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

Friday, 31 January 2014

Foraging challenge review

One year ago, I challenged myself to eat a different foraged food every week for a year, and I did it! I may not have hit the Friday of every week, but I found fifty two foraged foods and reported on them more or less once a week throughout the year. In fact, I did much better than that; I had so many extra foraged foods that I wrote a fifty-third Friday post with an additional fourteen foods, bringing the total up to sixty six for the year. Now, sixty six foraged foods isn't much variety for the serious forager, but I've substantially exceeded my target and I'm feeling very pleased with myself.

What about the experience of doing the challenge, though? Well you'll notice that the blog has become dominated by foraging over the last year, and that's not just the effect of writing the weekly posts; my life has become dominated by foraging. I've really enjoyed learning about new plants and it hasn't been at all difficult. Although some weeks have been a bit, I suppose I'd better find something to write about this week, even in my most uninspired weeks, I haven't had to go far to find another plant to eat and tell you about.

What's pleased me most has been learning about seaweeds and mushrooms, which aren't even plants. Well, there seems to be some debate about seaweed, but mushrooms belong to an entirely different kingdom of life: They're fungi. Whatever they're classification, these are completely new to me, so it felt like a big advance in my knowledge to learn anything about them. Whilst I'm satisfied to be able to identify a few species of seaweed, I've got completely hooked on mushroom hunting. I never used to even see them, but now I've trained my eyes to pick them out from the background, I can't resist seeking them out and when I find a new one, looking up resources that will help me solve the riddle of what it is. It's satisfying to identify even the inedible ones.

I'm not sure what I'd expected regarding deliciousness of wild food; I think probably that most would be so-so and some not worth the bother. I was pleasantly surprised with my assessment of what I found:

DelicaciesUsefulWorth knowingWon't bother with again
HeatherDandelion flowersDandelion rootsDandelion leaves
Wild garlic leavesHairy bittercressFennelGoose grass leaves
Bracken fiddleheadsRosebay willoherb leavesRosebay willowherb stalksRosebay willowherb flowers
Elder flowersLesser celandine leavesPignutsHawthorn leaves
Wild strawberriesGround elder leavesWild carrotsPlantain flowers
Fairy ring champignonGarlic mustard leaves and seedsSpeedwell leavesShepherd's purse seeds
CepsNettle leavesKelp
ChantarellesSorrel leavesGutweed
Oyster mushroomsVetchOak moss
Field mushroomsCarrageenHoneysuckle flowers
LaverGreen laverFir cones
SloesJapanese knotweed
BlackberriesEvening primrose roots
Beech leavesOak leaves
Marsh samphireGreencracked brittlegills
Rowan berriesBlusher mushrooms
Brown birch boletes
Scarletina boletes
Fat hen
Crab apples
Rose hips
Common hogweed leaves and seeds
Black mustard

Of course this is entirely subjective and it's quite possible that I'll change my mind about some these, but the Delicacy column, containing foods and drinks that I can get quite excited about, is longer than the Won't bother column and even than the Worth knowing about column. The largest category is the one I've labelled Useful, things I'll turn to again and again, even though I don't get terribly excited about them. These are on a level with potatoes, carrots or spinach, whereas the delicacies are up there with olives and asparagus. The Worth knowing about category includes foods that might be useful if it weren't for some other factor. For example dandelion roots are a good coffee substitute, but I don't drink much coffee. Pignuts are delicious, but it's illegal to dig them up. Some of the delicacies take quite a bit of processing before I can get excited about them. For example, I wouldn't eat bits of heather straight from the plant, but it does flavour a very nice ale.

With this focus on wild foods, I've learnt to more about preserving food and adapted my cooking to use these new ingredients. I never used to use dried mushrooms and seaweeds, though at least the mushrooms are readily available to buy, but now do, regularly.

Jars of dried mushrooms and seaweed on top of my kitchen cupboard

What really made me happy, though, was my home brew.

Wine brewing in the store room

Having foraged various plants, it's not necessary to make alcoholic drinks from them, nor is it necessary to forage in order to brew your own drinks, but I enjoy both activities and find them happy bed-fellows. Not all of my home-brew experiments have been successful, but most are good and some are truly excellent.

Foraged Food Friday: Beech leaves... and the rest

There's a traditional drink, similar in process but less well known (at least in this country) than sloe gin, called beech leaf noyau. I had the opportunity to try some at a festival last summer and... well, it tasted of gin. All the same, it got me thinking: Having had such success with my sloe wine, perhaps I could try the same trick with beech leaves, i.e. skip the gin and just make wine with them?

