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.
A great edible plant to track down at the moment (June – September) is Fat Hen. It is also known by many names including Lambs Quarters, White Goosefoot, Common Goosefoot, Dirty Dick, Frost Blite, Dung Weed, Mutton Tops and Pigweed. It is a summer plant found on disturbed and cultivated areas such as arable fields, vegetable gardens / allotments and manure heaps. For those that don’t welcome its presence, it is a troublesome annual weed, each plant producing up to 20,000 seeds which can last in the soil for many years. It is common in most of Britain except mountainous areas.
Fat Hen is a member of the Goosefoot genus. Many other members are edible including the salt-tolerant Oraches found on shingle beaches.
Fat Hen has been eaten as a vegetable since Stone Age times. Its seeds made up part of the last meal of Tollund Man, a bog body dating from this period found in Tollund in Denmark. It remained popular until the 16th century when spinach and cabbage replaced it in our diets. One relative, Good King Henry, was a popular garden vegetable for hundreds of years and the seeds are still sold today though is less popular than in the past. A “trendy” relative is Chenopodium quinoa that grows in South America. It’s seeds are the source of Quinoa. Today, Fat Hen is still cultivated as a food crop in some countries including India.
Fat Hen Identification
Fat Hen, and other members of the Chenopodium family are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They are very variable and can hybridise!
Fat Hen is an erect, annual, bushy herb often reaching a height of a metre or more. It usually has striped stems and has dense clusters of tiny green flowers.
They are grey green ovate or triangular leaves which are paler underneath. They are 20-60 mm long and 5-30 mm wide with a pointed tip. Bigger leaves are usually lobed or toothed. All are mealy (covered with meal (a powdery coating)).
Smell / Taste
Fat Hen smells (faintly of) and tastes a bit like cabbage.
The leaves of the toxic Black Nightshade do look rather like those of Fat Hen. The flowers are however, very different, with those of Black Nightshade being like a white version of tomato or potato flowers – in the same family!
Fat Hen Risks
If you are gathering Fat Hen from a farmer’s field, garden or allotment, do check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.
Fat Hen can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates though cases of poisoning are rare.
Some members of this genus contain saponins (they form a lather when combined with water), however:
Quantities are usually too small for any harm.
Most are not absorbed and pass without any problem.
They are also largely broken down during cooking.
Like many foods (Sorrel, Sea Beet and lots of cultivated plants like Sprouts and Parsley), they also contain some oxalic acid. Cooking will reduce the levels of this, but people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should be aware that large quantities of Oxalic acid can aggravate their condition.
Fat Hen Uses
“Tops” (flower spikes, younger stems and leaves)
They can be the main ingredient for a soup, made as Nettle or Leek and Potato soups. In my opinion the flavour is like Cauliflower soup. I’ve served it to many people and it goes down well. If you’ve left the Fat Hen to grow a bit big, pass the cooked, blended soup through a sieve to catch any fibrous bits.
Young Shoots / Flower Spikes
The young shoots (less than 20 cm) and unopened flower spikes can be prepared and eaten like Asparagus shoots. If you leave them to get too big they may be a bit woody. Simmer until tender (up to 10 minutes), drain and serving with a little butter.
The young shoots / flower spikes could also go into a stir-fry.
The leaves can be eaten raw but only in in small quantities, see the notes above on risks.
They can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked like Spinach or used in place of Spinach in any recipe, for example:
Tarts / Quiches / Frittata
Curries (e.g. Sag Aloo or a Chickpea, Tomato and Spinach Curry),
Mushroom and Spinach Risotto etc.
One recipe that specifically calls for Fat Hen is Fat Hen Pesto Bake. I make this regularly in the season and thoroughly enjoy it. Vegetarian / vegan / nut-free versions can be made by altering the ingredients.
Fat Hen plants each produces tens of thousands of nutritious, but small and fiddly seeds. The close relative Quinoa is grown for its seeds. Fat Hen seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make bread and cakes. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight and then rinsed to remove any saponins.
A selection of wild booze tipples using Spring ingredients that are about now. When I say Spring, I mean to make now then sit patiently until later in the year to drink. All three use young leaves that can easily be found – Beech, Blackthorn and Oak.
