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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Crab apples

In the field behind our house there's a crab apple tree that was ever so pretty in the spring.

Pretty spring-time blossom

Now it's laden with fruit and as I sit on the terrace with my cup of tea, I can hear little 'plops' as the fruit falls to the ground. I couldn't just ignore it, could I?

Isn't this a cute little basket? Ian rescued it from the tip for me.

Crab apples are small, very sharp tasting, and have rather manky looking skin. However, they're also high in pectin, which means they make excellent jellies. A jelly is distinct from a jam in having all the fruit strained out, which means there's no need to peel the tiny apples or remove the pips. I've made several different kinds; with blackberries, rowan berries, herbs (sage and rosemary, separately) and some plain, because I ran out of ideas. All are good, but they're the kind of thing I fancy occasionally, rather than wanting a lot of, so I scrounged some tiny jam jars from the local hotel and now have lots of little pots of apple jellies. I also have some bigger pots, because if you're using tiny jars, you need an awful lot of them!

Also harvesting this week
Common yellow brittlegills
Leek (first one of the season!)
Parsnip (ditto!)
Broad beans (just a few - mine don't set seed very well. I may try a different variety next year)
Runner beans
Bay leaves

Also eating
Courgette and mint soup (from freezer)
Peas (also from freezer. That was the last of this year's crop)
Damson jam mixed with...
Blackberry vinegar
Fairy ring champignon (dried. Used to make stock)
Kelp (dried. Used in stock with dried mushrooms, bay leaves and leek top)

Also drinking
Blackberry wine
Blackcurrant wine (both last year's, both now finished)
Blackberry and apple cordial
Bay herb ale
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Hazelnuts

The time to gather hazelnuts is when they're just ripe, before the squirrels get to them. Unfortunately, such a time is mythical, as the squirrels get going well before the nuts are ripe.

Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana), still green

It's been windy recently, so many nuts are on the ground already, together with the broken shells that indicate the squirrels have been active. This year, in order to get any nuts at all, I'm in there with the squirrels, gathering the unripe nuts. They're small, white and moist, but delicious nonetheless. Some I ate as they were, some I crushed and added to biscuits. It would be nice one day to gather some ripe hazelnuts but in the meantime, these are pretty good.

Also harvesting
Greencracked brittlegill
Common yellow brittlegill
Runner beans
Potatoes - the rest of the harvest
Crab apples (mostly windfalls, for jellies)
Rowan berries (used in both jelly and for wine)
Blackberries (in jelly and cordial)

Also drinking
Rhubarb cordial
Elderflower champagne - last bottle, to accompany wild mushroom risotto. An appropriate way to mark the transition from summer to autumn.

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Hogweed seeds

I did write this yesterday, but technology didn't behave as expected and I lost it, so here goes the second attempt. I have Mark at Galloway Wild Foods to thank for this one. I hadn't even thought about the possibility of finding spices in the wild but he knows of lots, including hogweed seeds.

It seems that the only photo I've got has the seed head inside a paper bag, which isn't terribly helpful. The seed head looks much like any other umbellifer seed head, so you have to check the leaves to make sure you've got the right one. Also check the seeds aren't seven foot up in the air, as that would be giant hogweed, which is best avoided.

I picked a couple of seed heads a few weeks ago, added some to pickles and drinks - I'll tell you later - and dried the rest. This week, I decided to use some as flavouring in biscuits. That required grinding them to a powder first, which was more difficult than I anticipated, as my wooden pestle and mortar didn't touch them. I have a spare set of salt and pepper mills, so my next attempt was to try using one of those. This wasn't terribly successful either, as most of the seeds - that is, the little round, papery disks that the seeds are attached to - either didn't engage with the grinding teeth at all, or slipped straight between them. The next step was to try chopping the seed disks first before putting them in the mill, which task got diverted by the discovery of tiny caterpillars living in some of the disks. I then checked each disk individually for caterpillar occupancy before returning to the task of chopping them. Thankfully, once chopped, the seeds did get caught by the grinding gears and I was able to produce a teaspoonful or so of ground hogweed seeds (there are plenty more in the mill).