Beech leaves (Fagus sylvatica)

As I have a beech hedge, I have no shortage of leaves, and the task of picking them can be combined with tidying up the hedge. This meant I ended up with quite a lot of twigs in with my leaves, making the volume difficult to estimate. They filled my jamming kettle, which has a capacity of 15 pints/ 8½ litres. I thought it was probably about twice as much volume as the oak leaves I picked (but much quicker to pick!) I stuck to my usual simple recipe of boiling the leaves for about 45 min and then putting leaves and water together into the bucket with just shy of two kilos of sugar (I'd used a little from the bag already) and topped up to about two gallons of water, then added yeast (kept from the bay herb ale). After four or five days, it was strained into demijohns and left alone. This was in early June, so it's had about seven months to ferment and mature.

I wasn't sure it would be ready as there are still some bubbles on the surface, which is why I left it to last, but with a bit of de-fizzing it was fine. What looked in the demijohn like a light brown colour appeared in the glass more as a pinkish tinge - very pretty. And the taste - wow, this stuff is good! It's rich and smooth, slightly nutty, maybe a hint of vanilla... am I getting pretentious? I'm not very good at describing wine, you'll just have to make some and try it for yourself.

When I wrote about dandelions in the last post, I thought it was nice, at the end of the foraging challenge, to return to the beginning of my foraging journey. In a way, this one represents the challenge even better. I drew on information and brewing skills that I've learnt, tried an experiment, and the result is surprisingly good. Cheers!

Also harvesting this week
Evening primrose roots

Also eating
Crab apple jelly
Rosehip vinegar
Ceps (from dried)

Also drinking
Oak leaf wine
Hopped ale

As for the rest? Well, this is my fifty-third post in a fifty-two week challenge, and I have lots of foraged foods still to tell you about. I did wonder about continuing the series, as many of these foods are preserved, but I'd like to finish the challenge and move onto something new. As a compromise, here are some brief notes on a selection (i.e. the ones I've remembered) of foraged foods, mostly seaweeds and mushrooms.

Green laver
Thanks to a field guide that told me laver is green when young, I picked a load of this thinking it was black laver. It was only when I got home and did further research that I realised I'd picked a differnet seaweed entirely. However, this is also used in oriental cuisine, as a condiment, and that's how I've been using it. Dried and toasted (it only takes a few seconds) it can be crumbled over food and has a strong, savoury flavour. I find it goes particularly well with slightly sweet dishes, such as pumpkin soup.

Another green seaweed, this is the kind you get deep fried in Chinese restaurants (if it's not cabbage standing in). It's tricky to clean all the sand out of the fine fronds, though. I have some dried, but it's gritty so I think I'll probably throw it away.

This seaweed is distinctively pink. I dried quite a lot of this and intended to include it in the foraging series, but kept eating it, so I had none left to write about. It tastes a bit like shellfish and simply dried, it makes a very nice, crisp snack.

The last of my seaweeds, kelp isn't something I'd want to eat on its own. It's reputed to add a savoury depth to soups and stews if you put a piece in while cooking, rather like a bay leaf. I've been using it in this way, but John Wright has tested the theory in leek soup and found it makes no difference. I'd like to do my own test before I'm entirely convinced, because I think meat or beans would be a more appropriate flavour. In the meantime, I still have a tin full in the cupboard.

Fairy ring champignon
Being late summer mushrooms, these were amongst the first I learned to identify, and they're delicious.

They generally grow in grassland, but two patches came up in my terrace. Actually, I have no idea how to classify that environment for the sake of mushroom identification, so I just have to be extra careful on the other features.

Blusher mushrooms
It's important to be able to distinguish these from panther caps. As well as subtle differences in colouring, there's a key distinguishing feature in the ring: The blusher mushroom has grooves on its ring and the panther cap doesn't.

I'm pretty sure the one on the left is a blusher mushroom and the one on the right is a panther cap, but I'd want a good look at the ring before eating one.

Grooved ring of blusher mushroom.

Although I've now seen enough of both of these to recognise them by sight, if I can't find those distinguishing grooves, I won't eat it. Even then, blushers need cooking before eating, and once cooked, they're a pleasant, if unremarkable mushroom. They're common, so I picked quite a few and dried them, making a useful contribution to the winter store cupboard.