Beech Leaf Noyau / Gin
I think I first saw this in Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free (early version not in the more recent one I have), but it is also included in Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free. It struck me as an unusual drink with most infusions being fruit or flower. I’ve also looked at the young Beech leaves looking so edible but being not particularly excited about putting them in a salad.
Pick enough young beech leaves to half fill a large jar. Cover with a bottle (70 cl) of gin. Put in a cupboard for a couple of weeks. Make a syrup solution, dissolving 225g of sugar in 300ml of water. Strain and discard the leaves. Add the sugar solution and optionally a glass of brandy. Bottle and store for at least 3 months.
Everyone knows Sloe Gin made with the fruit of the Blackthorn. A much less known tipple uses the leaves of the Blackthorn, picked around this time of the year (April – June). These give the drink an Almond flavour.
John Wright (of River Cottage “fame”) has a recipe in his Booze book. I found this version translated from a French recipe.
– 2.5 litres of red wine
– 400mls of eau de vie (or Vodka)
– 300 grams sugar
– A handful of young Blackthorn shoots
– Place all the ingredients (in a suitable container) and leave for 4 days to infuse.
– Remove the leaves and taste. If necessary, according to taste, replace leaves and leave a further 3 days.
– Strain and bottle.
– Enjoyed chilled as an aperitif!
I’d be tempted to leave it to mature for several weeks (John suggests a year!).
Do get your id right as other members of the Prunus family (e.g. Bird Cherry) contain high levels of Cyanides!
Oak Leaf Wine
Showing my age again, I remember Hugh FW trying this in his original TV series “A cook on the Wild Side” back in 1995. The recipe he has in the book of the series differs slightly from the one in Roger Phillips’s Wild Food. Hugh uses lemons, Roger uses Oranges – take your pick! Every forager should have a copy of Roger’s excellent book, if you are remiss, a. get one, b. you can find a version of it here.
Join us for a Booze Walk
On 2nd June 2018, Andy Hamilton (www.theotherandyhamilton.com) will be leading one of his famous booze foraging walks in Dorchester. Andy is a multiple award-winning author, brewer and an expert on wild food and sustainability. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint. He writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze. You may have seen him on Autumnwatch, Countryfile, The Alan Titchmarsh Show and more. You can find more details and book places here.
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.
If you’ve walked anywhere a bit damp recently (June to September) – road verges, ditches, rivers or canals or through damp meadows, you can’t have failed to spot or smell Meadowsweet. The tall (1- 2 m) cream-coloured dense clusters of flowers have an aroma described as sweet almond, hay and honey with a hint of something medical, especially when crushed. In Tudor times, it was used as a strewing herb – thrown on the floor to be walked on and mask unpleasant smells. The original name was “mead wort” as it was used to flavour mead. Numerous herbal uses include treating colds, respiratory problems, acid indigestion, peptic ulcers, arthritis and rheumatism, skin diseases, and diarrhoea. It can also be used in many culinary ways by today’s forager.
This plant contains the chemicals used to make aspirin – named after its old botanical name Spiraea ulmaria. Unlike Aspirin, it does not have the caustic side effects on the stomach lining, however, if you are allergic to Aspirin (or havealicylate or sulphite sensitivity) you should avoid consuming it.
Culinary Uses for Meadowsweet
Meadowsweet can be used in almost any recipe that uses Elderflower. With that season coming to an end, we have a replacement. Pick the flowers on a sunny morning for the maximum flavour and don’t wash them. Just give each head a good shake to remove any insects. The flowers can be dried then stored in paper bags to retain their flavour as well as pollen and natural yeasts. Some recipes use the leaves, others the flowers or either.
While Elderflower cordial is a very popular summer drink, both homemade and commercially produced, it is not the only cordial that can be made at this time of year. We made four in recent weeks.
I’ve eaten nettles many times in dishes such as soup and curry, and drunk them in beer and tea, but Nettle Cordial has been on my to-do list for a long time. For eating you want them young, using just the tips, but the ones I picked last week had gone to seed, and I stripped the leaves from the stems wearing thick gloves. I followed Robin Harford’s recipe on his Eat Weeds web site.
