About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Foraging near and far

I'm afraid this is a no-picture post. I did have some, but I just deleted all 76 photos on my phone instead of just one, as I intended. Sorry about that. Anyway, on with the post.

We've been away a fair bit this summer and when we were in Oxfordshire over the August bank holiday, I noticed elder trees laden with ripe berries, while the fruit on mine is still (even now) hard and green. The following weekend we went to my cousin's wedding in north Wiltshire (I'm not sure that's technically correct, but it sounds better than near Swindon doesn't it?) and stayed for the weekend, giving us much of Sunday free. I found a large carrier bag and set off on Sunday morning along a footpath beyond the church that my cousin had shown us last time we visted.

I was hoping to find elderberries, but didn't see them in the quantities I'd seen in Oxfordshire. I did see blackberries, but thought I wouldn't pick those as they're already ripe in Wales, too. I saw a few elderberries, and picked those I could reach. Then I spotted bright red haws (fruit of the hawthorn). As a fruit in its own right, the haw is pretty rubbish. It's small, mostly stone, and tastes very bland. However, it is very high in pectin and what flavour it has is similar to apple, which makes it very useful in combination with the dark berries that are ripe at this time of year. I picked some.

A little further on I spotted something very exciting - damsons! These may not be exciting to other people, but I've never seen them growing wild before. In fact, I had to look them up when I got home to be sure they weren't wild plums, or some other related species. Not that it would have mattered if they were, but I like to know. So, small plum-like fruit with dark skins and a beautiful blue bloom, sweet flesh and very sharp tasting skins - those are damsons. I picked some of those, too.

Moving on, I picked a few more elderberries, some more haws, then spotted such abundant, ripe, accessible blackberries that my resolve weakened and I gathered some of those - quite a lot, actually.

On my way back by this time, I tried a different turning, and found a large grassy area by a tiny lane, and here were the elderberries I'd been seeking! Two or three trees, heavily laden, with branches hanging low enough to make picking easy. I gathered as many as I could, along with some more damsons that were also growing there. Satisfied with my haul, and indeed struggling to carry the full bag, I headed back up the hill, deciding to pick no more fruit. But then...

Then, right on the footpath that I'd walked down earlier, I saw hazelnuts! It is very rare to spot these before the squirrels eat them all, and here was an entire tree's crop spread out all over the footpath. Again, my resolve weakened, and I stopped to pick up as many hazelnuts as I could find.

The final haul was: 5lb 2oz elderberries, 1lb 4 oz haws, 2lb 15 oz damsons, 2 lb 6 oz blackberries, and 1lb 14oz hazelnuts. In total, pretty heavy!

So what to do with this bounty? Whatever I did would have to be quick - berries go mouldy remarkably quickly, especially blackberries. After all that foraging (about three hours) and travelling back on Sunday, I didn't have any time immediately, but got to work on Monday. First the elderberries - the purpose of my mission.

I've heard that elderberries make excellent wine. My dad make elderberry wine once. I don't remember the quality, but a great deal of it was consumed at my eighteenth birthday party. I looked to the 'Ish forum for a recipe, and found a simple one. As I had five pounds of berries, I increased the quantities by about a quarter, i.e. added an extra half pound of sugar and a bit more water. I didn't bother with the lemon juice, though, as I didn't have any - surely elderberries are acidic enough anyway? I also couldn't be bothered with the freezing first, but I did spend quite a bit of time squeezing them, so hopefully that will make up for it.

After four or five days (I lost count), I laboriously strained the liquid from the pulp. This was complicated by the fact that I had plans for the pulp, so needed to keep it. Eventually I got the whole lot strained and into a demijohn. As instructed, I topped it up until it was pretty much full. This turned out to be a mistake, as I discovered it the next day trying to escape! There wasn't a huge amount of mess, but the top of the air lock had disappeared, being replaced by a cap of breathing purple sludge. I left it to calm down a bit...