Brown birch boletes
Rated by some mushroom hunters as worthless - sludgy and 'orrible, according to Hunter Gatherer Cook, I think these are quite useful for adding a mushroomy depth to stews. It's true that they do dissolve into a dark, sludgy mush when cooked, so I wouldn't fry them to eat on their own, but in my opinion the flavour is not very different from an elderly cep, and they're so common it's a shame to let them go to waste. Like the blushers, I have a jar full dried.

Scarletina boletes
I'm really sorry I don't have photos of this one, or even better a video, because the colours are great fun. It has a dark brown cap, but the underside and stem are bright red and when you cut the flesh it's bright yellow, then quickly turns dark blue. Once cooked, it all turns a boring brown, but the flavour's good. I didn't find enough of them to preserve, so I'll just have to look out for these again next year.

Oyster mushrooms
It says something about how well this challenge went that oyster mushrooms didn't warrant an entry of their own. Not only did I find the semi-cultivated ones at my sister's, I applied my new-found knowledge of their habits to find them in the wild. I learnt that they grow on beech trees and often emerge shortly after a sharp cold spell. We had a few days of freezing weather... it warmed up... I waited a couple of days then went to a patch of beech woodland nearby... I searched, and found them! I picked about three quarters of a pound of young mushrooms, and they were delicious. I loved the feeling of competence I got from applying knowledge like this.

Garlic mustard seeds
Having read about Atomic Shrimp's experiment making a condiment out of these, I collected and dried some with a view to trying the same. In the end, I used them in pickled samphire instead, and the result was very good.

Oak moss
I was very excited to learn that this lichen is edible, as there's not much else going at this time of year, and it's also high carbohydrate, which is rare in wild food. Someone mentioned it on a forum, then when I did some research I found one other article online about eating it, which was presumably the source for the first one I saw as the cooking instructions were identical but the second one I found explained how she arrived at this technique. OK, so I've found two people on the internet who've eaten it and survived. It's not the most ringing endorsement, but it probably means it's safe to eat. (Looking again, I've just found it in a River Cottage recipe and several other place. It's amazing how much difference it can make to use slightly different wording in a google search.)

There's loads of this on the trees around here and recent storms have blown a lot down, so it's easy to gather a handful just from what's fallen. For my first attempt, I followed the cautious cooking instructions that involved boiling in two changes of water before deep frying. By the time I'd boiled it twice it was a soggy mess. I squeezed the water out and fluffed it up before frying but even so, I'd cooked the life out of it. The final crisps could have been anything. For a second attempt I tried the traditional method of steaming before frying. It certainly held its shape better but when I ate it there was an edge to the flavour - the word acrid came to mind - which put me off eating very much of it. There may be a happy medium, but I'm not sure I can be bothered to find it at the moment. On the plus side, this lichen that's mostly used for perfume left the cooking oil scented pleasantly. That's been quite nice on rice salads and suchlike.

Fir cones
This one was an impulsive forage. On the way to pick bilberries, I spotted what looked like chopped apple, scattered over the forest floor. On closer inspection, these turned out to be large, fleshy fir cones of a kind I'm not familiar with that had been taken apart by animals (presumably squirrels) to extract the kernels from the middle. Hmm, thought I, I like pine kernels... I picked one out and tasted it - wow, that resin's strong! OK, so I wouldn't eat these nuts as they are, but that fir cone resin is an interesting flavour...

I picked up a couple of cones (they're big) to take home. The first thing I did was try to identify the tree (tip: It's easier if you have more than just the fruit to go on) - I'm pretty sure it's Abies alba, the European silver fir - then tried to find out whether it's safe to eat. The only relevant information I could find was about its use in cough medicines, so I concluded that it's reasonably safe.

That done, I had to decide what to do with it. I reckoned I'd need an organic solvent to extract the flavour and chose two; vodka and vinegar. I thought that once the resin was soaked out, the kernels might be good to eat, so I separated out the cones into kernels and fleshy parts and soaked the kernels in vinegar, then divided the flesh between more vinegar and some vodka. I also added hogweed seeds to the vodka.

Bits of fir cone in solvents

Some months later, I tried a couple of the kernels. They're far too tough to be worth the effort of preparing like this. What about the liquids? They were both an encouraging shade of brown/red and smelled of the fir cone resin.