Having prepared my spice, I got to work on the biscuits. I'm never much of a one for recipes, and this was very much a case of adding things to the bowl and mixing until the result looked like biscuit dough. A key ingredient was stewed rhubarb, of which I had a pot in the fridge left over from making cordial, and it needed using up.

A word of advice here: Don't use stewed rhubarb in biscuits. It can be good in cakes - I've tried - but it's just too wet for biscuits. I may have been a little stingy with the butter, too, as there wasn't much left in the dish and I couldn't be bothered to work the cold butter straight from the fridge. The result of this excess water (in the rhubarb) and insufficient fat was very hard biscuits. They were tasty, but required a strength of teeth and jaw that food doesn't usually call for.

Good biscuits for dunking

I may not be trying rhubarb in biscuits again, but I'll definitely be using ground hogweed seed (and whole, whenever I can get away with it). The flavour's difficult to describe - I'd say bitter orange and Mark also has, ginger, liquorice and burned cedar. It's a warming, Christmassy kind of a flavour. I'm sure I'll be using more of this over the coming months.

Edit: I managed to offload the rock-hard biscuits on our pub philosophy group (after 'hogweed' was misheard as 'Hogwarts' it was suggested that these biscuits should be called Philosophers' stones) and baked another batch. This time I used an actual recipe for simple, vanilla biscuits and substituted the spice for the vanilla. They're very nice, but the distinctive spicy flavour isn't evident. They're not as plain as they would be if I just left the vanilla out (I know, because I've done this by mistake in the past), it's just not obvious what the flavouring is. That was with one teaspoon of spice to eight ounces of flour. I guess two or three teaspoonfuls would be necessary if you wanted spicy biscuits.

Also harvesting this week:
Runner beans
Snowy waxcap mushrooms
Greencracked brittlegill mushrooms

Also eating:
Lacto fermented courgettes

Also drinking
Bay herb ale
Dandelion and honeysuckle ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Potato harvest part one

I've written more about wild foods than cultivated ones this year, but the garden has been ticking over. In spite of an encouraging start, my seed-grown potatoes came to nothing, sadly. The young plants just weren't tough enough at the time I planted them out and either died in the cold, dry weather or got eaten by slugs. It was probably slugs - they're usually to blame.

However, my conventional tuber-grown crop has done very well. I've been harvesting them for some time, and noticed last week that some of the leaves are yellowing, meaning there's no point leaving them in the ground any longer as they've done all the growing they're going to do this year. Time to dig!

I tried a few different varieties this year, so I have...

King Edwards - a reliable old favourite

I think these are Charlottes...

... and these Sharpes Express, but they might be the other way round

I've left most of the Desiree, but dug up a few by mistake...

... and a few more

The rest of the Desiree plants are still looking green and healthy, so I'll leave them to grow a little longer before digging those up. Most of the spuds are going into storage the traditional way (I even found the sacks!) but I used up a jar of tallow to make...


Three trays of chips are as many as I can make at one time, because that's how many trays I have. I actually made five trays-full altogether, and these are now in the freezer.

Friday 6 September 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Speedwell

I'll take a break from mushrooms this week, though I did find a huge cep this evening, which I ate for my dinner. I also had a very successful foraging trip last Sunday, but as all the things I gathered are being preserved one way or another, I'll tell you about those another time. This week I'm returning to the easiest source of foraged foods: Garden weeds.

I've always loved the pretty little blue flowers of speedwell, so I'm quite happy that it grows in my garden. I transplanted several pieces to my terrace, and it's doing well there.

Pretty little blue flowers with white centres

Some gardeners try to get rid of this, but I'd be quite happy to have a lawn of it.

There are several varieties of speedwell, but the most familiar (to me, at least) is this one, the Germander Speedwell. As well as the flowers, it can be distinguished by the two lines of hairs running up the stems (and other features - you can look them up if you're interested).