It takes a few days to steep and I was amazed at the flavour, this is straight into my list of favourites.
You can read an earlier blog post on nettles here.
It’s probably too late for this year, but one to make next May. Delicate floral scents are difficult to capture into drinks, so I followed the Wild Flower Syrup recipe in John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook – Hedgerow. I’ve used this for Dandelion Syrup in the past (also very worth trying). You layer sugar and then flowers in a jug and leave overnight. Next day you add water in proportion to the amount of sugar you used (100ml water / 55g sugar) and heat until the sugar dissolves before straining and bottling. Again, very nice.
This is an old favourite, I’ve written about before (here). You expect Toilet Duck but get a lovely citrus flavour.
This was another new cordial to me. I know Pineapple Mayweed, no points for guessing what it smells of! The recipe I found online was:
1 pound pineapple weed heads
1 sliced lemon
2 pounds sugar
5 pints boiling water
Wash Pineapple Mayweed thoroughly…change water a couple of times
Mix everything together in a bucket
Cover with lid or teatowel
Leave for 4 days stiring twice a day
Pour into bottles through muslin
Best diluted 1/3 cordial to 2/3 sparkling water with a few ice cubes.
I did it in a slightly different order, covering the Mayweed in warm water, leaving it to soak, straining it, then adding the sugar / lemon and heatign it to dissolve the sugar.
It wasn’t my own favourite, but soem that tried it thought it was great.
The name doesn’t shout come and try me, sounding in the same league as a “Tom and Barbara” concoction such as Runner Bean or Parsnip wine, but, trust me, it’s darn good. I’d describe it as a bit like Ginger Beer. I’ve given it to hundreds of people over the years on my Spring Greens foraging courses and it always amazes people how good it is leading to requests of “where do I get the recipe”. If that praise has tickled (as oppose to stung) your fancy (whatever your fancy is), then here is the recipe. I’ve just got some underway and am looking forward to it being ready. I am no homebrew expert – it’s really easy to make, doesn’t require any special equipment, and (most important) is ready to drink in about a week, so give it a go – you will be pleasantly surprised. So get your gloves on, and go and pick yourself some nettles while they are nice and young.
It is taken from Roger Phillips’ excellent book “Wild Food” (every forager should have a copy).
Scale the below proportionately based on how many bottles you have!
100 nettle stalks with leaves
12 litres (2 1/2 gallons) water
1 1/2 kg (3 lb) granulated sugar
50 g (2 oz) cream of tartar
15 g (1/2 oz) yeast (I use dried baking yeast)
Boil the nettles in the water for 15 minutes.
Strain, then add the sugar and cream of tartar and stir until dissolved.
Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well
Cover and leave for a day
Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment and bottle.
Do use strong bottles as it can get rather excited; you don’t want exploding glass bottles! I use swing top homebrew bottles, but empty, plastic, fizzy drink bottles will do the job too.
The annual return of the Mackerel into the coastal waters is not really a miracle but for many a reason to rejoice. I’m no fisherman but do enjoy spending a warm evening trying to catch a mackerel or three. Along with many others I join the annual festival of “feather chuckers” down on Chesil Beach. We line the shore casting out as far as we can, trying to wish the mackerel to go for our “feathers”, hoping for a full-house (one fish on each of 3, 4, or 6 hooks!). Some do use real feathers, but more often its bits of white plastic or shiny silver tinsel. The Mackerel think they are young fish and, we hope, get hooked.
There’s no denying mackerel are fantastic eating. There are so many ways to cook them. Simple can be best; pan-fried they are superb. At the right time of the year the forager can serve them with sauce made from gooseberries – foraged from the woods and hedgerows of course. A French friend did once tell me that the French for gooseberry was “sauce for mackerel”. Sorrel has a much longer season and makes another great sauce to go with your mackerel. In both cases the sharp flavours go so well with this oily fish.
There’s lots more ways. We like cooking them in foil parcels – stuffed with herbs, such as fennel (foraged again) or sage, with apple and cider, with white wine, or as Chinese parcels with soy sauce, carrot, leeks and ginger. You can even breadcrumb or batter them!
