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.
I’ve blogged about Hops before but at a very different time of the year – April. My target in the Spring is the young shoots, these have been called “Poor Man’s Asparagus” and are one of the world’s most expensive vegetables sold in Belgium for around $1400 / kilo. The shoots have lots of great uses covered in the blog, I frequently put them in frittatas or have them as a vegetable.
Hops can occasionally be found in hedgerows even in areas where there is no history of hop growing. The hop vines grow up to a foot a day and the cones (the proper word for the flowers) are blossoming at the moment. Seeing them in their summer guise did make me think about what you can do with them beyond the obvious use. I did a bit of web searching and this post contains what I found. When it’s stopped raining and we’ve had some sun, I am going out to gather some hops to dry and try out some of the below ideas.
Picking / Storing Hops
September and October are the months for harvesting hop cones. They can be dried for later use, however, note that they will lose their potency when exposed to light and air or after a few months’ storage.
If you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear gloves and make sure your arms are covered when picking them. Dermatitis sometimes results from harvesting them. Please note hops are toxic to dogs.
Hops are obviously used as a bittering, flavouring and stability agent for beers. As well as bitterness they give floral, fruity or citrusy flavours and aroma. There are many cultivated varieties of hops used for different styles of beer.
I’m no home-brew expert but it would be interesting to try a beer made with foraged hops.
Hops as Decoration
Stems of dried hops have been used as a garland or in floral arrangements for centuries. Today, they are usually seen in pubs hanging from rafters or above the bar. I was once asked where to find some for decorating a wedding reception!
Medicinal and Cosmetic Uses of Hops
A pillow filled with hops is a popular traditional remedy for sleeplessness. You can easily make your own and can optionally add an equal measure of dried lavender flowers to sweeten the scent. Wrap it well (make a “pillow case”) to avoid the hop’s oils from staining your bedding! Put under your pillow to help you sleep.
The calming and relaxing effects of hops are utilised in herbal medicine as treatments for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. They also used in cosmetics – natural soaps and deodorants.
They have been used in tea for at least as long as they have been used in beer. The tea is often used as a bedtime drink due to its natural sedative properties. You can dry foraged hops and use them for making tea. It can be very bitter and might need sweetening with honey. Some people add other, complementary flavours to hop tea – ginger, citrus peel, chamomile, lemongrass, lemon balm, or other herbs.
I was already aware of most of the above uses for hops but was unaware of any culinary uses. What I did find repeatedly in my search were warnings that they are incredibly strong, and their bitterness can take over a dish. The trick is to use them lightly. According to one source “If there’s one word to keep in mind, it’s this: restraint”. Another source summed it up nicely:
Hops are the ‘spice’ of beer, and they play a similar role when added to food recipes
It’s worth giving them a go, they add robust flavours, aromas and textures to dishes. A test run using them as a dried and flaked condiment is a suggested way of being introduced to them.
A garnish for mashed potatoes
Sprinkled on soup
On pasta or chicken
Among the other uses I found – search for recipes / inspiration:
Adding like a bay leaf to a soup or stew
Salmon and cauliflower with hops béarnaise
On pizzas, like you would use oregano or basil
Infuse oils with hops for salad dressings
Dried and ground as a baking powder substitute (1 tablespoon to 1 lb plain flour)
Mustard to go with hoppy sausage
Infused honey to top a malted barley custard
Hop-infused ice cream
Churros (fried-dough pastry – a traditional snack from Spain and Portugal)
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 1st June 2019 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.
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.
On Saturday we were delighted to host our first Booze Walk. This was a walk to introduce people to some of the common plants that grow at our feet and the amazing concoctions that can be made with them. Yes, there was plenty of sampling and top tips. The walk was lead by Andy Hamilton who is one of THE experts on wild booze. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint, writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze.
After the final, “Secret Drink” (I’d have to kill you), a selection of home-made drinks that the guests had brought with them appeared and were passed round for critique including from the expert. These included a Cider, Sloe Gin and a selection of vodkas (Rhubarb and Ginger, Fennel and Damson, Quince and some of my own Japanese Knotweed)!
Thanks to all that attended for being a great group and to Andy for his enthusiasm, humour, knowledge and amazing concoctions.
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.
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.
Some of our local fields are a picture at the moment with carpets of Dandelions. They are an opportunity not to miss, plentiful and nearby. In your garden you might view them as a troublesome weed. The Victorians, however, cultivated them, with the leaves eaten by the wealthy in sandwiches and salads. I once met a young girl on one of our foraging courses who was in her element grazing on the leaves, preferring them to chocolate or sweets. Foragers will make use of almost every part of the Dandelion – roots (land owner consent required to dig up ANY wild plant), leaves and flowers. In this post we look at some Dandelion flower recipes and uses. Among the uses are:
Dandelion Syrup – (recipe below)
Dandelion Drizzle Cake – (recipe below)
First Flower Champagne
Dandelion Jam / Marmalade
Dandelion (Dandy) Brandy
Search online for recipes for the other suggestions.
Clip on Dandelions from the BBC Series Flora Brittanica.
Pick on dry sunny day so the flowers are open and not wet.
People with sensitive skin may get contact dermatitis when touching the latex.
Your finger tips will go yellow, looking like you have a 40-a -day smoking habit!
Remove any stem you pick with the flowers as you go (saves time later!)
Pick a few here and a few there as they an early pollen source for bees and other insects.
The below recipe is taken from John Wright’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 7 – Hedgerow. You can buy at a great price this here. Pick about a litre of flowers
Dandelion Drizzle Cake
A wild twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake combining the lovely flavour of dandelions with orange. Adapted from the lemon drizzle cake recipe in Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 8 – Cakes.
Preparation and cooking time – c. 1 hour
For the cake
175 g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
175g caster sugar
175g unsalted butter cut into small pieces and softened
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
Petals from approx. 12 dandelions (remove all of the green parts).
For the drizzle:
18cm round or 15 cm square tin, greased and lined with baking parchment, or a 1 litre loaf tin, approx. 20 x 10cm, greased, base and long sides lined with parchment.
Cake cooling rack
Preheat the oven to 180oC/Gas mark 4.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.
Add all the other cake ingredients and beat for about 1½ minutes, until you have a smooth think batter.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, levelling out the surface with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Leave in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out and placing on a wire rack.
Prepare the drizzle. Mix some Dandelion cordial with some granulated sugar. Do not let the sugar dissolve. Prick the surface of the cake all over with a skewer and carefully trickle the drizzle over the surface, a spoonful at a time, ensuring each addition has soaked in before spooning over the next.
The cake can be cooled fully or is delicious when still slightly warm. Serve with a little Dandelion Syrup infused natural yoghurt on the side.