Fir cone vodka

Disappointingly, although it smells good, the vodka tastes mainly of, well, vodka. Oh well, I suppose I haven't lost anything. The vinegar - which turned dramatically black shortly after decanting - is another story. That is packed with flavour. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to use it for yet, but I have successfully extracted the fir cone flavour into a condiment.

Bilberries, and foraged Christmas pudding
Bilberries are similar to blueberries, but smaller, and very fiddly to harvest even when they grow in huge quantities, as they do around here. I quite like them, but can't get that excited about them as a fresh fruit. On the other hand, they're small enough to dry quite easily, and make a good substitute for currants. With this starting point, I decided to have a go at making a foraged Christmas pudding this year. In addition to the bilberries, I had a few dried blackcurrants and some old, dried rosehips. I felt the latter would benefit from soaking in brandy, so I did. Adapting a Delia Smith recipe, I came up with:

  • Bilberries (mostly), blackcurrants and (rosehips soaked in brandy) - together 4 oz
  • Sloe puree, from sloe wine - 3/4 jam jar
  • Tallow - 2 oz
  • Hogweed seeds - 1 tsp
  • Nutmeg - ½ tsp
  • Cinnamon - ½ tsp
  • Flour - 1 oz
  • Baking powder (this seemed an unlikely ingredient to me, but I put a bit in anyway)
  • Dark brown sugar - 2 oz
  • Bread soaked in damson jam - most of kilner jar full (I wanted dried damsons, ideally, but the closest I had was jam)
  • Breadcrumbs - sprinkle
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 tblsp dandelion and honeysuckle ale
It's not entirely foraged, but number of actual bought ingredients is quite small.

I also quite liked the idea of cooking this in a cloth, the old fashioned way, mainly because this was August and I didn't fancy having one of my pudding basins tied up until December. I found and followed instructions for doing this, but I note two things: If you boil a sugary thing wrapped in cloth, much of the sugar will end up in the water. If you hang a sugary thing up, even in a cool place with good airflow, it will go mouldy. I tried to mitigate the latter by soaking the cloth in brandy, but it was already soaked in sugar solution, so didn't absorb the spirit. After a few weeks I saw the first signs of mould, and decided another strategy would be necessary. I scraped the mould off the outside then microwaved the whole thing to kill it. I then unwrapped the by-now soft pudding, which promptly disintegrated. I packed the squishy mess into a Kilner jar as tightly as possible, added a thin layer of brandy for good measure, and sealed it up.

My intention was to eat this at the conventional time, i.e. Christmas day, but we had an unexpected invitation to join friends for Christmas dinner, so I ate their pudding instead (and very good it was too) while mine stayed in the cupboard. This week, in celebration of completing the foraging challenge (OK, it's January, I feel the need for sweet and stodgy food), it is pudding time! It was actually firm enough to hold its shape, but the jar didn't allow for turning out of the pudding, so I scooped it out, added an egg white (I'd used the yolk for mayonnaise), mixed with a little flour and sugar, which should stick it all together pretty well, packed it into a well greased pudding basin, and microwaved. In spite of all due preparations, I was quite surprised when it actually turned out of the basin.

It's nice, too. Not exactly like a traditional pudding, of course, and there's some room for improvement, but not at all bad. That, I think, rounds off the foraging year nicely. Happy New Year!

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Dandelion Flowers

Having covered dandelion leaves (too bitter to eat as salad, but good in beer) and dandelion roots (a surprisingly good substitute for coffee), I now come the most valuable part of the plant, dandelion flowers.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), complete with flowers

These flowers were my first step into foraging, not counting blackberry picking as a child, and feature in my very first blog post. They're still one of my favourites, if only because dandelions are such a ubiquitous weed, it's nice to have a use for the flowers. In fact, there are several uses - I dip them in pancake batter and fry them to make fritters, I dry them to make a herbal tea, and, of course, I make wine out of them.

The traditional date for picking dandelions for wine is St George's day, 23rd April. This year spring was late and I picked the flowers over the course of two weeks, Apr 30, May 1, May 2 and May 6, somewhere around four or five pints of flowers in total. I added one orange and one lemon (both elderly, say my notes) at the beginning, and 4 lb of sugar in two stages (Apr 30 and May 6). I assume I must have added some yeast as well, though my notes don't mention this. As usual, I made two gallons. Even when I wrote the notes, I couldn't remember what date I'd strained the liquid off the flowers and fruit and into the demijohns - I guess around May 12.

