Our year’s foraging

It’s been a great year for foraging but, as always, it’s the stuff you don’t manage to do that sticks in the mind. So I thought I would celebrate the 2016 season with a blog post to remember some of the great food we ate this year from verges and hedgerows.

  • The spring brought a marvellous crop of elderflowers and we enjoyed elderflower cordial for months afterwards. This always feels like a guilty pleasure as it takes such vast quantities of refined sugar. But that is balanced somewhat by the fact that you only use a tiny amount each time you drink it – as a cordial, it is heavily diluted, and also an excellent source of vitamin C thanks to the lemons and limes that go in. For me this really is about bottling the taste of early summer.
  • After years of looking I have found a reliable local supply of ransoms in a patch of wet woodland. This is one of my favourite things to forage (as long as it is done sensitively so not to destroy the plants or leave obvious evidence of our passage through).
  • We’ve been cultivating a nettle patch in the garden (which falls halfway between foraging and productive gardening, I know) and enjoyed nettle tea and nettle lasagne from that. We also have a supply of garlic mustard in the garden but tend to eat this in moderation as it has a strong and potentially bitter flavour, and it really is an acquired taste.
  • I found a marvellous new source of hedgerow damsons and stewed a litre or so for preservation over the winter – but also made three jars of damson jelly. Two are a lovely red-gold and the third a dark wine red-purple. These little plum-like fruit are massively underrated and this is a tree that I would like to cultivate in the garden to ensure a regular supply.
  • This year’s blackberries were magnificent. We’ve frozen several litres of pre-cooked blackberry and apple for the darkest days of winter (we try to have it on Christmas Day to remind us that warmer, brighter days are on the way). We’ve planted a dwarf Bramley apple tree in recent years and have had a very good crop in the last two seasons. Apples can be foraged locally but it’s a hit and miss business compared to the simple civility of planting yourself an apple tree. (We’ve also planted some raspberry canes in the garden for next year.)
  • Sweet chestnuts (and masses fell from the trees this year) make a great accompaniment to pasta if roasted, ground and mixed with grated hard cheese.

So, what did we fail to do? Well, we are still working our way through hedgerow jelly and crab apple jelly from previous years so currently no point in making more, especially with several jars of damson jelly in the cupboard. We tend to opt for jellies over jams (which means straining out all the skins, pips and so on) due to a household preference for the smoother option and I’m really pleased at how my skill at jam-making has come on. I am still no expert, but so much of it is remembering that your goal is simply to get a nice result, not necessarily to replicate what you would buy from a supermarket. And, if your jam has a slightly runny set, how much does it actually matter? Once I got my head around this, it all somehow seemed to go much more successfully and be less angst-ridden.

The sloe season seemed to me to be paltry and quite unusually brief, which means that I will have to buy my sloe gin ready mixed this year.

Having tried Richard Mabey’s recipe for crab apple and rowan jelly a few years ago, and found it delicious, I have been meaning to try that again every since but have never been quite organised enough to collect both the crab aples and the rowan berries. This to me is the essence of foraging because it feels so marvellously transgressive – I grew up believing that, with the obvious exception of blackberries, everything that came off trees or out of hedges, and especially rowan berries, was deadly poisonous. To find out that they are not, and that you can make deliciously edible things from them, is extraordinary liberating. There is a field boundary near us full of Rosacea roses and it is still covered in fat, glossy red hips, so maybe we will get to rosehip syrup yet. Rosehips are the most delicious of fruits and I am sure they would be a national favourite if it was not for their fatal flaw – the little itchy hairs inside them that can play havoc with the skin, eyes or digestive tract. For this reason syrup is the easy option as, by cooking and straining them, you get all the flavour and none of the hassle of cleaning out the hairs.

I would dearly love to have the confidence to pick wild mushrooms but am much too frightened of poisoning me and mine. I keep saying that I will do an identification course but the stars of enough time, enough money and the right location/content never seem to align. I am, however, working on my mushroom identification skills by buying various field guides and using them to identify the things I see around and about. Recently we saw something pale and intriguing growing on our local recreation ground. We brought it home for identification and to do a spore print -and discovered it was unpleasantly poisonous. So, in the recycling bin with that one, but satisfying to have successfully worked out what it was, nevertheless. I understand from folk more skilled in this than I am that giant puffballs are pretty safe as it’s that much harder to mistake them for something nasty. But harvesting one of those and taking it home requires quite some nerve.

On the wish list for next year: mallows; fat hen; seaweed; sea kale; wild rocket. I would love to find a source of wild watercress – but I’m wary of this as water pollution can be such a problem. But maybe we will steel ourselves to pick and eat a giant puffball…