Yes, it’s February as I write this. These wonderful plums, also known as Mirabelles, are ready to pick in around August, but there is good reason for mentioning them now – they are in flower. The pretty blossoms are distinctive, there’s nothing else to confuse them with at this moment and you can spot them as you drive past at 60. If you track them down now, you can head back later in the year for their fantastic fruit. Get your skates on though as the Blackthorn will be out before too long. Yes, it’s still worth knowing where Blackthorns are for your Sloes, but Cherry Plums are less common. The focus of this post is telling them apart. One blog I found gives one possible way:
The simple way to tell the difference is to plunge your arm vigorously into the bush and wriggle it about. If it is covered in bloody scratches when you retrieve it, odds are it was a Blackthorn…
You will be pleased to know that there are other, pain-free ways of telling them apart, admittedly they are a bit more complex.
Flowering period: Can flower as early as late January, but can carry on into March and April
Twigs: The young twigs are hairless and distinctively green. Bark dark grey. No spines.
Flowers / leaves: The leaves develop at the same time as the flowers.
Habitat: Scattered, but locally frequent and easily overlooked when it grows in hedges with Blackthorn but given away by the early flowering. Can make a small tree (up to 8 metres). They are non-native, and sometimes used for landscaping or highways planting.
Appearance: Distinctly wispy with slender branches and twigs.
For more information on identifying Cherry Plums see this Woodland Trust page.
Flowering period: March – April
Twigs: The dark brown / black bark is smooth, and twigs form straight side shoots, which develop into thorns / spines.
Flowers / leaves: Flowers appear before the leaves start to show.
Habitat: Grows naturally in scrub and woodlands, but commonly used in hedges. Can grow to 6 or 7 metres tall.
Appearance: Usually an impenetrable mass of very spiny straight-branched bushes.
For more information on identifying Blackthorn see this Woodland Trust page.
Elderberries are far from the most foraged berry. This is a bit of a shame, used the right way they are a great wild food ingredient. They make a good jam or jelly, but you wouldn’t really want a pudding with them “neat”. Adding another fruit like Blackberries improves the flavour. Where they do come into their own is in drinks, one of the best wild fruit wines, a great spirit-based infusion (think Sloe Gin but with Elderberries and Vodka or Whisky), or most commonly as Elderberry Syrup. This is one of my favourite fruit syrups and can be used in a number of ways.
Uses for Elderberry Syrup
Most will go in the freezer to reappear when the winter colds or flu strike. Defrosted then a little in a mug of hot water (squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of whisky are optional extras) will relieve the symptoms of colds and flu. I add cloves to mine and the fruity/spicy remedy soon starts to work wonders. The combination of certain acids, vitamin C and anti-oxidants has proven in trials that “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier …. in those receiving elderberry extract compared with a placebo“. The medicinal benefits have been known since the Ancient Egyptians and Greek. You can today buy cold remedies with Elderberry in, but why, when you can make your own cheaply. I use the recipe in Roger Phillips’ excellent Wild Food.
I’ve known people use it as a no-alcohol version of mulled wine. The spices, such as cloves, ginger and / or cinnamon, make it fill the role very well.
You can drizzle a little of the syrup on to ice cream, pancakes, rice pudding or similar.
To most the only Ketchup is Tomato and comes from a shop, however, there are a few you can make with a wild fruit and now is the ideal time. I’ve come across Blackberry, Crab Apple and Haw (the fruit of the Hawthorn). Like their famous cousin they are pureed fruit with vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and, optionally, some spices. They are pretty easy to make and delicious. I’ve made the Haw Ketchup one most often. This goes very well with venison, pork belly, cheese on toast, nut roast, cheese, lentil burgers or on a fried egg. A fellow forager suggested using it in place of tomato sauce on a pizza – it was great!
This is a “base” recipe from Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No.2 Preserves. (By clicking this link you go to The Book Depository’s web site. At the time of writing this book as has 52% off – costing just £7.18 in hardback!). You can spice it up as you like with Cayenne Pepper, Worcester sauce, cloves, cinnamon, garlic salt, coriander etc.
Makes 1 x 300 ml bottle.
