Cherries gallore!

Pec4cRLqhDdw1xb_dITaYPmCL8kvgi8zjtLcgG3tc-r8cTVht2_JZxvrBx4Y_OFtWq1D5QgH6oZ6C_XV6kfOTYzEOSGFe4gWffU7iqFXsOlNFwQqUpA-9q1jZGPidefDiDEEsKJIeAO4Eqcdg6lFn_LY_-G7UIXStWYxdwGWkISb8eRMMra2Km38XKoBoDwTKRObocAM4YYocSome time ago I found a row of four wild cherry trees just a few streets from my house and as the summer approached I kept a very watchful eye on them. Throughout June, it became apparent that they were going to produce a big crop, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. This has happened before, only for a flock of birds to swoop in and scoff the lot. Don’t get me wrong, they’re perfectly entitled to, but it’s always a bit disappointing. At the end of June I went on holiday for a week just as the fruit were ripening and I thought “that’s it, they’ll be gone when I get back”; but clearly I was wrong. I returned to find three of the trees groaning under the weight of perfectly ripe cherries, and one not yet fully turned. Game on!

zjwEJmvcMWbjp8qRKOMUnutKnbDLG6pbcq-2XSOXhwghPfCG57nxrb3xqOqgEQT_41270OfdYsLUAra9ovosqzSkEgI2-oC766Uh4P3kPiavZ_KJ2UEZL0FXO3satZ-k0m2Oft-UuLUida933PUJ7P2XcMNRm7ettH90Bz3bqEO7fQsrPXdKzyzfJF1pcq_MsTY3qmGIqTiDLOn the first outing, my partner and I picked 2.5kg in under an hour, just taking the ones we could reach from the ground so as to leave plenty for the birds higher up. Wild cherries are often rather sour, but these were surprisingly sweet, almost as sweet as domestic varieties, if a little smaller. Having picked over 2kg, I knew right away that I wanted to make cherry wine. Despite foraging for years I have never managed to pick enough in one go to do this, so there was no question. It had to be done. But sadly all did not go to plan. After stoning the cherries, I put them in a large plastic bowl, poured boiling water over them and losely covered them. Then I left them for a little over two days. I don’t know what I did wrong, whether I left them too long, failed to sterilise the bowl properly or let too much air in, but when I lifted the lid, the cherries were moldy! Gutted is not the word, I was devastated. However, not all the cherries went to waste as the other 500g were put to good use making wild cherry sauce – a recipe I came up with a few years ago in a failed attempt to make cherry jam:

005Wild Cherry Sauce – makes 2 small jars

  • 500g wild cherries
  • 500g granulated sugar

Wash and stone the cherries. Place them in a saucepan and mash slightly with a fork or potato masher. Gently heat until the juices begin to flow, then add the sugar. When the sugar is all dissolved, raise the heat to a rolling boil for a few minutes. Pour into sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once opened. Delicious on pancakes, porride (as pictured) or dairy-free ice cream.

Undeterred by my initial failure to make wine, I went back for more cherries a few days later. Whilst we didn’t realise it at the time, it turned out that on this occasion we picked a whopping 3.5kg of cherries, again without the assistance of ladders. This time I was taking no chances. All the wine-making equipment was perfectly sterilised, the cherries were properly washed and I watched them like a hawk for any signs of unwelcome growth. I’m glad to say that this time we had success. Here’s what I did:

sAz1DTWOW-mBsug5BFZLp867UAq78nliX8m-USsbGJj9AF-b6lDnQ4GTgsURZ1NhwtamJzNFx8tJ3KNOKgstNUyLSQKH8UH2oLS-CsHqyJp5SGgIa-69UaLvLEIhauZyXZ-HoO1fxUQL61YnxCkVeGxlkxDahqNI3z_zIjS7_paTp_2UVdnPmpP2-BMewqpBLTs_k6jxN6bK3Wild Cherry Wine – makes one gallon (4.5 litres)

  • 2kg wild cherries, wasked and stoned
  • 250g sultanas, chopped
  • 1 kg white sugar
  • 1 small cup of black tea
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp pectolase
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • Wine yeast