Another way of enjoying them is to hot-smoke them. This is not a preserving technique, like cold-smoking, but a different way of cooking them. Here are a few photos showing the process and kit.
Fillet the mackerel:
Sprinkle lots of salt over them and leave them for about half an hour before rinsing the salt off and drying them with kitchen towel.
The smoker can be a metal biscuit tin (if you can still find one!) with holes in the ends, metal skewers through and a wire rack on top. A handful of hardwood sawdust is put in the bottom. Oak, Beech or a fruit (Cherry or Apple) are recommended. The tin won’t last for ever but does the job for a year or two.
If you want something that will last longer, find an old enamel bread bin in a junk shop. Again drill some holes on the ends for your skewers/rods and the rack to sit on.
Put the mackerel fillets on the rack, put the lid on very loosely, set your watch and go and do something else for half an hour.
All being well, you come back to beautiful looking and amazing tasting smoked mackerel.
The fillets are great as they are, hot or cold. They can also used in dishes such as a risotto or frittata.
While you might think any concoction made with pine needles would taste like you might imagine Toilet Duck might, Pine Needle cordial or tea have a light, crisp, refreshing flavour and are well worth making.
Pine needles have been used by Native North Americans for centuries. They were most valued in winter to provide nourishment and keep healthy. Shipwrecked sailors too, have long known that tea made from Pine Needles contain more Vitamin C than oranges and will keep scurvy at bay.
Make sure you are not using the needles of the deadly poisonous Yew tree. Also avoid these types of Pine which could potentially be harmful – Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Common Juniper, Monterey Cypress, Norfolk Pine or Australian Pine.
Pine Needle cordial is incredibly simple to make – the recipe can be found here on Andy Hamilton’s web site; it is taken from his excellent book – Booze for Free.
Tea is even more straightforward. As you might guess, put the needles in a cup, add near boiling water and steep for around 10 minutes, strain.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Elderflower Cordial and Champagne; I make gallons of them every year, they are THE taste of summer in my opinion. There are however, SO many fantastic things to make to eat and drink with Elderflowers that it is a shame just to stop with these two. Many of the below recipes use cordial, though you can equally infuse the flowers in liquid in a muslin bag. You can, of course, buy Elderflower Cordial if desperate. You won’t be alone, in 2015 we were predicted to buy 46 million litres of it in the UK. That equates to annual sales of more than £25 million, with sales doubling in the previous five years.
Below, we tell you where to look for Elderflower and talk a bit about identification – people do pick the wrong flowers! The main part of this post is about Elderflower recipes.
The Elder tree is steeped in folk lore, history and superstition, probably more so than any other plant. In the past, country people were afraid to cut down an Elder, with the Elder-Mother, a guardian spirit, living in the tree. Today, most hedgelayers will ask the tree for permission to cut it down. Many people also believed that if you stood below an Elder at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the king of the fairies and his entourage.
Almost every part of the plant – roots, bark, leaves, flowers and berries has been used medicinally. Effective skin cleanser and eye lotions can still be made from it.
When to look
The Elder blossoms from late May to the around the end of June. There will, of course, be some variation depending upon the weather and how far north you live.
Where to look
The Elder is a fairly common sight; it likes disturbed fertile (nitrogen-rich) soils – often the same places as Nettles so don’t wear your shorts when going to pick it. It grows in many different habitats including roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground, hedgerows, woods and grassland.
The Elder is a tree up to about 3 metres tall with a woody stem. On young branches the bark is light grey and smooth. On older branches it is a brown-grey colour and corky and furrowed. Older branches and trunk may be covered in a yellow-lichen. Leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with five to seven leaflets (smaller leaves). The leaflets are 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm wide, with a toothed margin. Leaflets are dark green and matt on top with a paler underside. They smell unpleasant when bruised (and were used for insect repellent for people and crops).
In late spring and early summer, the trees are adorned by large groups (umbels) of ivory flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and are about 5–6 mm in diameter.
