The spring and summer cause great issues for foragers in the fact what do we pick first? There is so much ready all at once that it drives me mad, I work on average this time of year 18 hours, plus a day, the phone rings off the hook with many friends, family, and customers with news of a find, a new secret place to forage or they do indeed a glut of fruit that needs picking and of course (anyone who cooks will tell you this ) they all demand, new and interesting for recipes along with special tips and new ideas! I do my best and there’s the garden to tend too. Would I change it? No! Do I love it yes.
However this year I am picking Rowan berries before elderberries that is a first for me. Elderberries need cooking before you eat them they can make you ill if uncooked.
The Leaves and stems mustn’t be used and these too can make you quite ill. So cook them first. So yes you can make an amazing syrup, jam and jelly but here I like to tell you about a soup.
To get to the soup we first have to travel back in time to Barland Estate in Powys Wales and into Garden Cottage. In the garden the plums are ready to pick, loganberries are ripping fast each day against the walled garden space dripping with flavour, the apples are promising a bumper crop and I am still picking raspberries, strawberries and of course, the currant cage is not giving in just yet. Our freezers are full and the larder is filling up. It’s early August and the kitchen hot from the Rayburn. A constant smell of cooking fruit fills our house.
A large bowl of water with a small hint of wine, is on the heat, the air is filled with warm smells, first the fresh fruity aroma, then a whisper of cinnamon with undertones of honey fill the air in between and remind me that the summer not going to last forever, my choice of school has been my undoing. I will at the end of this month get back on the bus and although my days will be busy, I not be with my mum & dad, my little brother and of the mad dog “hop along Cassidy” and I will miss them all so much along with the garden full of fruit and flowers, dinner will become just food. I indeed missed them more than I ever told them. (Turn back the clock).
My mum’s storytelling was always fascinating and all the time she was passing on everything she learnt, she had a thirst for knowledge, and her desire to pass on everything she knows was so important. She was like a missionary spreading and sharing the word! Especially when she was in the kitchen, so as she cooked she told stories, and apart from cooking lessons we had, history lessons, art lessons and life lessons! Why, and how certain dishes came about why we forage and the importance of not forgetting what we once knew.
My mum was and is still my hero, she could cook anything and did indeed cook everything, and could make a meal from nothing. Her heart still beats in mine and although I miss her every single day I know she is with me every second. She made me who I am today, she taught me the love of life, passion and of course cooking. She was outstanding at everything especially making soups, from all most anything from the garden. Even the hardened meat eater couldn’t resist her delicious green and bean soup. So as the seasons changed and slowly moved on so did the recipes and the soup. I not sure I could even to this day give you my favourite choice if I was to choose? Then I would choose them all a small tiny cup of each starting with the pea, then cold fennel, but always finishing with the Elderberry soup.
Elderberry Soup recipe
1.5 litres of water
500g of Elderberries
2 tablespoons of Lemon Juice (one large lemon)
100ml of white wine
1 stick of cinnamon
A little arrowroot to thicken or you can have this without if you would like a thin soup.
- Place on the heat water, wine, lemon juice and spice.
Pick the elderberries off the stalks, discarding any leaves and stalks.
Add carefully to the warm water, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook gently for 10-15 mins
The fruit will so mushy, Add a teaspoon of honey at this point.
- Strain the fruit and press out the juice. Then return the soup to the pan. (Discard the pulp)
If you would like a thicker soup, mix the arrow route with a drop of cold water and the rest of the lemon juice and pour into the soup and now season to your taste.
- Return to a soft heat and slowly bring to a light boil to cook the arrowroot and thicken the soup.
Serve with roasted ground cobnuts and sourdough bread croutons drizzled with honey.
Possible side effects (Autoimmune diseases” such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or other conditions: Elderberry might cause the immune system to become more active, and this could increase the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. If you have one of these conditions, it’s best to avoid using elderberry.)
I’ve always had an instinct and natural urge for foraging, that has continued to push me outside.