Place the cherries and sultanas in a large sterilised bowl, gently mash the fruit, add the pectolase and then pour over 2 litres of boiling water. Cover tightly and leave for 24 hours. Boil another 2 litres of water and dissolve the sugar in it. Strain the cherry juice into a sterilised fermentation bin and add the boiling sugar-water, tea and lemon juice. When cool, add the yeast and yeast nutrient, cover securely and leave for five days. Syphon into a sterilised demijohn, fit an airlock and leave until it has finished fermenting before bottling, which can take as much as a year. Leave to mature for longer if possible.

z9niu1KG4bwtkj0wHo4ydR4XVFTRXB6oFqcekp-lyXj2h8LCDoaEua7PN4pJof3-J9VskNCQ-QfJBDbx0O82l_amHxuCD7YJYKY1a_vTwLi7UM_iw7nsUulC1VsTIRw9iXd3h9EhMwYOrNvmWxVUoQWmZci8KPmCohoe1ZpriA2CXJV6AZ796KnknpbL45LNQfduDhhByOP_EBy the way, my tip for stoning cherries is to do it in the garden whilst wearing old clothes. It’s a seriously messy business – your kitchen will end up looking like a scene from a horror movie!

But what about the other 1.5 kg, I hear you say? With that I made wild cherry and vanilla fridge jam. I’ll spare you the full recipe for that one, there are already tons of jam recipes on the web. But our haul got us about four jars and I cannot wait to give it a try!

After all that effort, I intended to rest, but whilst driving past the trees around the middle of July I noticed that the fruit on the fourth tree were now finally ripe. Well, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so despite the fact that we were going away again just a few days later, I decided to make another batch of cherry wine. Despite intending to be restrained, we came home with 3kg this time. 019As before, 2kg went to make wine and for the final kilo, I wanted to try making a vegan version of a classic local dish – cherry batter pudding. Cherry orchards were once a common sight in Kent and people have made this dessert for centuries to use up surplus crops, but sadly most of the orchards are now gone. To be honest I didn’t really know where to start – Kentish cherry batter pudding largely involves lots of eggs and cream – but in a flash of inspiration, my girlfriend remembered that there is a very similar dessert in France called clafoutis and it didn’t take us long to find a vegan cherry clafoutis recipe. We ended up using four-times the quantity of cherries in the recipe, and doubled up on everything else, and the result was pretty damn good, I have to say.

So, all told, we ended up picking 9kg of wild cherries this year and with that we made 1 failed gallon of wine, 2 successful gallons of wine, 4 jars of jam, 2 jars of sauce and a cherry clafoutis pudding, mostly pictured below (minus the clafoutis and one jar of sauce, which had been eaten by the time the photo was taken). Either this was the best year for wild cherries ever, or I just got really lucky!

2015-08-02+21.35.32

A seaside supper

A recent trip to the seaside gave me the perfect opportunity for some coastal foraging, and there’s plenty to be had down there.

Sea kale 1First on my shopping list was sea kale, which is undoubtedly a weird plant. For starters it’s practically blue; secondly, it grows right out of shingle, which is hardly the most furtile of grounds; and thirdly it can grow to be pretty big with these giant leathery leaves. Frankly, it looks like it belongs on the set of a sci fi movie, possibly eating alien fauna. But, weird as it may be, it’s pretty much entirely edible. To be honest, it’s a little late in the year to be picking it – sea kale is in it’s prime in late spring to early summer when the shoots are tender – and that would come back to bite me. But I picked a few nice-looking shoots and moved on to coastal plant number two.

Sea beet 1Now, if sea kale is weird, sea beet couldn’t be much more ordinary. It’s said to be the ancestor of all cultivated beet varieties, like beetroot, spinach, sugar beet, etc, and you can really see that. It’s leaves look much like those of spinach, only tougher, and are even a similar size. Some of the plants also have red veins, much like certain cultivated beet varieties. They can grow anything from a from a foot or two high to above head height, and at this time of year they have these tough flower spikes at the ends of their stalks. The leaves are what you want from this plant, and we picked plenty.

