We went to visit my sister for a few days earlier this week. She lives in Sussex, right on the border between East and West Sussex, which is an excellent place for foraging. She'd spotted some fruit in a hedgerow and was puzzling over the identity.
What do you think, are they sloes or damsons? she asked me.
Big sloes, I replied confidently. Then she suggested I taste one...
Ah, I see what you mean. They tasted much more like damsons, without the mouth-puckering acidity of sloes. There were also some ordinary-sized sloes growing nearby, so we picked a few for comparison.
We picked some of the unknown fruit and headed home to do some research. It turns out that we were far from the first people to ask, "Is this a damson or a sloe?" and the answer is usually, "Probably a bullace." We learnt that there are several closely related species, including plums, damsons, sloes and bullaces, and hybrids are not uncommon. Some say that the bullace is the original native species and all the others are either imports or hybrids, but on the other hand, there seems to be quite a lot of regional variation in what's actually referred to by the name. Whatever the details are, bullace seems to be the best identification for the fruit we'd picked.
I'd been hoping to find damsons to make fruit leather but as these taste much the same, they'd do just as well. First I stewed them thoroughly, then pushed through a sieve to separate pulp from skin and stones. The pulp was still quite liquid so I reduced it by boiling until it was a thick paste then added sugar to taste. The final stage was to spread it out on a baking sheet and put it in the oven on a very low heat to dry.
There are two approaches to fruit leather; some treat it as a very firm jam and others treat it as dried fruit in sheet form. I'm in the latter camp, which means that I try to evaporate almost all of the water and add only a little sugar. The alternative is to leave more water in, add lots of sugar, and boil to setting point.
Most of my bullace leather has been packed away in a tin, but I ate the offcuts with a little mascarpone cheese - divine! A tip: if you wish to serve this to guests, don't prepare it in advance. Moisture migrates from the cheese to the leather and the effect is not good.---
* Opinion is divided on whether insititia is a species in its own right, or a subspecies of Prunus domesticus, as well as on how many 'i's the word should contain, apparently.
Also harvesting this week
Sloes (just a few, picked two days apart, before and after the first frost, for an experiment)
Sweet chestnuts, now chestnut flour, dried and stored
Oyster mushrooms (these were right on the border between wild and cultivated. Some years ago, I gave my sister a 'mushroom log', impregnated with spores to grow at home. It did nothing, and did nothing, and even though it continued to do nothing for years, she didn't completely give up on it, but left it in the garden. Whilst we were staying, I went out to get some bay leaves and spotted some rather fine mushrooms growing. Bringing one in, I said, "If these are edible, you've got a couple more really big ones in the garden. Well, even if they aren't edible..." She wondered if they might be the stray oyster mushrooms, and when I looked them up, every detail matched. Unfortunately, most of them had a 'maggot to mushroom ratio' rather higher than we were happy with, so we only ate one rather small mushroom between three of us, but it was delicious and my sister and her husband are delighted to know that the fungus lives!)
Also eating this week
Courgette (not mine)
Crab apple and rosemary jelly
Blackberry wine (last year's; not mine)
Sloe wine (last year's)
Foraged food challenge summary page here.