As no matter where you are, no matter the time of year there always something to find to eat!. Foraging has always played a big part in my life but now it’s also instrumental to my work. Apart from the free food there are other benefits too. Exercise and this time of year leaf kicking is a great way to feel young! I am sure that I did once hear on radio 4 that there is something fundamental and beneficial about the bacteria on the leafs. That it is good for us to breathe in when kicking up the leaves during autumn, unfortunately I can’t remember all the details!
So on a bright afternoon, after the fog had cleared, I was off to forage for jam in the ground of the Chewton Glen, I take my usual route through the cut, across the road and then into the small woodland. I just can’t help but kick up the leaves, it’s then I notice them, little furry green husks, spiky balls and they are holding their very own crown jewels beautiful little brown chestnuts!
I’ve found treasure! wow o wow, I had almost forgotten about these little beauties I’ve been so busy with hedgerow fruits recently, just how could I forget about the season’s best tasting nut! So without a thought for rose hips I was down on damp ground picking through the leaves and gathering chestnuts.
So while my jeans were gathering mud as I rustled in the leaves, the moment begins to rekindles memories, and as always my memories always seem to start in the our family kitchen with my mum. I would watch her put together some wonderful recipes and I wish now I take a pen to paper and written them all down. But the smell of these chestnuts takes me to her kitchen, while after foraging for those angry spiky furry balls, we would pick out the nuts, and that distinct aromas of burnt ambers, almost earthy yes the chestnuts were roasting. Or we store the beauties for use later in the Christmas stuffing.
But what else did she do apart from the stuffing ? I hold still, kneeing on the wet ground trying hard to bring back “Christmas past”, I laugh! All I think of is the exploding chestnuts in the rayburn ( I haven’t forgotten to pierce the chestnuts since!)
I giggle and while I’m thinking, I get a message from Darren Venables, the wonderful head gardener from the Chewton Glen, he suggests a roast chestnut party just, what I was thinking! but hey what about a Jam? There is plenty here.
It’s not that we won’t have a party, however being a little obsessed with jam, I just can’t help but think about making a jam, it’s in my bones.
I dig deep and finally remember this recipe something that I made some many moons ago. So without rambling on! here’s the recipe:
– 1 kg of chestnuts
– 650g of vanilla sugar (can use granulated sugar if you wish)
– one vanilla pod (optional depends how much your sugar tastes of vanilla )
– Juice of a lemon
(check last blogs for sterilising jars etc)
- Chestnuts have two skins so first your need to peel the outer skin it’s a little difficult and your need a sharp knife and insert it at the top of the nut and carefully peel away the first layer.
- Then pop them into a large pan of boiled water and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, then remove the chestnuts a little at a time and peel the second layer of skin.
- Once you have skinned all the nuts it can take some time. (I promise if I find a faster way or a tool to do this with I’ll let you know)
- Now the messy bit press the chestnuts though a sieve to remove the husky bits. (this is the non technical bit and other jam makers hate this bit. if you add equal amounts of sugar to the nuts as you would in jam then your get a rather sweet jam nothing wrong with it).
- However I like more of a chestnut taste so asto be more versatile so like to use less sugar.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and cook for about 20-30mins and bring to a rolling boil check for the set (softer than fruit jams) and pot in sterilised jars.
This is great in a chestnut bellini and of course on pancakes it’s heaven
Its pairs very well with whiskey so great for a cake! (or even in a whiskey)
A still moment in time that I hope to be able to visualise in my heart for ever, for a photograph can only ever hold an image. It may rekindle memories but it could ever convey the my magical moment of sitting outside with a blanket and a hot cup of tea and a very confused cat!