It was pretty late by the time we got home, so I set about making us a quick and simple pasta-based dinner using the foraged sea kale and sea beet. Unfortunately, in the end, the sea kale shoots proved much too woody, even after plenty of cooking, and I had to chuck them away. But the sea beet was delicious, so here is my recipe for chilli and sea beet pasta:

Simple Sea Beet and Chilli Pasta – serves 2

  • 2015-06-14+22.44.33100-150g sea beet leaves, thoroughly washed
  • 1 small red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 150g wholemeal pasta
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • Handful of mixed nuts
  • Handful of sliced black olives
  • Handful of capers (optional)
  • Olive oil
  • Black pepper

Put the pasta on to boil as usual and steam the sea beet leaves for around 10 minutes. In the meantime, gently fry the chilli, garlic and black pepper in plenty of olive oil for a few minutes. When the pasta is done, drain it and stir in the fried chilli, garlic and pepper, along with the oil they were cooked in, and the other remaining ingredients.

We doubled up the quantities and had some cold for our lunch the next day and it was just as delcious.

Sea kale and sea beet

Elderflower ice cream and other treats…

008I once heard someone say that if you pick up a stone and throw it, where it lands you’ll find an elder. Whilst that might be a slight exageration, they certainly do seem to be everywhere at the moment. My partner and I have made a bit of a sport of spotting them; a sort of neverending game of eye-spy with only one target. We mostly see them along roadsides, which is a bit of a shame because I tend to avoid stuff growing along busy roads because of the pollution, but there are plenty off the beaten track too. With their big sprays of cream-coloured flowers, they aren’t too hard to find at the moment, but if you need some pointers, check out this post from last year.

The chances are that when you think of cooking with elderflowers, you probably think of making drinks, perhaps elderflower champagne or wine. Well the first part of this post continues that theme with a recipe for elderflower cordial. But, whilst it is delicious in its own right, the cordial is just a means to a more interesting end. More on that to follow, but first…

006 (2)Elderflower Cordial – makes about 1.75 litres

  • 25 elderflower heads
  • 1kg white sugar
  • 1.5 litres boiling water
  • 2 unwaxed lemons, zested and sliced
  • 4tsps citric acid

Inspect the elderflowers and ensure any brown bits are removed and insects shaken off. Trim as much of the stem from the elderflowers as possible and put the flowers in a large, clean bowl, along with the lemons, zest and citric acid. Bring the water to the boil in a large pan and stir in the sugar until fully dissolved. Pour the resulting hot syrup into the bowl containing the elderflowers, etc, and stir. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave for at least 24 hours. Strain into sterilised bottles.

The cordial should last for several months if left unopened and ideally kept in the fridge, which means you can do the next parts – making frozen desserts – at anytime. You can even have a delicious taste of summer in the depths of winter. A quick note, however; both the following recipes require you to be at home for several hours, so might be best saved for a wet weekend.

008 (2)Vegan Elderflower Ice Cream – makes 1 litre

  • 500g soya yogurt
  • 200ml soya milk
  • 2 tbsps golden syrup
  • 6 tbsps elderflower cordial

Whisk all of the ingrediants together in a large bowl until the mixture is light and foamy. Pour the mixture into a clean, empty ice cream tub and place in a standard home freezer. Whisk the mixture every 30 minutes until completely frozen (should take about 6 hours). If you have an ice cream maker, simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Whilst a little bit firm, this ice cream proved to be absolutely delicious and perfect served with some fresh local strawberries. We’ll definitely be making this again, despite the faffing around.

2015-05-31+21.31.48Elderflower Sorbet – makes 750ml

Add 300ml of cold water to 300ml of elderflower cordial. Pour into an ice cream tub and put in the freezer. Stir with a fork every 30-60 minutes until frozen, but slightly slushy.

This was also amazing, but very sugary and sweet – you can almost feel your teeth disolving as you eat it. Maybe use 200ml cordial to 400ml of water for a slightly less tooth-jangling sorbet.

And if you have any elderflowers left over, like we did, why not throw them in a cafetiere with some boiling water to make a nice pot of elderflower tea – lovely!

