolk author Richard Mabey extols the virtue – and the joy – of opening Mother Nature's store cupboard.
'To some extent we have become conditioned by the shrink-wrapped, perfectly-shaped, 'hero' produce we find in our supermarkets and it is the irregularity and the feeling that eating foods we pick ourselves in uncultivated areas is somehow unhygienic, that makes us reluctant to venture into woods, pastures, clifftops and marshlands in search of food,' he writes.
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'In fact, almost every British garden vegetable has a wild ancestor flourishing here: wild parsnips, cabbage and celery all grow in waste places. Historically, these have always been sources of food in times of hardship, but we seem to know less and less about them and are becoming less confident about identifying them.'
I have loved this book since I was a child and have tried to teach my own children some of what my mother taught me: the names of wild flowers and plants, the uses for berries and fruits, and the mushrooms to pick (and which to avoid). I'm not sure either has retained a great deal, but I do know they'll happily eat from hedgerows and come on sloe berry hunts in order to enjoy the subsequent gin harvest (they're nearly 18 and 20, panic not).
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I remember giant puffball mushrooms fried in butter in inch-thick slices, frothy elderflowers collected and turned with a touch of magical alchemy into fizzy champagne or fried in batter as delicate fritters, those plump blue-black sloes steeped in spirits before being put to bed in our dark entrance porch for winter upon winter, garlicky ransoms sniped into salads and stinging nettle wine brewing in the outhouse.
And then there were the jams (today, not tomorrow).
Although I still have a good eye for the treasure that can be found in our hedgerows and in woods, I'm rarely resourceful enough to remember to bring tubs and scissors on every trip to the countryside and these days barely gather anything other than my thoughts.
If I'm lucky, there will be the odd handful of blackberries, a bag of sweet chestnuts or a salad's worth of ransoms, but I occasionally make a concerted effort to forage in earnest, to create a winter store cupboard of hand-picked autumnal delights to bring a flavour of late summer to the darkest days and nights.
And I am not alone: across the country, the seasonal salad leaves, nuts, fruits and fungi that grow in Britain are being gathered for private or professional use.
But when you're foraging for the dining room table, caution isn't just advisable, it's essential: in 2008, author of The Horse Whisperer Nicholas Evans, his wife Charlotte, brother-in-law Sir Alastair Gordon-Cummings and his wife Louisa, were poisoned after eating cortinarius speciosissimus, or Fool's Webcap, while walking on Sir Alastair's Scottish estate.
The mushrooms look uncannily like the edible and delectable chanterelle but, according to the Association of British Fungus Groups, cause the liver 'to be broken down into a pulp'. Evans, a countryman who had been picking mushrooms since he was a boy, served the deadly fungi with parsley and butter.
'It had been 10 years since I'd picked ceps and I thought: these are a bit more ginger-coloured than I remember. I didn't spot the crucial difference – that they had gills and ceps don't,' he late said.
The group all became critically-ill and remained so for months – both Alastair and Charlotte later needed kidney transplants: 'It was just stupid, stupid,' said Evans of the poisoning. 'Two people deciding that the other knew what he or she was doing, transferring all responsibility. I mean, there was a book in the kitchen! It was very easy to spot it: 'deadly poisonous'.'
Luckily, those who have gone before us have made every effort to issue warnings about the toxicity of certain plants: for example, it's a fair bet you'll want to avoid an omelette containing fungi called deathcap, deadly webcap and destroying angel.
The rule of thumb is that unless you're 100 per cent certain that what you've picked is safe, don't eat it. Don't even think about eating it.
I've worn out one copy of Food for Free an am now on my second, but there are plenty of reference books to help steer you through the thorny path – if in doubt, choose easier bounty: blackberries, windfall apples, sloes and elderberries. I include my recipes for foraged treats which I've been making on and off for the past few decades. Just steer clear of my hunting grounds, fair deal?
Foraging for beginners
• Be prepared: take bags, plastic tubs and a walking stick you can use to hold back brambles or pull down branches. Gloves are great if you don't appreciate being scratched and stung, although other collectors may mock and silently (or not so silently) judge you.
• Know what you're looking for: take a guide book with you, a knowledgeable enthusiast or expert or check your finds on the internet.
• Don't pick food from highly-polluted areas.
• Avoid hedgerows that may have been sprayed by drifting pesticide.
• Wash foraged food before you eat it.
• Try to avoid low-growing plants along paths popular with dog walkers. Need I say more?
• Don't uproot plants and leave more on the bush than you take. Only pick what you need.
• Be careful not to disturb the habitat of birds or other animals when you look for wild food.
• Remember that very important golden rule: if you're not 100 per cent certain you know what you're picking, DON'T EAT IT!
Rosehip Apple Jelly
4lb apples (windfalls are fine)
2lbs ripe rosehips
1) Peel apples and place in a pan with the rosehips with just enough water to cover, plus an extra pint.
2) Simmer slowly until the rosehips and apples are soft. Strain through a muslin cloth or jelly bag overnight.
3) The next day, measure the juice and allow 1lb of sugar per pint. Mix sugar and juice in a pan and boil until the setting point is reached (see Bramble Jelly recipe). Pot in warm jars.
1kg preserving sugar
Juice of three large lemons
1) Wash the blackberries and tip into a preserving pan. Add 400ml water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for around 20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy.
2) Add the preserving sugar and lemon. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves which will take around five minutes.
3) Place three small plates in the fridge to chill.
4) Remove the lid, bring the mixture to the boil and cook for eight minutes.
5) Test for setting by spooning a little of the jelly on to a chilled plate. Allow to cool for a few seconds and then push the syrup with a fingertip – if it
wrinkles on the surface, it has reached setting point. If it isn't ready, boil for a further two minutes and test again. Repeat until it is at setting point.
6) Place a large metal sieve over a mixing bowl and push the pulp through the sieve into the bowl. Extract as much syrup as possible and discard the seedy pulp.
7) Pour the strained syrup into clean, sterilised preserving jars, cover with waxed discs and seal. Store in a dark place.
Clive Houlder's Puffball and Wild Mushroom Feast (this was given to me by Norfolk's Mushroom Man – I leave out the bacon as I'm vegetarian)
Take a giant puffball mushroom, one of the easiest edible mushrooms to spot due to its resemblance to a discarded football, and slice it as you would a Halloween pumpkin, cutting a cap and then scooping out the flesh inside, leaving a shell about an inch thick. Fry a selection of foraged wild mushrooms, some garlic and some shallots with half the giant puffball flesh in butter and olive oil, adding some cubed Norfolk cured bacon. Pile into the puffball shell and baste the shell with melted butter. Wrap the puffball in foil and bake in a moderate oven for around 40 minutes. The puffball will collapse a little, but will form a bowl from which you can eat the mushroom and ham medley. Delicious.
Enough ripe sloes to half-fill the jar you will be steeping them in
Golden caster sugar
1 litre bottle gin
1) Pick your sloes – you can tell if they're ripe enough by seeing if you can easily pop the berries between finger and thumb.
2) There's a debate over what to do next. Some prick each sloe before placing in their two litre Kilner Jar, others prefer the lazier option of freezing the sloes overnight. Both practices emulate the first frost and split the skin on the berries.
3) There's also debate about how much sugar to use. I'd cover the berries but Jamie Oliver only says you need 'two big spoonfuls'. Hmm.
4) Add the gin to the top of the jar and seal. Shake. Every day for a week, shake the jar again and keep going until the sugar has fully dissolved. Then place in a cool, dark place and leave until Christmas, although the longer you can leave it, the better. I've just bottled my 2015 vintage…
5) When you bottle, line a plastic sieve with muslin, set over a bowl and strain.
When you've drained your sloe gin, don't discard the berries, re-use them and make your own port! Technically it's fortified wine, but let's not split hairs. You'll need the same jar you made your sloe gin in.
About 500g sloes left over from sloe gin
750ml of red wine
About 100g sugar
1) Add the sloes, sugar and wine to your container. Seal and shake daily for six to eight weeks, keeping it in a cool, dark place. Taste and adjust sugar if you think necessary.
2) Strain as above with sloe gin. Add the brandy and mix well.
Crabapple lazy chutney
3lbs fresh crabapples, stems removed, halved, skin on
340g raisins or sultanas
Two onions, diced
Five garlic cloves, chopped
600g Demerara sugar
375ml of apple cider vinegar
Fresh or ground sage (one tablespoon/1/4 teaspoon)
A tablespoon of fresh, grated ginger
One cinnamon stick
Half a teaspoon of ground cloves and of ground allspice
Two large oranges, juiced and zested
1) Put all the ingredients bar the orange juice/zest in the slow cooker and cook on the lowest setting for eight to 10 hours.
2) Break up any large chunks with a wooden spoon and stir to mix. If too watery, cook for longer with the lid off.
3) Before bottling, add orange juice and zest to taste.
4) Bottle in jars.