Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fret-Free Foraging

Autumn is the time of year when hedgerows, byways and woodlands have plenty of food for foraging. All of the free fruit detailed here I have found within walking distance of home every autumn. There are certain woodland spots where I have come across intrepid wild mushroom hunters but I lack the confidence to differentiate between wild mushrooms and poisonous fungi. A relative swears by the rule of thumb that if you can peel the outer skin from the cap with your finger, then it’s edible. She is probably right as she eats them every year and has been around for seventy summers; or she might just be lucky. There are a few things I would lay my life on the line for; a tasty mushroom is not one of them. Therefore, I have no advice to impart on mushrooms. Instead, here is a modest guide to fret-free foraging:

The blackberry - to the more ambitious this word now only means a mobile communication device – is the most commonly foraged fruit; brambles grow everywhere. Last year, we spent an afternoon gathering blackberries in woods near Herstmonceux Castle only to realise on returning home that there was a huge bramble cascading out of the motor mechanic’s yard opposite rich with plump, ripe blackberries. Blackberries are usually ripe in September but I have long seen berries turning from red to black this year. The earlier fruit are much sweeter so make delicious puddings and pies; later fruit is less sweet and ideal for sugar-rich jam recipes. Once you are unable to wash the fruit without it disintegrating, you will know the season is over.

Early autumn is also usually the time to forage for elderberries. I have seen the elder tree in woods and on footpaths with large bunches of berries hanging from the branches. They are the size of a blackcurrant and are deep purple, almost black in colour when ripe; the tree can grow quite tall so some clambering can be required to get at them. Patience is needed to remove the fiddly stalks but it is well worth it. Elderberries can be used to make wine and jam but we used ours to make muffins last year.

The beautiful dusty, bluish-purple fruit of the blackthorn tree, the sloe is a bit bigger than a blueberry. They are ripe from September onwards but it is said that a less bitter fruit will be harvested after the first frost. This can vary, but October is the most likely time for sloe foraging. The blackthorn is common in hedgerows, verges and woodlands and must only be used, of course, to make sloe gin. We made three litres last year and dished it out to friends and family as Christmas presents; it was so sweet and strong that what we kept back for ourselves was first tasted on Christmas Eve and all gone by New Year. This is the recipe:

450g sloes
225g caster sugar
4 almonds
1 litre gin

Prick sloes several times with a needle and put in a large sterilised storage/Kilner jar. Add the sugar, almonds and pour in the gin. Seal it, shake well and store in a cool, dark cupboard.

Shake every other day for one week and then shake once a week for two months. It can be strained through a muslin lined colander after three months and can be drunk immediately, just in time for Christmas. But will improve with age if you can bear to leave it for longer.

A variation of this recipe is to replace the sloes with blackberries and the gin with brandy.

The dense, fine needle spikes of the sweet chestnut case can be found on woodland floors from October. The cases will usually be split to reveal the nuts but, if not, it can be painful on the fingers getting at them. If you want to make stuffing for Christmas it is best to blanch, peel and freeze the chestnuts. That is if you can resist simply roasting and eating them in front of late autumn’s first fires. We roast ours in the ashpan of the wood burner: it gives them that straight from the brazier, cor blimey it's taters, Dickensian street-seller taste.

I have seen a lot of these in hedgerows lately but cannot overcome a long-held aversion built up in childhood having had rosehip syrup spooned down me regularly as a ‘tonic’. Have they any other use?

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