Hairy stem of Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)

As well as being a pretty ground-cover plant it is, of course, edible. At least, the leaves make quite a good tea. It's mostly regarded for its medicinal value - I learnt last year that it seems to effective at shifting a chesty cough. I'd forgotten until I looked up that post just now that I drank the tea with honey last year. Today I had some neat and it was OK, but probably would have been nicer with honey.

Also harvesting this week
Sepia bolete mushroom (probably best avoided in future)
Cep mushroom
Elderberries (for wine)
Blackberries (for wine)
Hops (drying, for future brewing experiments)
Golden plums - just a few, but they got buried under elderberries and played with by Pebble, so they weren't much good after that
Sloes (unripe, for an experiment with brine and vinegar. Apparently they'll do a passable imitation of olives. Distressingly, these sloes were too far from home to go back when they're ripe - there were loads of them!)
Runner beans
Broad beans
Tomatoes - just a couple, but they're coming!

Also eating
Lacto-fermented courgettes

Also drinking
Blackcurrant wine (still last year's)
Elderflower champagne (this year's, and almost finished)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Lacto-fermented courgettes: An update

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my first attempts at lacto-fermentation, with a promise to tell you more in a few months. Well, um, it's not a few months yet, but here's an update anyway.

Both jars of veg bubbled away happily, with the courgettes being particularly vigorous. As the bubbles formed, of course they headed for the surface, and if there happened to be a piece of veg in the way, they tried to take that with them. Thus, veg that had been under the surface to start with headed out into fresh air. This is a common problem, and I'd read many suggested solutions for weighting the veg down, from clean rocks to smaller jars to bags of water. The only idea I could see that would fit through the neck of the jar and still hold down the veg at the edges was the plastic bag of water (or marbles), and I'm not terribly keen on leaving plastic in contact with the food for a long time.*

Without a weight, other alternatives include pushing the veg back down into the water from time to time, or leaving it well alone and relying on the carbon dioxide (formed by the fermentation) to exclude oxygen at the surface. With a simple, loosely-closed lid arrangement, I didn't have much confidence in the carbon dioxide staying put** so I went for the pushing-down option, aware that every time I did it I risked contaminating my ferment. The real reason was that I couldn't leave it alone!

Sure enough, a white film formed on the surface:

Beginnings of mould on the surface of fermented courgettes

People who use this basic method of fermentation are usually quite happy to scoop the mould off the top before taking out their pickled vegetables. I can go along with this - it's my usual approach to mould, in any case. I was a little concerned about the white substance appearing lower down in the jar, though. Surely mould couldn't be growing there?

Quite a lot of white stuff in there

Searching for information on this, I eventually found the Wild Fermentation forum (tip: Include Forum in your search terms if you have a question like this) which assured me (and the questioner there) that this is fine - in fact it's a good sign. That white stuff is the bacteria we want in there (well, dead ones, anyway). So that's OK then.

I first tasted the courgettes at about three days after starting and they were definitely tangy, but a bit odd. Since I now have signs of mould, I've decided to eat up my courgettes (scooping off the white film every time) rather than leave the mould to grow. Now, at two weeks, the flavour is delicious, bit like pickled gherkins (I think - it's a long time since I tried any). The texture is good, too - quite firm, with a bit of a crunch. I'd read about this, but it was still surprising, especially as courgettes are a soft vegetable, and I'd squished them when I put them in the jar.

In spite of the mould, this is definitely a success. I'd like to persevere with this - now I just need a surplus of veg.


* I'm not paranoid about plastic and food, but I do bear in mind that some plastics degrade over time and that food-grade plastics are tested for safety in certain situations. For a plastic bag, this might or might not include sitting in a salty, acidic environment for several months. I don't know, so I'm wary. On the other hand, any potential harm caused by the plastic might be less bad than potential harm caused by the mould that it would have prevented. Again, I don't know.

** But I did come across instructions for improving on this arrangement, which I plan to try, so I'll tell you about that when I've done it.