300 ml white wine or cider vinegar
170 g sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Ground black pepper to taste
Strip the haws from the stalks – the easiest way to do this is with scissors.
Rinse in cold water.
Put the haws into a pan with the vinegar and 300 ml water and simmer for about 30 minutes – the skins will split, revealing the firm, yellow flesh. Cook until the flesh is soft and the berries have become a muted red-brown. Remove from the heat.
Rub the mixture through a sieve, or pass through a food mill, to remove the largish stones and the skins.
Return the fruity mixture to the cleaned-out pan. Add the sugar and heat gently, stirring, until it dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Season with the salt, pepper and add any spices.
Pour the finished Haw Ketchup into a sterilized bottle and seal with a vinegar proof cap.
Keep an eye out for Sea Buckthorn at the moment. While primarily a coastal plant, it does get planted in gardens and for landscaping often far inland. The berries are a “super food”, rich in antioxidants, vitamin C (15 x oranges), amino acids and other good things – so good you see Sea Buckthorn products sold in health food shops for internal and external uses. They have a long history of medicinal uses back to the Ancient Greeks. The plant (especially the seed oil) has many medical uses. The fruit pulp can be applied directly to the skin for for treating sunburn; healing wounds, for acne, dermatitis, dry skin, eczema, skin ulcers and more!
Harvesting the berries is an interesting challenge. John Wright describes it very amusingly in his River Cottage Handbook – Edible Seashore, suggesting you wear your loudest Hawaiian shirt that includes a lot of orange. The branches have sharp thorns, the berries are easily burst – “rubber balloons of bright orange liquid attached to a barbed wire fence”. One technique (to be used in moderation as it can be invasive), is to cut branches off, take them home to put in the freezer then knock the berries off. You can also put plastic sheet on the ground under the bush and shake it, or carefully (remembering the thorns), squeeze a cluster of berries over a bucket and catch the juice, straining it later to remove leaves / debris. You can read more on harvesting techniques here.
This all sounds like a lot of work but is worth the effort. The berries are very sour but have an amazing flavour. The fruit can be used to make pies, jams, squashes / syrups, liquors (a la sloe gin but with vodka), etc. A jam made with the berries and crab apples is one of my favourites. A forager’s Bucks Fizz combines some juice with Elderflower Champagne and they make a great sauce to go with a Seaweed Panna Cotta.
Particularly overseas the berries are used for many different commercially sold products – juice, oil, jam, carbonated beverages, alcoholic beverages such as wine and vodka; breakfast cereals, powder, rice pops, juice powder, toffees, biscuits; candies, gums, and fruit chews; cosmetic products such as facial cream and shampoo!
Please note it is nothing to do with Common Buckthorn or the mildly poisonous Alder Buckthorn.
It is well and truly Cherry Plum time. These are small plums, rounder than your regular plum and in a range of colours too.
Find the right spot and the trees are nearly groaning under the weight of them!
They are sweet enough to eat raw. Most fall to the floor and rot. As I picked these umpteen cyclists went past, not one stopped to pick any or try this bounty for themselves.
They are out of reach with just your arm, but the perfect tool can be made easily and cheaply. From your local hardware shop buy a piece of 30 mm waste pipe. The usual use for this is taking waste water from your sink plug hole to the drain.
1. Holding it firmly, such as in a vice, use a hacksaw to fashion two “claws” on the end.
2. Out of doors (fumes!), heat the claws in a gas flame and bend with pliers to get.
It is then just a matter of hooking your Cherry plums (or Crab apples etc.) and they drop down the pipe. You can put your hand over the end or (genius!) tie one of those cloth bags to the end to catch them in.
A video bringing it all together – sorry about the road noise.
The plums are great to eat raw, in puddings, jam, fruit leather, chutney and more. A great, very quick pudding is a crumble with the Cherry plums as they are (just washed). Don’t eat in polite company and just spit the stones out as you find them!
