Monday, 31 August 2009

Pickled Plums

So I got round to pickling Sophie's plums yesterday and, yes, that does mean pickling in vinegar! I've not tasted them yet as I'm giving them time to mature (see Just a Quick Boast) but this is how I made them, based firmly on a recipe in Marguerite Patten's book Jams, Preserves and Chutneys. It works best with slightly under-ripe fruit.

Pickled Plums
2.25kg sweet plums
1.5 litres white wine or cider vinegar
1.7 kilos sugar
1 vanilla pod
5 cloves

Put the spices in the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes. Take out the cloves but leave the vanilla pod in and allow the vinegar to cool. Once cool remove the vanilla pod, add the plums and cook gently til they are softened but still whole. Lift out of the vinegar and drain well then pack into sterilized jars. At this stage I allowed the fruit to settle a little then drained more vinegar by tipping the jars up while holding the fruit back with a spoon.

Add the sugar to the vinegar in the pan and heat until the sugar dissolves then boil steadily til a syrup like consistency is reached. Pour the hot vinegar over the fruit and seal the jars.

How long to leave them to mature is a moot point. Marguerite suggests 2 months but last year I found this wasn't enough. I re-tasted last year's fruit a couple of days ago, at 10 months old they were delicious - so somewhere between 2 and 10 months! Think I'll keep tasting at intervals and will report back on the optimal maturation period. I'm dedicated to my work : )

If anyone out there is experienced in pickling fruit I'd love to hear your tips and hints. I'm finding I'm left with huge amounts of syrup at the end, does this mean I'm doing something wrong? I'm wondering if too much vinegar is getting in at the draining stage leaving less space for syrup and maybe this has something to do with a long maturing stage too? Any advice gratefully received!

Foraging as a Spectator Sport.

In the main we forage alone. We frequently see signs of other human activity, the rings of trampled nettles and absence of ripe fruit at person height for example. Occasionally we get actual human contact in the form of comments from passers by, sometimes we get as far a companionable little chat about what we're picking and what we'll make. There was even one unpleasant incident involving a farmer ordering us off a public bridleway on his land because we were picking sloes. But today's experience was quite unique!

In the morning we decided to take the children to Bressingham Steam Museum, next to the cafe was a cherry plum tree and huge great drifts of ripe plums all over the floor. Willow and Xanthe spotted them and mithered mercilessly til we agreed to pick a small handful after lunch. Once we started picking the floodgates opened, it was like a signal that this is socially acceptable behaviour and other people joined in, filling pockets and laps with little red plums, some were furtive, some triumphant but it was quite satisfying to see the ripple effect we had.

On the way home we stopped by a small group of hazlenut trees which are miraculously untouched by squirrels, I assume because they're surrounded by roads on all sides. The nuts are ripening already and were falling to the floor, we began picking them up and were soon absorbed in the task. Suddenly we were startled by a voice shouting "What are you scrumping?" I looked up and see a young couple walking towards us, "hazlenuts" explained Adam "Oh great!" said the chap who strode over and began plucking nuts from the tree with gusto.

It was a slightly strange situation as obviously we're in no position to be territorial although I have to admit my gut reaction (which I didn't act upon!) was to say "Bog off! We were here first!" but on the other hand, it's nice to meet people with similar interests and good that perfectly edible nuts aren't going to waste.

Luckily enough they were more interested in the green filberts still on the tree while we concentrated on the riper nuts on the floor and with the squirrels out of the way, there were more than enough to go around.

It's still early in the season so we'll visit again in a week or two and see if any more have fallen. At least nuts keep well so I don't have another batch of jam making to worry about though I do have to figure out where to store them so that they dry out nicely and keep well.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Elderberry Crumble

I totally forgot to take a photo of the crumble before it got snaffled up so I had to quickly catch Willow finishing off the last bit, here's my eldest daughter cheesin' it up for the camera!