Dandelion wine and vegan honey

013.JPGI moved house about two months ago and the recent lovely weather has been perfect for exploring the area around my new home. On a recent foray into the surrounding countryside, my partner and I found ourselves in a beautiful orchard that was carpetted in dandelions – there were thousands of them, and it seemed a waste not to grab a few. Plus I’m sure the orchard owners didn’t mind us sparing them a bit of weeding. I often bring bags with me on walks for just such an occasion and it didn’t take us long to fill one with flower heads. And, hey, is there anything more pleasant than picking flowers in the sunshine?

Usually I just chuck dandelion flowers in a salad or, if I have enough, make pakoras. But with so many this time I thought it was worth trying something a bit different, so I consulted my booze-making books and found a nice recipe for dandelion wine, which I then adapted to fit the ingredients I had in the house. The first step in making this is to remove the green parts from the flower heads as these will make the wine bitter. This sounds simple enough, but when you have to do this for 3 litres of flowers, it takes a long time. For that reason, I would suggest getting some friends over to help. It will also turn your hands yellow, just to warn you. It’ll be months before I can actually drink it, so I can’t give you any indication as to how good the wine is, but everyone I know who has made dandelion wine in the past says it is delicious, so here’s hoping.

017.JPGDandelion Wine

  • 3 litres of dandelion flowers, green parts cut off
  • 2kg white sugar
  • Juice and rind of one lemon
  • 3 litres of boiling water
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • White wine yeast

2015-05-18+21.16.45Put the trimmed flowers in a sterilised fermentation bin or plastic bucket and pour over the boiling water. Losely cover and leave for 2 days. Strain the resulting yellow/brown liquid into a very large saucepan, add the sugar and lemon rind and bring to the boil. Whilst the liquid is simmering, clean and resterilise the fermentation bin. Pour the hot liquid into it and add the lemon juice, then leave to cool for about an hour until it is just warm. Stir in the yeast and yeast nutrient, then cover loosely and allow to ferment for at least a week. After that, strain the liquid into a sterile demijohn, top up with warm (but not hot) water and fit an airlock. Leave it to ferment until completed – the airlock will stop bubbling and the sediment should settle to the bottom – then syphon into sterile bottles and leave to mature for at least a few months, if not a year.

Dandelion Honey

If you have more of a sweet tooth, or you don’t fancy trimming hundreds of dandelion flowers, you might like to try this recipe for vegan dandelion honey that I found instead. I have to confess that I haven’t tried it myself simply because I used all the dandelion heads we picked making the wine and I haven’t had a chance to gather more yet. But by all accounts it’s delicious and I’ll certainly give it a go at some point, especially as it’s been a long time since I’ve had honey!

A little mystery

Three cornered leek 3Every now and then I get sent photographs of plants, along with variations on the question ‘can I eat this?’ I usually give one of a handful of responses to these queries: 1) I have no idea, so don’t eat it; 2) There’s no way I can tell from that photo, so don’t eat it; and 3) Yes, that’s perfectly safe to eat (although it’s rare that I can give this final answer). However, it’s quite unusual for someone to bring me a whole plant – roots and all – and ask me this question, but that’s precisiely what happened a couple of weeks ago.

My friend Sophie had mentioned that she’d found a clump of plants growing in her garden (left) that had a strong oniony/garlicy smell, but that they didn’t look like wild garlic she was used to as the leaves were much too slender. Without photos or anything further to go on, I speculated that they might be domestic onions that had gone feral or that had been left by a previous tenent. The next day I was presented with the three specimens below. It was obvious that they weren’t normal onions, nor were they any kind of wild garlic I had seen before, which left me stumped. As I’ve said before, I’m no expert on foraging, I’m just an enthusiastic amateur, so I’m often unable to identify plants. When this happens, I usually err on the side of caution and leave them alone. But these ones Three cornered leek 1had such a distinctive oniony smell that Sophie and I decided to dig a little further.