I have known people confuse the flower heads of Rowan trees with those from Elder (disappointing results!). You might also potentially muddle Elder and Wayfaring tree. Be aware that at this time of year there are quite a few tall plants (no woody stem) that have superficially similar flower heads; these are members of the Carrot family. A year or two ago, on the radio, someone admitted trying to make Elderflower drinks with Cow Parsley! Again the result was disappointing. Be very aware that some other Carrot family members are deadly poisonous including Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort. Use a flower-id book if you are unsure.
Pick on a dry, sunny day for the best flavour and to retain natural yeasts needed for fermenting. Remember not to strip all of the flowers from any one Elder. You want to allow some to grow into berries both for the birds and for you, but that’s another story. Don’t wash the flowers either, just give them a gentle shake to remove any insects. A walking stick will help you pull some heads into reach. You can easily make one from a piece of Hazel. Use it upside down, with six inches of one side branch left on, Don’t bend the Elder branch too much, however, as they are not that flexible and will snap. Have a basket or carrier bag over the other arm to put the Elderflowers into.
Elderflower Champagne and Cordial are classics but give the liqueur, wine, cider and herbal tea a go. You can also freeze Elderflowers in ice cubes to cool your favourite tipple!
Champagne (or “Fizz” if you bow to EU “protected designation of origin” rules!). The Champagne is very simple to make and only needs 4 heads of the flowers for a gallon of drink. It is a wonderfully light, sparking drink and is fantastic cool on a warm summer evening. It’s that good that I’ve made it by the case for parties! The fizz does carry a bit of a health warning though – bottles can explode if they are thin glass. I have used flip-top “Grolsh” style bottles for many years without incident. Used plastic fizzy drink bottles can also cope with pressure.
Dissolve the sugar in a little warm water, allow to cool.
Squeeze the juice from the lemon, and cut the rind in 4 pieces.
Put the juice and lemon pieces with the Elderflowers in a large jug or basin.
Add the wine vinegar and pour on the rest of the cold water.
Leave to steep for 4 days.
Strain and bottle. It should be ready in 6 – 10 days.
Cordial – This needs quite a few more heads compared to Champagne and again is the flavour of summer for me. Some recipes call for Citric Acid; others use more citrus fruit / zest. You can buy Citric Acid from homebrew shops (best) or a pharmacy. You may get a quizzical look when you ask; apparently, drug dealers also use it! Make cordial by the gallon and put it in empty (and clean) plastic milk bottles and freeze to enjoy at any time of the year. On those warm summer evenings remember that you don’t just have to dilute it with water, add to wine – especially a sparkling one, like Prosecco or Champagne! Alternatively, freeze the cordial in an ice-cube tray and add to cider or ginger beer.
Again there are dozens of recipes about; I have happily used the River Cottage one for years.
Liqueur (Vodka or gin) – Make as you would sloe vodka or gin. Here you will find 32 cocktail recipes that use Elderflower liqueur! with more here and here! I like the sound of this one – “serve with cloudy English apple juice & a sprig of mint, or mix with lemonade & freeze for some very grown-up ice lollies”!
Elderflower Cider – Follow a cider recipe but add 8 heads for every 5 litres of apple juice.
Herbal Tea – Good for treating coughs and irritable throats. Use fresh or dried on a sunny windowsill and store in dry, dark, cool place. Enjoy “neat” or add to rose petals, lemon balm, mint or nettle.
There are so many different Elderflower recipes for puddings. For great big lists of them head for the pages produced by the main cordial manufacturers – Bottle Green and Belvoir Fruit Farms. You can use cordial in most of these or infuse Elderflowers in a muslin bag while heating the liquid / cooking the fruit.
Panna cotta – While you can make a gelatine version, be a true forager and use Carrageen seaweed you have gathered and dried yourself. The seaweed version will be vegan / vegetarian friendly.
Fritters – dip flowers in batter, deep fry, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with sugar and eat while still warm! For an alcoholic version soak the flowers in a mix of Cinnamon, brandy and sweet Sherry or Madeira for an hour before dipping into the batter. Another version adds chilli!
Elderflower has a strong affinity with Gooseberry, Rhubarb, Raspberries, Strawberries or Pears and the combination works well in some of the below.