I'm afraid I've been a bit rubbish on the weights and measures so I hope you can make sense of my ramblings. I think I put about 10oz elderberries in a pan with about a 1lb of de-stoned plums. I added just a smidge of water plus a pinch of ground cloves and a generous shake of cinnamon together with about a cupful of brown sugar. I simmered this together til the fruit was tender. I'd recommend tasting at this point and adjusting the sugar to taste.

I made a crumble topping consisting of 100g ground nuts, (I used hazlenuts and almonds because that's what I had in the cupboard. The hazlenuts were the magic ingredient, in my humble opinion.) 200g flour and 100g butter, rubbed together then mixed with 100g brown sugar. The crumble was then baked at gm5 for 20 mins or so. We ate it with vanilla ice cream.

I've never had elderberries before and was stunned at how strong the flavour is. By pure accident I think I put the upper limit of what would be acceptable in there, any more would be quite overwhelming but as it was, the crumble was wildly popular in this household.

I still have a huge boxful of elderberries in the kitchen which I'm not sure how I'm going to use up although I have seen a recipe for pear and elderberry jam. Hmmm.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Just a Quick Boast ...

..... about my fabby foraging day!

Yesterday Sophie very kindly let me loose on her plum tree so I now have a small mountain of sweet and delicious plums to process. I'm planning on pickling most of them. Last year I pickled some Japonica Quince and blackberries, at the time I was somewhat disappointed and as a result they've languished, unloved, at the back of the pantry. I dusted them off the other day with the intention of chucking the fruit and re-using the jars but luckily I decided to taste some first. Giving the fruit time to mature has transformed them, it's hard to convey how lovely they are, the Quince have a rich, deep, complex taste, spicy and Christmassy. It's going to be hard convincing people that there's no alcohol in there! The blackberry vinegar is a revelation, I imagine a generous splosh would be nice added to slow cooked shin beef. So pickled plums for next year it is.

Inspired by Hugh Watson on Twitter we picked some elderberries this afternoon with the intention of making apple and elderberry pie at some point over the weekend and then swung by the pear tree we spotted the other day. We nibbled a few by the road, trying to decide if they were ripe or whether they needed a bit more time. We couldn't decide so picked what we thought was a small bowlful for further consideration at home. Highlight of the day was my stunt involving transforming grabby thing into a giant catapult and firing a pear halfway down the field while the kids watched open mouthed.

Back home the 'small bowlful' turned out to be more akin to a bathful so, ummm, pickled pears too I guess. But for the moment I'm putting all fruit out of my mind and concentrating on Warrington Wolves - Come on the Wire!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Chilli Day

Oh the ups and downs of jam making! After the success of the Lavender Jelly I confidently plunged headlong into Chilli Jelly. I found a recipe on a blog I can usually rely on, 600g crab apples, 35g chillis, 1 litre of water. I paused, a litre? Seems like a lot, maybe it tones down the chilli? Dunno, but as it's a trusted source I ploughed on (I seem to have a history of ignoring nagging doubts at my peril) The apples seemed happy bobbing luxuriously in their spacious waterbath which seemed odd as usually the fruit doesn't have enough water to float but hey, let's see what happens ...

It was quite late by the time I potted up the jelly last night so I left it to set, put the pans in to soak and went to bed. I was really quite surprised this morning when I came to label the jelly and discovered it was stone cold but still liquid. Not exactly a major disaster, I just re-boiled it and it has now set, reducing the yield by 1lb in the process, but a pain in the bum none the less.

Normally when making jam/jelly I put just enough water in to stop the fruit catching on the bottom of the pan then add more if I feel it's getting a bit too thick. I guess the problem is the amount of water in the fruit will naturally vary according to ripeness/size so the amount of water can't be dictated exactly. This is where a smidge of experience comes in handy - must remember to trust mine more!