Having set the elderberries on their way to becoming wine, I turned my attention to the other fruit. A little more jam wouldn't go amiss, so that was the destination of the damsons. I thought they'd be low pectin, but according to the internet they're not, so I didn't bother adding anything to them, apart from sugar, of course. Although the mixture passed the wrinkle test, the jars of jam didn't set entirely. Either I didn't give it long enough cooking, or damsons are, as suspected, low in pectin. The jam's a fairly thick gloop, so can be spread on bread, which is OK, but I could have used lemon pips to improve it.

I wasn't sure whether Ian would like the damson jam, and he was out at the time so couldn't give feedback, so I decided to make more jam with some of the blackberries. I know these are low in pectin, so I mixed them with half of the haws (10oz). I can't remember how many blackberries I used, but it was considerably more than the haws. I think I picked some more from the garden. Anyway, after more stewing, pushing through a seive, adding sugar, boiling and pouring into jars, I also have some blackberry and haw jam, or bramble jelly if you prefer.

I had one more plan for this batch of foraged fruit. I'd kept back half of the haws and a similar quantity of blackberries to make fruit leather, which I'll tell you about in a different post. Apart from that, I picked the leafy bits off the hazelnuts and spread them out to dry so they won't go mouldy. I can deal with them another time.

The title of this post is foraging near and far, but I've only told you about the 'far' as yet. A week later I went out foraging closer to home. I've noticed a few hazelnuts and beechnuts on the ground, so I was hoping to find more of both of these, as well as more blackberries and anything else I could find. I know I've seen roads lined with hazel trees, but I obviously misremembered the location, because they weren't there when I went out looking. I did find blackberries along that road, though, so I picked some of them.

I then went to a spot with several waymarked walks, including Ancient Beech Walk. If I was going to find beech nuts anywhere, surely they would be here. I did find the prickly cases on the ground, and when I prised them open they had small nuts inside, but they did look very small. Sure enough, when I stuck a fingernail through them, they turned out to be empty. I did try quite a few, but no actual nuts. Maybe I'm too early - is this the beech tree equivalent of the June drop of apples? Never mind, the trees were very beautiful. I wish I could show you pictures!

On my way to the beech tree walk I did find some more bilberries, proving me wrong about their season being over. Although they were small I stood and picked them, getting rather cold in the process, as the edge of Hurricane Katia was just starting to make itself felt. Further on, I found and picked more blackberries, and more haws, though had to move on because of the cold. Foraging is not a very energetic activity.

As I walked back across the fields, I looked out optimistically for more field mushrooms, but didn't see any. As I got back to the village, though, I did find a few hazelnuts on the ground.

What to do with this lot, then? Well the blackberries were destined for wine, as I'd read on the 'Ish forum that this wine can be drunk young, i.e. by Christmas. I'd have to wait a year for the elderberry, so it'd be nice to have some red that I can drink soon. The reserved elderberries were for this wine, too. They'd have plenty of wine yeast in them and hopefully give the wine a bit more depth of flavour. I stuck my pound or so of blackberries in a bucket with a pound of sugar, the reserved elderberries, and some water. I was too tired to do more with it that night.

The next day, I looked up recipes for blackberry wine. Most called for at least four pounds of fruit to the gallon, some considerably more. They also all required six months to a year of fermentation/maturing. Oh well. I obviously needed more fruit, and while there's plenty around, I do get a bit annoyed by websites that tell you that an hour's picking will easily yield five pounds of berries. Um, not when I'm picking, it doesn't. Even when berries are easily found and abundant as they are at the moment, I pick around two pounds in an hour. Not a problem - just saying.

I started by picking all the berries I could get to on the steep bit with the oak tree with only moderate risk to life and limb (it's steep). That brought my total up to about three pounds. More berries needed. I checked the railway timetable to make sure no more trains were due that day, and set off along the railway line. Blackberries always grow alongside railway lines, don't they? Sure enough, I didn't have to go far before I found plenty. Another hour and a half's picking brought the total quantity of berries up to 5lb 9oz. All these went into the bucket, along with another pound of sugar, and I mashed it up with a potato masher. I don't have a hydrometer (would it work in amongst all that fruit pulp?) but blackberries are quite high in sugar, so I didn't think I'd need too much. The total volume is rather more than a gallon, but there's an awful lot of pulp, so by the time I've strained all that out I may be down to a gallon. If not, then I'll have more wine!