Japanese Knotweed – just the name sends terror through people. Introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant that could stabilise riverbanks and railway embankments it has managed to find its way into all sorts of corners of our towns and countryside costing the UK economy around £150 million per year in control measures. Successfully eradicating knotweed from the Olympic park in London cost £70 million (getting on for a pound per person living in the UK) and took several years! There are companies whose sole businesses is its removal, councils employ teams or officers to attempt to eradicate it and if it grows in the garden of a house you want a mortgage on, forget it. It is common on sites that are disturbed by human activity – railway lines, old rubbish tips and derelict land, being spread with loads of rubble, soil and rubbish. It also spreads along watercourses and on machinery and vehicle tyres. Growing 3 centimetres per day, it displaces other plants and is and able to break through concrete! This is about as close as to triffids as we get! Watch time-lapse photography of Knotweed growing a metre in three weeks here.
Why mention it in a foraging blog? Of course you can eat it – but. Yes – a few big buts:
1. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to introduce Japanese Knotweed to the countryside. Just a small fragment of root can spread the plant. Handle it responsibly.
2. To control it, sites may be sprayed with herbicides.
To avoid falling foul of either of these points:
1. The plant is spread during ground disturbance and fly tipping. However, it is recommended that any waste (stripped leaves etc.) should be boiled / burnt and then binned – not put in your compost!
2. Check for any notices showing it has treated and look for signs of unhealthy (wilting / yellow spots etc.) vegetation.
You should also note it is rich in oxalic acid and if you suffer from gout you should only eat small quantities of it or avoid it.
If you have still want to eat it what are you in for? It is rather like rhubarb – “Rhubarb but nicer” I’ve heard from many I have fed it to; less tart than rhubarb.
If it gets too big it will be stringy and not good eating. Aim to pick it around now. You should be looking for bits that are about 30 cm high or just the last 30 cm of taller bits. Cut them off with a knife. Back in the kitchen, strip any leaves and scrape off the papery tissue that divides the sections of the stem. Tough pieces will need peeling.
There are great collections of recipes here and here including soup crumble, vegetable dishes and wine.
Japanese Knotweed is also rather good for you containing high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C, certain antioxidants, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese and resveratrol, the substance in grape skins and red wine that lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attacks!
If Japanese Knotweed is continually cut (and eaten) it will eventually give up – a far better way of controlling it than gallons of chemical sprays. In fact, some US authorities have given up trying to eradicate it and instead run annual Japanese Knotweed festivals!
It’s definitely Blackberry time in the hedgerow. As the August rain has gone, they have dried out and more ripened. There are still plenty to come but try to get out this weekend before the rain returns. While you can use them fresh in lots of ways, the skill is in having different ways of preserving the glut for use through the rest of the year. We put loads in the freezer for crumbles and other puddings. But you can also preserve the glut by making:
Syrup / Cordial
Jams / Jellies / Cheese
Pickled / bottled fruit
Ketchups / sauces
Wine / Liquors (e.g Blackberry Vodka)
One of the less familiar options above is making a fruit leather.
This is a thin, pliable sheet of dried, sweetened fruit purée. They are easy to make and there are endless variations. They usually contain apples, but can use all manner of hedgerow and garden fruit (and even some veg). You can “spice” then up with various additions – spirits, concentrated red wine, spices, chopped nuts and so on. They are very easy to make and can be used over the coming year for:
Snack for children – no E numbers!
Fruit teas (just add boiling water)
Ice cream syrup (add a little boiling water)
Mixed into fruit cakes or sponge mixtures at the end so it doesn’t dissolve
Put bits in yoghurt / ice cream / fruit salad
In a toasted sandwich / baked into a fruit bread
I recently made a blackberry and apple fruit leather with 500g of blackberries, 500g of cooking (or crab) apples, the juice of a lemon and 150g of honey.
Chop the apples and put in a pan with the blackberries and lemon juice.
Cook until the apple is soft. Then rub through a sieve to remove the pips and purée the fruit.
Spread the purée onto lined baking sheets or baking parchment using the back of a spoon to spread it into a thin layer.
You then need to dry the purée. This can be done in a low oven for 12-18 hours (!), a dehydrator, airing cupboard or sun-dried on a warm windowsill. Those are my dehydrator shelves in the above photo, I have cut down cake tin liners to hold the purée.
The dried leather can be rolled up in cling-film or greaseproof paper and stored in airtight container for up to 6 months.