As it happens, Sophie beat me to it. The answer to our little mystery, she found out, was that these plants were three-cornered leeks; a type of wild allium (onion family), distantly related to wild garlic and native to the Mediterranean. They have distinctive leaves with a triangular cross-section (which you may just be able see in the photos), from which they get their name, and every part of the plant is edible. They can be used in much the same way as either wild garlic or spring onions; chopped up in spring salads or soups, blended into pesto, added to humous – it seems that, like most alliums, they are extremely versatile. I have yet to try them for myself, but I’ll let you know if and when I do.

Wild garlic and mushroom dahl

Spring is upon us once again, and that means the return of one of my favourite plants – wild garlic! So I took the opportinuity of some unseasonal sunshine on Easter Sunday to join my girlfriend for a walk along the river to grab some of this spring-time bounty. Taking time to pick a few leaves here and there as we went, between admiring the scenery and the array of beautiful early flowers, it didn’t take long to get what we needed before heading home.

Lunch was obvious. Quickly whizzing up some of the wild garlic with cashews, olive oil and a dash of salt, we had pesto presto served with pasta, as well as leeks and kale from the veg plot. Delicious. But this still left us with a surplus of leaves.

As I mentioned in my first post last year, wild garlic makes a great replacement for both spinach and garlic at the same time, making it perfect for curries. So that evening I whipped up a batch of wild garlic and mushroom dahl. I had hopped to use morels instead of domestic mushrooms, as they can be found at this time of year, but sadly they continue to elude me. Anyway, here’s my recipe:

Ingredients – serves 4wild garlic dahl

  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 250g red lentils
  • 200g mushrooms, sliced
  • 200g wild garlic leaves, washed and roughly chopped
  • 2cm piece of root ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 600ml water
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil

Gently fry the onion in the oil for a few minutes until it begins to soften. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes more. Add the ginger, turmeric and garam masala and continue to cook, whilst stiring, until the vegetables are coated in the spices and the mixture becomes aromatic. Poor on the water and the lentils and turn up the heat until it just begins to boil, then immediately bring it down to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the lentils absorb must of the liquid and begin to go soft. Be sure to stir frequently to ensure it doesn’t stick to the pan. Add the wild garlic and cook for a few more minutes until the lentils are just turning mushy. Serve immediately with rice or toasted pitta bread.

Yew Berries: Delicious or Deadly?

Yew Berries 1WARNING – read this post all the way through before picking and eating yew berries.

The oldest living trees in Britain are yew trees, indeed our history is tied up with them. Almost every ancient church in the country has one in its churchyard – in some cases pre-dating the buildings themselves – and for centuries our shores were defended with longbows made from the wood of yews. They also held great importance to the celts, probably because of they’re evergreen. Don’t worry, I’ll stop now before I break into a chorus of Jerusalem…

One thing the yew is not famous for, however, is it’s culinary uses and there’s a pretty good reason for that – almost every part of it is toxic to humans and animals. But there is one exception, and that is the flesh and juice of it’s ripe berries. These appear like bright red rubies amongst the small but numerous dark green leaves at this time of year, and almost seem to glow as the autumn light shines through their translucent skin. They’re cup-shaped with a large dark seed visible in the middle, making them look something like a pimento-stuffed olive but with the colours reversed.

Yew Berries 2It is VERY important to note that THE SEED IS HIGHLY TOXIC and must be removed before the berry can be eaten. This is very tricky to do, as the berries (which are actually highly modified seed cones) are extremely soft and fluid-filled. If you try to squeeze the seed out you’ll burst the berry, so the only effective way to do this is with a pair of tweezers, which can get quite tedious after a while. You could try eating the berry and spitting out the seeds, but even chewing or splitting the seed can release the poison, so I wouldn’t recommend it. For this reason, the most practical way of eating yew berries is to gently push them through a sieve and collect the gelatenous juice, which can then be drunk as it is or concentrated down into something more like a syrup.

Yew berries are extremely sweet (they remind me of cheap fruity sweets I used to buy when I was child) and are not to everyone’s taste, but some people love them, like my friend Chris who has taken to munching a few on his frequent runs out in the woods ever since I introduced him to them. I would suggest you try two or three before picking loads just in case you’re not a fan. And always remember to REMOVE THE SEEDS.