Elsewhere in the Norfolk Kitchen today, I got the 3rd rather wobbly courgette from Rachel's transplaneted plant - hoorah! I also made some fairy cakes with Willow and her friend from school. They were a 5 year old girl's dream, silver cases and pink sparkly sprinkles. I had the bright idea of making lilac icing by squeezing some blackberry juice into the white icing. Can't say I recommend it, it came out a sort of dirty grey/purple colour but experiments built up into experience don't they?

And finally, we decided to dash out after dinner to get some elderberries but were foiled by a sudden, heavy downpour. From a chilli day to a chilly day - Autumn's just around the corner I fear.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Lavender Jelly

At last, my experimental Lavender Jelly is made. I first tried it in The White Apron while on holiday up north. It was served with cheese and oaty biscuits - the texture of the biscuits is important I think. I enjoyed it so much I decided to have a go at copying it and this is what I came up with.

2 kilos crab apples (rosy red ones give a nice colour)
25g dried lavender
sugar (see recipe for amount)

Put the apples in a pan and barely cover with water. Simmer til the fruit has completely collapsed, adding more water if necessary. Strain through a jelly bag but add the lavender to the receptacle it's draining into so that the flowers steep in the apple juice. Leave overnight.

Next day, strain the lavender out of the apple juice. I used a colander lined with a muslin cloth. If you wish, you could leave some flowers in the juice (the jelly I had in the restaurant was studded with flowers) but I wasn't confident in my ability to make sure the flowers were evenly distributed through the jelly rather than floating at the top of the jar.

Measure the juice and add 1lb sugar to every pint. Bring to the boil til setting point is reached and pot in the usual way.

As you would expect, this jelly has a delicate, perfumed flavour and a beautiful colour. The perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea I feel, it's crying out for scones, clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Poor Neglected Veggies

As you may have noticed I've been mega busy on the jam making front this year. We've been so busy foraging fruit I feel I've been neglecting the veg both on here and in the garden.

The Grand Radish Project of 2009 has turned into the Great Radish Massacre of 2009 thanks to the sodding caterpillars. They stripped all the leaves then started on the stalks and finally the actual radishes, the guttering is in a sorry state indeed.

Everything else is motoring along nicely, I can't keep up with all the salad we have, the tumbling toms have just about finished as the main tomatoes are ripening up, the borlotti and french beans are forming, swiss chard doing great and the butternut squash is merrily throwing out flowers.

The Jerusalem artichokes have turned into thundering great behemoths of the garden and have had to be lassoed to the fence in order to maintain pedestrian access across the lawn. They are easily about 8' tall and have totally crowded out one basket of strawberries, 2 pots of lollo rosso, the chives and the mint. I'm hoping and praying we get the allotment so I can transfer them over there and free up much needed space at home.

I have to admit that at the moment I'm slightly worried about the allotment. I'm struggling to keep up with all the wild fruit and I'm doubtful I would have the time to maintain an allotment on top of that. But, on the other hand, the fruit only lasts a few weeks of the year, if I'm careful in choosing varieties/harvest times I could plan around the fruit season - couldn't I? (waiver)

Anyway, still not heard from the Parish Council so this debate could all be academic. Though if I don't get an allotment this blog will be awfully quiet come January ......

Monday, 24 August 2009

Foraging Etiquette.

It's a minefield! I've been tying myself up in knots about it of late.

I think it's fairly obvious that most foragers keep the location of treasured finds to themselves. There's always the risk that if you tell one person, they tell one more, who tells one more and before you know it the tree is stripped bare. It's always a bit of a heartsink when you arrive at a favourite tree and spy trampled nettles around the base, you can be sure that all the ripe fruit at person height will have gone.

Then there's the issue of how much to take. A treeful of anything is way more than any household could reasonably claim to 'need' and as these trees are wild and not owned (as a crop) by anyone I feel morally obliged to leave some fruit for future foragers but at the same time it's such a shame to see fruit go to waste.