I had about 6oz each of haws and bilberries, which I used to make more fruit leather. I will tell you about this, I promise, but right now it's bed time, so I'm going to stop blogging. Night night!


  1. Well, this damson issue puzzles me. I also read that wild damsons are extremely rare. A couple of weeks ago we went fruit picking at the fruit farm. There were loads of damsons and we ate them straight off the trees, they were so sweet, which really surprised me. But of course, they're not wild. Within walking distance of my house, we have an abundance of damson trees, in private gardens and in hedges around fields. The wild ones are indeed smaller, and not as sweet as the tame ones. There must be something about my area that damson trees like. I'm not complaining!

  2. Damson gin or vodka is highly recommended if you have a surplus of fruit. Or blackberry whisky, come to that (and I don't like whisky...) That would be ready by Christmas!

    I'm in N Oxfordshire, BTW; whereabouts were you?

    I've been looking for elderberries, but our local farmers have been hedge trimming, so many of the trees have been shorn of their berries.DH found a pile of uprooted blackthorn on a dog walk and came home with a couple of bags of sloes destined for sloe gin and sloe gin chocolates for Christmas presents.

  3. Hi Rachel!
    Thanks for the snooking links on ssish, I think knitting in the round is all my tiny mind can cope with at the moment, but I am glad I found your blog - sounds like we are living very similar lives! But always nice to see how someone else does it.

    And I love the profile pic. It is non-stop glamour isn't it?

    Will follow with interest



  4. Hi Bonnie!
    Ah well, next time you're cursing the four pointy sticks, think again about knooking ;-)

    Glad you like the blog, and I love your profile pic on 'ish, too.

  5. Secret Sheep, I didn't realise there was a tame variety of damsons. I hope you're enjoying the bounty, both tame and wild.

    Hazel, I had decided not to go for fruit gin and vodka, as I don't drink spirits, but then I was chatting to a friend earlier who persuaded me it would be worth it to preserve the fruit flavour, then drink with mixers. She's going to conduct tests with her sloe gin (!) and I'm eyeing soda streams on ebay...

    We were just outside Witney a couple of weeks ago, but I've lived in various places near Banbury over the years. I do love that part of the world, but it's rather more expensive than Wales.

  6. I'm about 5 miles outside of Banbury! Near Deddington? And yes, it's a lot more expensive than Wales. The small holding/land is not going happen here unless a long lost relative leaves me a fortune...

    I'm not a huge spirit drinker either, but I would recommend the fruit liqueurs with mixers. having said that, I can drink sloe gin etc neat, which I could never do with straight gin/whisky. definitely worth trying.
    I also highly recommend Dandelion flower Liqueur in the spring- Half a jar of the yellow petals, a long piece of lemon zest, and top up with vodka. It doesn't taste how you'd expect. We think maybe old fashioned spangles?!

  7. I lived in Adderbury for a while - lovely area!

    The whole drinkability of sloe gin is what worries me - I'm not sure I want to make something so strong and so easy to drink!

    I tried dandelion wine this year, which I thought was really nice when I first made it, seems a bit odd five months on, and now I learn that you're supposed to leave it to mature, so I'm not sure what it'll taste like next year. My main use for dandelions is to dry them for tea, though. Next year I will take more care with the drying so they don't all go mouldy like they did this year :(

  8. I've found giving small bottles of sloe gin at Christmas makes me very popular with colleagues and the children's teachers! Diluting it with soda water (or lemonade if you have a sweeter tooth)makes it slightly less potent (or at least makes it take longer to drink!) but I take your point.

    I intended to try Dandelion wine, but never quite got there this year. Maybe next year.

    My parents live in Adderbury and I lived there from the age of 14 to 18 :) I didn't really intend to move back here, it just sort of happened...


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