Tag Archives: wild food

Elderflowers

There is no hedgerow glory finer than the elderflower

John Wright

One benefit of lockdown life is my daily hour-long meander around the green areas of Levenshulme. And at this time of year there is a real treat for those who like to forage; all I needed to do was to wait for a few dry, sunny and hot days in a row – something not that common in Manchester – and I could get my paws on probably the best foraged food, the elderflower. Patience was a virtue and last week the planets aligned, and I filled my boots. Well, my tote bag.

A freshly picked ‘hand’ of elderflowers

I love the taste of them so much and I am always disappointed if I don’t get hold of some at least once per year. The smell is heady with that earthy Muscat fragrance, and is a potent addition to many foods, classically partnered with the gooseberry. Elderflower syrups and cordials stretch back to at least Tudor times, and classic elderflower champagne seems to have become popular in the late Victorian era, peaking in popularity in the 1920s. If you have never cooked with them then you are missing a treat, but don’t worry, there is a good few weeks left of the season if you want to get hold of some – all we need are some more sunny days.

The elder has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and has a very interesting folklore; I plan to write a post on the Elder tree later in the year, so for now I’ll just talk about the flowers. Because the foliage and green stalks are mildly poisonous, elderflowers and leaves together have been used as a purgative since the days of Hippocrates. In Britain, it is traditionally used to sooth sore throats and reduce the intensity of flu symptoms. I don’t know if there is truth in any of that, but what I do know is that it has a positive effect on my mental health, so delicious is the uplifting aroma when introduced to all sorts of foods; and in these strange times we all need a mental health boost I’m sure you’ll agree.

A spindly elder tree

The elder is one of Europe’s most common trees and is an almost ubiquitous member of hedgerows and scrubland throughout Britain, only thinning out sparsely in the north of Scotland. It flowers between the months of late May and early July, the precise dates changing with latitude: the north being a good two weeks behind the south. At this time there are few trees you could confuse it with: the bark is pale, gnarly and often spindly and looks old beyond its years. At this time of year though, you smell it before you see it.

The flat arrangement of tiny cream coloured flowerheads are called ‘plates’ that also go under the name of curds, hands or (my favourite) slices of bread depending on where you are in the country. Pick them in the late afternoon after two or three days of dry sunny weather and give the flowers a good sniff to check they are full of fragrance. Snip the heads off with some scissors – aim to get between twelve and eighteen hands. Once collected, head on home and use them before their fragrance begins to dissipate.

Illustration of a flat plate of flowers, from Food in England, Dorothy Hartley

What you do with your elderflowers once home depends upon what you want to make. If they are not going to be heated up or cooked in any way, it’s important to snip away as much green stalk as possible because as mentioned the foliage is slightly poisonous. Whatever you do, don’t wash them; you’ll wash away the scent. Just check over them and pick off any insects that may be residing in amongst the blooms.

Picking elderflowers (pic: Stuart Kinlough)

Elderflowers are normally used to flavour foods, rather than as a food themselves, the only example I can think of where they are actually eaten is the elderflower fritter. When introducing them to hot liquids, snip away the stalks and tie the flowers up loosely in muslin and use it to flavour scalding hot cream or milk to make a delicious elderflower custard to pour over gooseberry pudding – or freeze it to make ice cream. I have made elderflower syllabub, blancmange and even Irish carrageen pudding, which once made it onto a seaside-themed pop-up restaurant back in the day. You can add it to cooking gooseberries if making a crumble, or pop some in toward the end of the cooking time when making gooseberry jam.

Making elderflower gin

Elderflower Gin

The best thing you can make by a country mile is elderflower gin and it is the simplest and quickest of the cold infusions. Because it doesn’t require any cooking, the true taste of the springtime hedgerow is perfectly preserved.

Snip between 12 and 18 elderflower heads into a large jar with a two tablespoons of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Seal the jar and give it a good swirl twice a day to dissolve the sugar. After three days, strain through a muslin-lined sieve into bottles and you are done. You can then enjoy the best gin and tonic of your life.

Elderflower Tom Collins:

We have now reached the pinnacle of deliciousness. This was not my idea, but my ex-business husband Mr Brian Mulhearn’s and it is very delicious. For one drink, you will need:

Ice

2 shots of elderflower gin

1 shot fresh lemon juice

½ – 1 shot gomme (stock sugar syrup)

Soda water

Place some ice in a cocktail shaker with the gin, juice and gomme to taste. Shake well and strain into a glass generously filled with ice. Top up with soda water. Bliss.

Variations:

For a liqueur far superior to St Germaine, make as for the gin, but use vodka and add between 120 and 150 g of sugar, depending upon the sweetness of your tooth.