I have to admit Adam and I stripped the cherry plums and yellow bullace pretty ruthlessly but, in our defence, they were rotting off the tree and lying in great piles in the road so it was pretty clear no-one else was interested in them. The grabby thing gives us an advantage too. I spotted a lone damson shrub while I was out running, but by the time I went to pick some the tree had the characteristic ring of trampled nettles and was stripped bare to about 6' but trusty grabby thing meant I still got a small bagful from the uppermost branches.

On the damson front, Rachel well and truly saved the day (again!) Until I spotted that lone shrub this year, I hadn't found any damsons locally. Despite hearing various people casually drop damson jam and gin into conversation, I always restrained myself from asking outright where they picked from as I feared breaking the 'forager's code' on locations (see above) and if I'm brutally honest I'd hate to be asked outright where my favourite stuff grows. But I finally threw caution to the wind and asked on Facebook if anyone knew where the 'damson groves of Diss' were located. Rachel was the only person to step out of the shadows and told me about a hedgerow full of damsons which is on private land but she had permission to pick some fruit.

I still felt terribly guilty while I was picking them, waiting for a heavy hand on my shoulder at any moment to challenge my presence - I had my garbled story all worked out "It's ok mister, my mate said it was ok, honest" and if all else failed, I'd resort to bribery with damson jam! I was careful not to take too much, mindful that both Rachel and the hedge's owners would want their 'cut' too, though to be fair, there were flippin' tons of them, can't imagine anyone going short this year.

Anyway, I have a plan to assuage my guilt somewhat. (s'cuse me while I turn up the collar on my trenchcoat and tip my fedora over my eyes) Rachel, if you're reading and you like membrillo, drop me a line, I have some information that could be very useful to you ......

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It sounded so idyllic in my head .....

Willow had one of her friends over to play today. My plan was to take them to Wortham Ling and get them to help me pick a load of apples and plums after which we'd have a picnic, mooch round the pond, look for caterpillars etc.

As I'm piling the kids and supplies into the car, the thunder starts to crack like the portent of doom I should've taken it for. Still I press on, hoping that we'll be lucky and the clouds will pass overhead. About 3 minutes later the rain is bouncing down so hard I've got the wipers on double speed and the kids think it's hilarious. Still I press on, hoping it's a shower.

Luckily, it is just a shower, so we arrive and pile out of the car laden with carrier bags to take our harvest home with us. I set off down the path which weaves between the waist high grass trilling brightly "Come on you two, this way!" And so the whining commences ....

Apparently the grass is too scratchy, those purple flowers are sharp, there are nettles (there weren't) screaming occurs when we pass thistles (that's 'pass', not 'impale ourselves upon') Stubbornly I press on and we arrive at the fruit trees. I pick a small handful of ripe plums and show them to girls in the hope of enthusing them. The first one I break open contains a fat maggot and many dark grains of maggot poo, as does the second, and the third - in fact every single ripe plum is infested.

At this point I look at two small and thoroughly appalled faces, encased in kagouls and hear the faint rumble of distant thunder. My shoulders droop. "Who wants to go home and watch Cbeebies?!". Cheers all round.

So while the kids were carefully trashing the house I made a second batch of courgette pickle and some spiced damson jam which is, even if I say so myself, divine.

Spiced Damson Jam.

2 kilos damsons
2 kilos sugar
generous pinch each ground cloves and cinnamon.

Put the damsons in a pan with water about 2cm deep. Simmer til the flesh comes away from the stones, fish out the stones (I put mine in a sieve and rub them around to remove any juice/flesh) Add the sugar and the spices, boil til setting point is reached and pot up as normal.

Yummy scrummy.

By the way, the photo is a pub called the Cock on Fayre Green. There's a park opposite where we stopped on the way home and this made me laugh.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Spot the Difference?