It’s 2.15 and I am watching the sun eclipse the moon on a clear night so bright I can read the stars like a recipe. For the first time ever I looked up and without a map I knew exactly what each star in this night sky is and I was so excited, I could barely hold onto my voice and not shout out their names, at last it’s sunk in! So crystal clear and I can see everyone . I look back at the moon,and it has the appearance of someone draping a hearth rug over her while she sits by the fire, that gives her this earthly glow. Not wanting to move a muscle as not to miss a second of such beauty I stare and breath in this extraordinary moment. I have to share this time, but who dare I ring at such a late hour? I conect with a few friends, just knowing that we are together looking, dreaming and experiencing the same sight fills my heart, wondering just how they feel.
Then it begins a heartbeat so loud almost deafening, I almost jump out of my seat looking around I steady my nervous its my heart its has started to race with the excitement of the event. I breath in and smile all at the same time the air is motionless as it the world has stood still, and we watch her performance. My thoughts begins to accelerate, are you meant to wish upon the moon or do I sing a song of love or do I ?? What might my mum have done? she would have chosen a wish, then wished to see her daughter and I too would have wished to see them both.
I pour another cup of tea from my flask wondering how mad I must look in an English garden with a blanket and flask of tea a stone’s throw from my kitchen. Mrs moon how you make me laugh I look up at you above the cherry tree, where you have settled into your rug, and how very much you remind me a christmas bauble, and how surreal this all is, then without thinking my mind is in the vegetable plot! and without a moment to lose I jump up, I grow biodynamically this is perfect for planting! I plant as many winter salad seeds I can see with the world’s smallest touch and red moon light.
I laugh hoping not to wake the neighbors, they truly would then think that I was completely nuts! mmm then I start to think about Jam… wondering just how the fruit will set tomorrow, and although I have grown by biodynamic methods, I have yet to note the setting points of jams by this method, so a project begins!
So this morning at first light I picked as many blackberries as my basket could carry and set off into the kitchen to cook the delights. After a few hours my basket was bare so I was off again, finding plenty more hedgerow bounty, each fruit seemed fuller and juicier than before. The I remembered the mushrooms I picked the day before, and off course I truffle hunt biodynamically!!! why O why had I not thought of it in all of my fruit foraging !! So without fail I produced a little chart to record the results. (I Love my reserch!) So if and when I get tangible results of biodynamic setting points in jam I shall let you know. In the past I have recorded humidity measurements, it has and does affect, the jam setting point no matter the recipes. In the meantime a little blackberry jam recipe.
- 2kg of blackberries
- 2 kgs of sugar
- juice of one lemon
- Wash and hull the blackberries
- Sit the blackberrie in the sugar over night
- Pop a small plate into the fridge to check for setting point.Wash jars and place in an oven dish and turn your oven to 150C. Put your timer on for 12mins to remind you to turn off the oven.
- Place the contents in a jam pan and cook on a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved
- Once the sugar has dissolved and the blackberries have started to cook (about 35mins) bring the pan to a rolling boil
- Remove from heat & check for setting point.
- Carefully remove jars from oven.
- Ladle jam into jars seal with clean lids
- Label once cool.
For me the Autumn arrives like the dew, heavy and light all at the same time. My wardrobe reflects the cold morning and I dance in the long shadows whilst marveling at the cobwebs and the fading colors of the lavender in the herb garden.
Knowing another season has grown into the year and soon it will lead into the winter for which seems to to as beautiful and as short lived as the spring. Where I will look forward to bright Oranges from Ave Maria Farm in Spain with anticipation of that of a child at Christmas.
In the meantime I pull out my old poetry book and read Blackberry picking by Seamus Heaney, a poet who could capture a the moment of the everyday and highlight the magic in the undervalued and neglected moments of time passing. This particular poem not only touches my pleasure to read and indulge in poetry for not nothing more than self enjoyment but he turns my head and I look back as if it were this afternoon that I was out picking blackberries before tea, managing with simple words to hold my childhood memory of foraging almost as perfect as my mum’s apple and blackberry pie recipe, it’s as if he was there. So before you collect the bounty of the Autumn and make wonderful Christmas gifts and recreate your own childhood memories of picking blackberries. Have a read of just one of his wonderful poems.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
by Seamus Heaney
Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966).