For elderflower vinegar, make as for gin, using 500 ml of cider vinegar. Leave in a sunny spot for a week, swirling regularly. For a great salad, dress some rocket leaves and a few halved or quartered strawberries with the vinegar plus salt and plenty of black pepper. It makes an excellent accompaniment for poached salmon.

Elderflower Tom Collins

References:

Collins Tree Guide (2004), Owen Johnson & David More

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabeth Country Cooking at Home (1986), Hilary Spurling

Food in England (1954), Dorothy Hartley

River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow (2010), John Wright

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The Edible Hedgerow

I went a little foraging escapade last week to see what wild food I could find in Chorlton Meadows, one of my favourite places in Manchester. The hunter-gatherer is not quite dead. Today’s aim was to find some fruit for some nice hedgerow jelly; something you don’t find in the shops, no siree. I wonder how many people do this anymore? It’s shocking that there are tiny punnets of blackberries in the supermarket selling for 3 or 4 pounds when you can get them free from the brambles!

The first thing you need to find if you want to make a good hedgerow jelly is some crab apples. There’s an area of the meadows called Hardy’s Farm and I knew that there was plenty of apple trees around there so I headed straight for it. The poor summer we’ve had – very wet and warm – has been the perfect environment for moulds and other fungi, they had managed to infect every tree I came across except for one! Some trees didn’t even have fruit or flowers on them. A sad, sad state of affairs. It is a little early for apples though, so perhaps they’ll get their act together.

Some of the few crab apples that weren’t diseased

Crab apples, or any windfall apples really, make up 50 percent of the jelly because apples provide the pectin that sets jelly once it is cooked.

The great thing about these jellies is that you can use berries that are normally far too sour and astringent in their unsweetened form. I found several species though many of them were not quite ripe.

The rowans were laden with berries

Two of the best examples of this were the two most bountiful species: hawthorn and rowan. These are very common trees found in hedgerows, forests, scrubland and gardens.

The brilliant red berries seemed to glow against the rather miserable grey backdrop of the rain and clouds – especially the rowanberries. If you look closely at them, you can see that they are just tiny apples themselves.

Rowanberries are simply tiny apples!

(to be botanically correct: apples are just large berries)

There was also a few ripe rosehips, so I grabbed some of those too. The other species I found were no way near ripe enough or in high enough numbers: sloes (the wild ancestor to damsons), blackberries, elderberries and some wild plums.

Some rather unripe blackberries and hips

Hedgerow Jelly

Once you have collected your fruit you can now get making your jelly – and don’t worry if crab apples are the only thing you found because they make a delicious pink-tinged tart jelly themselves. (Notice that I have suddenly gone metric, there’s a reason for this, but that’ll have to wait for another post. I shall endeavour to add Imperial measures though.)

1 kg (2 lbs) crab apples

1 kg (2 lbs) wild berries

1.2 litres (2 pints) water

granulated sugar

Wash your fruit – you don’t want hedgerow and earwig jelly. Roughly chop your apples; don’t core or peel them, it is the core and peel that contain the most of the precious pectin.

As for the berries, I give them a quick blitz in the food processor. Place the fruit in a large heavy-based stock pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until the fruit is mushy.

In order to achieve a nice clear jelly, you need to strain the juice through cloth – I use muslin and a proper jelly stand for this, but it’s perfectly fine to use a large sheet of muslin, cheesecloth or even an old pillowcase. Scald your material in boiling water to sterilise it. Put the jelly bag on its frame with a bowl beneath it to catch the drips. Pour in the mushy fruit and juice and allow it to drip through in its own time overnight. If you don’t have a jelly bag, you can tie a bundle of cloth to the handle of a cupboard above a bowl.

The next day, measure how much juice you have – it should be between 1 and 1.2 litres – and pour it into your stockpot or preserving pan (I am saving up for one of those). For every 600 ml (1 UK pint) of juice you have, you’ll need 450 g (1 pound) of sugar. Add this to the pan and turn on the heat to medium, stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved, then turn the heat to maximum. Boil the fruity syrup until setting point is reached: this is easy to judge if you have a thermometer, because pectin sets at 104.5⁰C.This should take about 10 or 15 minutes. If you don’t have one then, turn the heat off and place a drop of the jelly on a freezing-cold plate. Let it set, then push it with your nail. If it wrinkles, then it is ready. If it doesn’t, put the heat on again for 10 minutes and try again.

Once setting point is reached, skim away the skum and pour into sterilised jars. The way I do this is I put the jars and lids on a clean baking tray in the oven for 30 minutes at 120⁰C.

Variation: Mulled cider jelly. Use 2 kg of crab apples, and add a 500 ml bottle of dry or sweet cider along with 700 ml of water, along with a cinnamon stick, some cloves, a star anise and a piece of nutmeg. When it comes to the point where you add the sugar, use 100 g less as the cider lends a lot of sweetness itself.

Mulled cider jelly

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