Pop Quiz - what have I picked?? On the left are some damsons I picked a few days ago, they're very ripe and sweet and a deep purple colour. At the bottom are a few purple bullace I picked. They look almost identical but the taste couldn't be more different. It's beyond sharp, I would defy anyone to taste these without a major physical reaction including face scrunching, foot stamping and immediate demands for water as they seem to leech every drop of moisture from your mouth.

The fruit on the top right now look the same as the others but when I saw them on the hedge they were bright blue, covered in a pale blue bloom which makes them look like giant sloes. When tasted they were sharper than the first damsons I picked but not in the same league as the bullace so they're obviously just slightly less ripe than the first batch.

Now, shall I throw sloes into the confusion? Some purple bullace are quite small and very easily confused with sloes (see the excellent site for a more detailed discussion) but there is a foolproof way to tell the difference. Sloes grow on the Blackthorn tree, the clue's in the name, if you can pick them without getting scratched they're bullace, if your flesh is ripped to shreds on vicious thorns, they're sloes.

It can be really tricky to identify wild plums as many of them are inter-related. According to Richard Mabey's seminal work 'Food for Free' damsons were bred from bullace so the two fruits can be indistinguishable. While I'm on the subject of Richard Mabey, he lives near Diss, I saw him in our Morrisons once. Felt inexplicably cheated, shouldn't he be out foraging ducks off the Waveney or something? His book also ignores Cherry plums and yellow bullace (far sweeter than the purple kind) and I really don't know why.

To muddy the waters further, there are cultivated varieties of plums which escape from gardens. I know where a wild plum tree grows whose fruit is delicious but I haven't got a clue what type they are. They're larger than damsons but don't have their characteristic blue bloom and aren't as large as something like a Victoria plum so goodness knows what they are.

Which begs the ultimate question - if they taste good, does it matter?

Edit - I'm just updating this post with a couple of extra pointers in distinguishing sloes and purples bullace. I'm noticing bullace are ripening much earlier than sloes, I'm writing this edit at the beginning of September and bullace are dropping from the trees and even beginning to wither already. Sloes traditionally aren't ripe til after the first frost.

Also, I've noticed insects burrowing into bullace whereas this doesn't really happen with sloes as they're not sweet enough. Tell tale signs of maggots include crystalised drops of juice (if you look closely enough you'll see it comes from a tiny hole) and little piles of tiny brown grains (maggot poo - ugh) on the outside of the fruit.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Courgette Pickle

By which, I don't mean the pickle my courgettes in the garden are in, more courgettes in a literal jar of vinegar! This recipe comes from a little booklet I bought from a WI Market called "Jams and Preserves Old and New", published by Norfolk WI. I've amended it slightly in that the original used volume measurements rather than weight so I've converted it and adjusted the seasoning ever so slightly.

Courgette Pickle.

Approx 1.4 kg courgettes, thinly sliced
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, de-seeded and thinly sliced
2oz salt
16fl oz red wine vinegar
1lb sugar
2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp turmeric
2 or 3 tsp mustard seed

Layer the vegetables and salt, cover with cold water and leave for 2hrs.
Drain and rinse the veg.
Bring the vinegar, sugar and spices to the boil, add the veg, remove from the heat and leave for 2hrs.
Bring back to the boil and cook for 5 mins. Spoon into hot jars and seal with non reactive lids.

It's hard to say exactly what the yield is (original recipe doesn't give one) as my odd ball collection of recycled jars has hugely varying sizes but I'd guess about 5lbs.

The recipe says it's ready after 2 days, I've tasted a little just now and it gorgeous already. Got a burger relish kind of taste to it. I've still got some courgettes left so may make another batch!

Oh, and one major drawback of a kitchen full of fruit and sugar - wasps! They won't leave us alone!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Yellow Bullace Jam.

Just look at the colour, isn't it magnificent? That's something of a relief as the fruit looked suspiciously dark once it had defrosted. It's got a very sharp, tangy flavour which I really like in a jam and also makes it useful from a culinary point of view. Warmed and mixed with a bit of white wine vinegar, garlic and chilli it would make a lovely, Chinese style, pouring sauce for tuna or pork.

Anyhoo, the recipe:

2 kilos yellow bullace
2.5 kilos sugar

Put the bullace (with stones) into a large pan and add some water to stop them sticking. As my fruit were frozen they gave out their juice readily and didn't need much water, if you're using fresh, keep a close eye at this stage, adding more if needed to keep the fruit at a runny consistency.

When the fruit has collapsed, take the pan off the heat and skim off the stones. I used a slotted spoon, put the stones into a sieve and rubbed them around the sieve to release any juice or flesh still clinging to them.

Add the sugar and stir til dissolved, then boil steadily til setting point is reached. Spoon into hot jars and seal. Makes about 10 jars.

Look at my Radishes!

*Sob* While we were away the caterpillars were obviously at play, all the mizuna has gone the same way too. The radishes themselves seem to be fine and are very much still edible though so it could be worse and they seem to be the only casualty of our holiday.

The tumbling toms were all very ripe so I harvested the lot this morning and we had them on toast for breakfast and the larger, main crop toms in the mini greenhouse are beginning to ripen. I have a few borlotti beans hiding in the human shrub alike which the bean frame has turned into. The butternut squash is bigger than even and has a couple of buds on it, swiss chard is ginormous and the salad and basil have gone crazy.

I think the courgette needs to be put out of it's misery though, it seems to have had some sort of vegetal breakdown. It's making a lot of baby courgettes, sending out new 'crowns' all over the shop but none are actually maturing, they're not getting more than about 5cm long before they wither and rot. Still, Rachel has brought round a large bag of courgettes to compensate so I'm going to be busy making courgette pickle this weekend, along with yellow bullace jam and a blackberry cake I've had an idea for. Busy, busy, busy.

Friday, 14 August 2009

I'm back!

Had a fab holiday oop north, it was lovely to catch up with lots of family and old friends. We spent some time with my parents, some in The Waverley Hotel, Llandudno and some in Arbor Low B&B near Bakewell. Both were fantastic and highly recommended.

Being the foraging family that we are we were constantly on the look out for hedgerow fruit and comparing it to our supplies back home. In Warrington we found a surprisingly wide range of fruit including cherries, sloes, cherry plums, yellow bullace and the ubiquitous blackberry. However, the quantities were way down on what we find in Norfolk which isn't surprising considering we have more farmland/hedgerows here.

We didn't find much in Llandudno but then we didn't really get out of town, however, we did spot some dewberries in an overgrown hedge behind our hotel.

We pinned all our foraging hopes on the Peak District but we were actually bitterly disappointed and found absolutely zip. The reason is blindingly obvious once you realise - they don't do hedges in the Peaks, it's all dry stone walls, so nothing but rocks and thistles. Saying that though, the Lake District also goes in for dry stone walls, but in spring Windermere is thick with wild garlic which grows unbidden from the walls themselves, in grass verges, around bus stops etc, it's unstoppable.

We arrived back in Norfolk at lunchtime, by 4.30pm the apple bowl was full of wildings and a kilo of blackberries nestled in the fridge. We stopped on the A143 to pick the apples on the way home to take advantage of our favourite apple tree and we found we couldn't sit in the house for longer than 30 minutes before we got twitchy so took ourselves off to Wortham Ling for the mixed pleasure of blackberry picking. Blackberries are delicious but I always shed blood in pursuit of them.

Tomorrow, jam making beckons, I've got the bullace we picked before our holiday out of the freezer. I think it's practically legally enforceable that I make some sort of apple and blackberry pudding then the rest of the blackberries will go into the freezer where I'll build up my supply over the next week or so before having a marathon bramble jelly/blackberry cordial session.

Happy days - it's good to be home!