Dandelion wine. I need a photo is
a good enough reason for pouring another glass, isn't it?

As you can see, the wine is a very pale yellow colour and reasonably clear (actually, with a plain wall behind it, you can't tell how clear it is. You'll have to take my word for it.) Drinking this, I can see why I judged oak leaf wine to be quite similar to grape wine, because this isn't at all. On the other hand, it is delicious. Light and floral (unsurprisingly), the nectar gives it a sweetish hint of honey. Of course I'll be making it again. Don't tell any proper gardeners, but I have reached the stage of actively cultivating dandelions in my garden.

Also harvesting this week
Broccoli (one of my broccoli plants has got confused about what season it is and put out flower shoots. I'm not complaining!)
Hairy bittercress
Mustard leaves
Evening primrose roots
Oak moss

Also eating
Knotweed chutney
Crab apple and rosehip toffees
Rowan jelly
Pumpkin, including seeds (not mine)
Blusher mushrooms
Birch bolete mushrooms (both from dried)
Green laver
Black laver

Also drinking
Hopped beer
Blackberry wine
Beech leaf wine. I was saving this until next week, the final week of the challenge, but I got impatient. You'll still have to wait, though.

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Hops

I found some! We were staying in the Cotswolds at the beginning of September and whilst Ian was talking to people about cars, I went for a foraging walk and found lots of lovely things, including magnificent hop bines growing in the hedgerow. Sadly, I don't have any photos. I took some, I'm sure, but can't find them now. This is the danger of borrowing someone else's camera - that person may not check whether you've saved all your photos before clearing the memory card. So, a photo-free post, disappointingly.

It's the flower of the hop plant that's used in brewing (I've gone for the obvious use this time), also known as a cone. It's similar to a pine cone, but very light and papery. Since I also had quite a lot of fruit to process, I didn't want to start the beer straight away, so I spread the hops out to dry. This had the added advantage of converting them into a standard ingredient; dried hops can be bought from home-brew stores and appear in recipes. Yes, I thought I'd actually look at a recipe!

I thought that using hops, it would be easy enough to look up how to use them, and how much. It turned out to be not quite that simple. People who brew beer and share information online about their recipes do not simply use hops. Oh no, it's all about the varieties, and each recipe called for several. Neither do they simply use malt extract - similar complications are included for that ingredient. There's a lot of heating to specific temperatures, for specific durations, with the various ingredients being added at different times during the process. What these recipes do not tend to specify is the total quantity of beer they're making. The simple information I sought - weight of dried hops per gallon of beer - was not easy to find.

Eventually I concluded that the usual amount of hops is between half and two ounces per gallon (British gallon I hope, but I'm not sure I checked). Have you any idea how much a dried hop cone weighs? No, I don't have clinical-grade scales, either. Half an ounce is a lot of hops. I thought I'd picked plenty for multiple brewing experiments, but in fact the one ounce I needed for my two-gallon batch was most of what I'd picked. Of course I ignored pretty much all other aspects of the standard recipes as well, such as boiling the malt with the hops in it, and stuck to my own method, i.e. I treated the sugars and flavourings separately.

As in my heather ale recipe I used two 370g jars of malt extract and 350g sugar for two gallons of beer. Since the hops are serving two purposes, bitter and aromatics, I divided my ounce in half and steeped one half in hot water for half an hour to extract the aromatics, meanwhile boiling the other half for bitters, then after straining the water from both into the bucket, boiled the whole lot together for another hour. Water topped up to two gallons, yeast added (from blackberry wine, I think), then the bucket was left alone for a few days. At this point I tasted it... eugh! That was way too bitter!

Since the quantity of hops I used was right at the bottom of the range I found in online recipes, the reason for the bitterness can't have been too many hops. It could be that I don't like such bitter ales as other people, but I think that's fairly unlikely - I drink a lot of beer. It's possible that the wild hops I found happened to be very bitter but again, that seems fairly unlikely to me. More plausible, I think, is the possibility that something about my unusual method made the difference. I think it's very likely that boiling the hops in plain water, rather than malty water, would extract more flavour. The point is to transfer flavour compounds from the hops to the water - to dissolve them. If the water already has a lot of sugar (malt extract) dissolved in it, then it will have less capacity to dissolve anything else.

The excess bitterness was easily solved with dilution. I made up another two gallons of sugar and malt extract solution, and steeped the rest of my hops - probably about a quarter of an ounce - in hot water to top up the aromatics. I then mixed the whole lot together in a bigger bucket and left for a few more days. This meant that the total time from start to bottling was probably about ten days. After bottling, it was only a week or two (sorry, my notes aren't so good on the leaving it alone parts of the process) before it looked clear and ready to drink.

I'm so glad I made a double batch of this beer - it was excellent! It's a fairly light, crisp, beer but there's plenty of body to it. I know I could make a darker beer by boiling the malt (or adding a little treacle) but I'm not sure I'll bother. This is really good! Now all I have to do is find a more local source of hops.

Also harvesting this week
Celandine leaves
Ground elder (the first tiny leaves are poking through. It's spring!)
Mustard leaves
Oak moss (lichen - who'd have thought that'd be edible?!)

Also eating
Sloes pretending to be olives
Sloes and elderberries puree (in sloe tart - one of my more successful baking experiments)
Rosehip vinegar (I'll tell you about this shortly)
Lactofermented French beans
Pickled samphire (have I already said that chestnut biscuits topped with mascarpone cheese and pickled samphire is just about the most divine food on earth? If so, sorry, but it bears saying again.)

Also drinking
Sloe wine
Honeysuckle ale
Blackberry wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Honeysuckle

This was my third home-brew beer experiment, and I was getting a bit cocky by this time. Although I didn't explicitly recall it at the time, I think I must have read Atomic Shrimp's sweet gale beer recipe, as I had the idea of using treacle to make a dark beer. It probably would have been better if I had remembered where I got the idea from, and checked just how little treacle he used. Not only did I use treacle, I also added molasses. I saw some for sale and bought it out of curiosity, just to see whether it is the same as treacle (no, it's not. It tastes like muscavado sugar, whereas treacle has a more caramelly, burnt sugar sort of flavour. Similar, but not quite the same.) Since I then had a jar full, I decided to use in beer.

Having found dandelion leaves too bitter to eat as a vegetable, I wondered if they might serve well as a bittering agent in ale. They're not very aromatic, so I then wondered what I might use to complement them. This lead me (via flowers in general) to honeysuckle. The flowers smell so wonderful, and I've heard that children pick them to suck the nectar out, so they seemed like a good bet for a flowery, aromatic flavour that might stand up to both treacle and dandelion leaves.

Honeysuckle flowers (Lonicera periclymenum)
These are my neighbour's flowers. I did not pick these ones.

Here are the notes I wrote on this recipe at the time:-

  • Two large handfuls of dandelion leaves
  • about 20 honeysuckle flower heads, picked on a warm evening
    (NB see Jade's notes on honeysuckle: Wild Pickings: Honeysuckle Not seen before using flowers. Probably best to use them in beer!)
  • 370g malt extract
  • 370g molasses
  • 454g treacle
Bearing in mind that the berry is poisonous, I pulled the flowers off the green centre. I wondered about removing the green base of each flower - I didn't, but seeing Jade's notes, wonder whether I should have done. For a bitter ale, perhaps it'll be OK.

Flowers filled the larger basin, covered in hot water and steeped for... half an hour? An hour?
Leaves put in saucepan and boiled for 20min-half hour; strain off liquid and repeat.
Pour hot liquids onto sugars in bucket, fill, wait to cool (got down to 38deg. It was a hot evening) then add yeast - last used for blackcurrant wine, so a hint of blackcurrant in this, too.
Bottled after one week in bucket (probably a bit too long). Smells very treacly!

Dandelion and honeysuckle ale

Frankly, this ale is a bit peculiar. Firstly, it's not smooth at all. I'm not sure what the opposite is - rough means something else - but the bubbles, such as they are, are fairly large, which is not the effect you want in this kind of beer. It didn't taste good at all to start with, but after a few months it's mellowed to something quite drinkable. It's still rather odd, though. The flavour is dominated by the molasses and treacle, so I can't really tell what contribution the honeysuckle's making, if any. There's a certain bitter depth to it, which balances the treacliness, so the dandelion is doing its job, but I can't pick out the floral notes. This probably has more to do with the unfamiliar taste from the sugars than anything else.

I can't really call this beer a success, though I'm happy enough to drink it. It leaves me with no verdict at all on honeysuckle flowers - they might be a good flavouring for beer, I just can't tell from this. I might try again next year, or I might have a go with other flavourings. Either way, I'll skip the molasses next time!

Also harvesting this week
Evening primrose roots

Also eating
Birch bolete mushroom (from dried)
Green laver (from dried)
Courgette puree (from frozen)
Sloe and elderberry puree (from making wine)
Hogweed seed

Also drinking
Bay herb ale (the last bottle, that I told you about a few weeks ago but didn't actually drink)
Blackcurrant cordial
Blackberry wine
Sloe wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

2013: A year of foraging and pondering

If you look back over this blog for the last year, it seems to have been a year of foraging and thinking about things. That's probably a pretty accurate reflection; it doesn't feel like it's been a very productive year. That statement betrays my continuing attachment to notions of productivity as an important part of what's valuable or successful, and that statement tells you that I am moving away from that way of thinking.

To start with the lack of productivity: I haven't made and fitted solar panels; I have half-replaced conservatory roofing that needs fixing (again); further projects await the old panels; the house is only partially insulated; its decorative state is much the same as it was a year ago. On the positive side, I've learnt a great deal about wild food, and I've spent a fair bit of time pondering the question of how to live well. I think this has been valuable and I expect to continue in this vein.

For now, I give you some completely unrelated pretty pictures from 2013, some of which have appeared in this blog, but others are new. The people in the bottom photo are my sister and her children.

The time is now

The first part of this post was written on Tue 31st Dec.

Susie has found herself making a 40 Before 40 list. Being the same age, I'm tempted to hop aboard the bandwagon, but I won't because I find lists oppressive. All the same, there are a few things that I've long wanted or intended to do and that occur at a point in the future called "one day". My fortieth year strikes me as a time to ask, If not now, then when?

Some of these are lifestyle changes. I believe that my life would be improved if I took up yoga or meditation, or preferably both. I've wanted to learn hang gliding, or paragliding, for as long as I can remember. Other things are (probably) one-off events. I would love to see both a total eclipse of the sun (I did try, on 11 August 1999, but Cornwall was cloudy that day) and the Aurora Borealis.

This may look like a bucket list or new year's resolutions, but it lacks that sense of obligation. This is me looking at things I want and asking myself, quite straightforwardly, Why not? What's stopping me? If the answer is money, I'll ask further, Is there a cheaper way of doing it? Could I save up for it? The answer may still be no, but I'd at least like to think it through.

As I type, I am sitting in a holiday cottage in the north of Scotland. The weather is cold and miserable and there isn't much daylight. The last of those is part of the reason we're here. Other factors include the new moon, sunspots, and the fact that Scotland is cheaper to get to than Norway or Iceland (both places I'd love to visit). Yes, we've come here for a chance to see the northern lights.

It really is only a chance, as it's necessary for the right solar weather (stormy) to occur shortly before the right terrestrial weather (clear), and both are fairly unpredictable, certainly on the sort of timescale involved in booking a holiday. For the first few days of our stay we've had some clear weather, but solar activity has been low. However, it's forecast to increase later in the week and the local weather forecast is for 'partial' cloud on Thursday. It may not be a very good chance, but it's a chance. We shall pack a thermos of soup, put on our thickest socks, head out somewhere with a clear view of the northern horizon, and wait.

By the time I next have internet connection to post this, I may be able to tell you whether the gamble paid off.


Well, here I am, back in Wales, with internet connection. So did we see them? Were we treated to one of the most spectacular cosmic displays visible from Earth? Yes and no. Yes, we saw them... no, they weren't spectacular.

We'd headed north from our cottage to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland. We figured that if the chance of seeing the lights was slim, we'd better make sure we had the best possible view of the northern horizon, so that's where we went. We got there at about 4:30 pm due to a petrol panic. That is, we had only just enough petrol to get to Thurso (town near Dunnet Head) - probably - and on a bank holiday we didn't reckon on finding a petrol station open in the rural area closer to the cottage. We gambled on finding one open in Thurso, but thought we'd better not leave it too late. If there hadn't been, we'd have been stranded there for the night and probably not made it to the headland, but there was, just one, luckily.

So... petrol panic over, we parked up at the top of Dunnet Head and settled down to wait, though it wasn't even fully dark when we arrived. We weren't the only ones with this idea. The first couple who arrived thought that the lights were pretty much constant when active, and would be visible as soon as it got dark enough. They were disappointed, and left after a couple of hours. The next couple arrived in a smart looking Audi, but got out to watch the sky. It was way too cold for that kind of behaviour. They didn't stay long. The third couple arrived at around 10 pm, with a tent. This was their third trip to see the lights, the previous two having been unsuccessful. Shielding our eyes from their bright torchlight as they erected their tent, settled themselves down, checked the tent, added more guy ropes, we began to see why. They never turned the torch off for long enough to let their eyes adjust to the darkness.

At 10:20 pm, nearly six hours after we'd arrived, we saw something. It wasn't much, but it was definitely light in the northern sky that hadn't been there a moment earlier. We got out of the car and watched for about ten minutes, until we got too cold and retreated. Hmm, definitely northern lights, but not exactly the dancing sprites we've seen photos of. About an hour later, they came again, this time a bit bigger. Although it was too windy to use a tripod outdoors, Ian managed to get some photos through the car windscreen.

The car belongs to the couple with the tent

To the bottom left you can see the lighthouse. Dunnet Head isn't completely without ambient light

If I'm quite honest, this looks better in the photo than it did in real life.

So there we are. We made the effort, we took the chance, and we saw the northern lights. I had the sense that there was one heck of a light display going on somewhere to the north of us, and we were seeing the very edge of it. I'd still like to see the lights properly, but I'm glad I've seen them at all. There's also a sense of satisfaction that the effort paid off. It took a bit of research and a lot of waiting to see this. If we hadn't done it right, we wouldn't have seen the lights. We might not have seen them as it was, but when there's only a small chance, it's worth making an effort to maximise that chance.

As for cosmic spectacles, there'd been a fabulous sunset while we were driving north, which we didn't stop to photograph because stopping and starting uses extra fuel. The moon was also stunning that evening.

This one looked better in real life.

Perhaps this should be a reminder to appreciate the more common spectacles, and not get too distracted by chasing the exotic.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Elderberries

The elder tree is most wonderful generous to the home-brewer. Not only do the flowers make the delightful, summery, elderflower champagne, but the berries are excellent in wine, both on their own and with other fruit.

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) spied from afar

Somewhat closer view of elderberries

I read on the 'ish forum (currently slightly creaky due to recent relocation) that elderberries are almost identical to grapes, apart from the sugar content. I've heard that it's possible to make an excellent wine from them, though I've yet to achieve this myself, partly due to lack of elderberries, partly due to impatience. I have some on the go at the moment, but as it needs at least a year, it won't be ready in time to include in this series of foraging posts. However, grape juice concentrate appears in various wine recipes, and elderberries are the perfect wild substitute. The extra sugar required is less wild, but never mind. I have some elderberry and blackberry wine on the go, but what I'm going to tell you about today is my favourite home-brew: sloe and elderberry wine.

This is possibly my most successful experiment to date, first tried a couple of years ago. From my notes, the recipe I used this year was:

  • 1 lb 9 oz sloes
  • same of sugar, initially
  • kettle full of water, then cold to ?3.5-4l
  • mash lots
  • remove floating dead grubs
  • 2 tsp yeast from beer
  • 4? days later (15 Oct), add 1 lb elderberries and the same of sugar, and about a pint of water.
Note that the sloes were picked before the frost softened the flavour. Since then, I've added a tablespoonful of sugar whenever I've thought of it, which could be every day for quite long periods, and stirred frequently to see whether bubbles are still forming. The first time I made this, it stopped fermenting in about six weeks, but this one was still going at Christmas, which is well over two months. I can think of two possible explanations for this; either it's much colder this year than two years ago, and it's going more slowly, or the yeast I have this time is tolerating higher alcohol concentrations, and surviving longer. Considering how much sugar I've added, it would be ridiculously sweet if the yeast wasn't doing its thing, and it's not, so I think the latter explanation is more likely. This could be quite a strong drink.

I managed to keep one small bottle of last year's, to see how it matures.

Sloe and elderberry wine, 2013 and 2012 vintages.

A year's maturing makes no discernible difference to the flavour but as you can see, the sediment does settle out, leaving a beautiful clear wine. This is a sweet, strong, after-dinner sort of a drink. I shall continue making it so long as I can find the ingredients, which should be quite a long time.

Also harvesting this week
Leeks (strictly speaking, these two were harvested the week before, to take on holiday with us

Also eating
Pickled samphire

Also drinking
Blackcurrant cordial

Foraged food challenge summary page here.