This video shows some of the things the group on this year’s summer foraging course got up to. It includes underwater footage from the crabbing session and an Eel coming to the drop net. The Eel got put back as they are a protected species.
This course runs every summer (July) in West Dorset – it includes crabbing and plants of seashore, hedgerow and river. We gather ingredients for a three course wild-food based meal.
When most people think of foraging for wild food it is mainly the autumn – fruit, nuts and fungi. There are of course wild foods to be found all year and the summer is no exception with soft fruit, flowers, herbs, nuts and some fungi offering great summer foraging. A few of the autumn species are showing themselves too but are not quite ripe yet.
In both the garden and the wild it is soft fruit season. The wild parents of garden species are generally smaller than the garden versions but still flavoursome and worth the effort in finding and picking. Gooseberries, Strawberries, Red Currants, Cherries, Raspberries, Bilberries and Mirabelles (Cherry Plums) are awaiting you to turn them into delights such as puddings, drinks (cordial, wine and sloe-gin equivalents), vinegars, jams and chutney. Venture a bit further afield (for me to a nearby bypass!) and you will find Sea Buckthorn berries – an amazing flavour. The first blackberries are ripening. It is always the one at the end of the cluster – the “king” berry that ripens first. They are hinting at autumn along with ripening Japanese Rosehips, Rowans, Haws and Damsons.
Elderflower time is a distant memory, though the cupboard or freezer should be stocked with cordial, which can go into puddings, cakes, breads and more. Roses, Meadowsweet, Himalayan Balsam and Clover flowers can be picked with drinks, puddings and more in mind.
While not as bountiful as the wealth of greens of Spring, Summer foraging finds Chickweed in the fields for a lettuce role and Watercress abounds in the chalk stream though must be cooked (soup or a veg) to avid the risk of liver fluke. Fat Hen is plentiful though the woodier stems should be avoided. Soup, curry, quiche or a simple green veg being the main uses. Pine Needles make a refreshing, fruit cordial, delicious on a warm day.
Summer is a good time for foraging for herbs. Many such as Marjoram, Fennel and Water Mint can be dried. The dried herbs can be used in the autumn with crab apples for herb jellies. Sorrel is ongoing in the meadows with a multitude of uses – from a sauce for oily fish, to a salad or quiche ingredient or bruised with buttered new potatoes.
Hazelnuts are visible in the hedgerows and on the grass where the squirrels have thrown his leftovers. The flesh of green Hazelnuts have the crisp crunch of overgrown peas, and a sweet vegetable-like taste that quickly becomes rather addictive! Do use nutcrackers and not your teeth though. Green Walnuts are still about but we have missed the traditional time for pickling them – late June. They have been a delicacy in England since at least the early 19th-century enjoyed with cheese and biscuits. Charles Dickens mentions them in The Pickwick Papers,
A good thunderstorm or two in August usually gets the fungi season kick-started. Online foraging and fungi forums are full of pictures of people’s latest finds. I’ve seen Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Fairy Ring Champignons, Field Mushrooms and Red Cracking Bolete.
I have hazy distant memories of a night out in Slovenia where we went vodka tasting. These were not just ordinary vodkas but a remarkable variety of locally-made infused or flavoured vodkas. Locally foraged ingredients such as wild strawberries, pine needles and even certain grasses had been steeped in vodka with sugar in the same manner as we make Sloe Gin. The results were amazing, all sorts of unusual, wonderful flavours, and less predictably, a rather sore head the next morning!
Back here I have made a few with Vodka, Gin, Whisky, Brandy and Rum. I currently have (separately!) Blackberry, Elderflower, Japanese Knotweed and Sloe on the go, with quite a few more on the “try” list.
These wild drinks can be drunk neat, but are better mixed such as with apple juice, soda water or tonic. There are also quite a few wild cocktail recipes that can be found on-line too. Making infused or flavoured vodkas is very straightforward though the processes do differ a little and the amount of time for the flavour to infuse also varies. Look on-line for a wild drinks recipe for the foraged ingredient that you happen to have and to see which spirit goes best with it. I also highly recommend two books which wild drinks / infusions form a part of: