Food for free is a passion of mine – I never walk the dog without a bag or two in my pocket in which to stash bounty. Whether it’s berries to make into jam, mushrooms for breakfast or nettle tips for soup, it all finds its way home.
It’s a hobby with a long legacy – my grandmother took me to collect cowslips and elderflower to make wine, blackberries to add to apple crumble, windfall plums for jam, and when she died I inherited her recipe book, a cornucopia of the delightful and, it has to said, the gruesome. For example, I’ve never quite had the courage to try her recipe for pig cheeks – the memory of half a pig’s head floating in a bucket in my grandma’s pantry and my sister’s resulting screams are more than enough to put me off!
However, when my husband and I got married we wanted an ‘old fashioned country wedding’, complete with ‘elderflower champagne’ for the guest cup (see below), and so out came Grandma’s little red book. The wedding was on August Bank Holiday Monday, giving us plenty of time to collect baskets and baskets of elderflowers through May and June, and allow it to ferment over the summer.
The weather was so hot, however, that the wine became what is known as ‘lively’ in the trade; it didn’t pour out of the bottles as much as leap, much to my husband-to-be’s increasing anxiety. Eventually he rang the venue, which advised him to bring the bottles in and let them chill down in their walk-in fridges. He reports that he never felt so worried in his life as he did driving 70 bottles of volatile home-made ‘elderflower champagne’ over road bumps through the middle of town in our convertible Triumph Herald – he was worried that he’d get arrested if one exploded!
Luckily all was well – on the day the corks flew over the nearby 10 foot hedge as soon as they were opened while the wine itself behaved perfectly and stayed in the bottle until it was poured, much to the delight of the guests, who couldn’t believe it was barely 1% alcohol, such was the bonhomie of the atmosphere. Magical stuff.
Our daughters seem to have inherited, or perhaps just acquired, our liking for nature’s free treats – top of their summer weekend activities is crayfishing in the local (very clean) river. The ones that they are after are the large imported American crayfish, which are a pest, so the children are actually doing the environment a favour, as well as well as catching dinner. With bacon on the end of a weighted string, up to a couple of dozen of these beauties can be pulled out in a couple of hours with patience – some are no bigger than a robust tiger prawn, but others are as big as young lobster and just as ferocious! Best plunged in to a pan of boiling water or barbequed, and served warm with mayonnaise dip.
Spring and summer also bring free wild ratatouille ingredients, such as young dandelion leaves, nettle tips, deadnettle shoots, broom buds, and hawthorn buds (the fan shapes are so pretty). Many of these can also be eaten raw in a salad, especially tasty when mixed with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, clover and marigold petals.
Elderflowers are delicious in fritters (use the lightest of tempura batter) served with vanilla ice cream, while my children enjoy crystallising other edible flowers, such as violets (wonderful on white chocolate mousse), rose buds and petals, lilacs, apple blossom, and primroses, to add to the top of cakes and puddings, give away as gifts in fairy-sized boxes – or to just eat in one decadent picnic in the sunshine! We are blessed with a large rose garden and I use the deepest red rose petals to make a sumptious confiture de petal de rose recipe given to me by a French relative (see below).
But of all the seasons, autumn has got to be top of the list in sheer choice and abundance. Blackberrying is, of course, the staple activity, and tends to turn into a social gathering, with assorted uncles, aunts, friends and godmothers thrown in for good measure.
I still make Grandma’s apple and blackberry cake as a first choice, but over the years we have perfected our blackberry wine, discovered that pickled blackberries are delicious with Cheddar, and blackberry vodka a lovely (and very pretty) addition to the Christmas drink’s cabinet or gift boxes for special friends. I also sometimes mix blackberries with Japonica quince gathered from the bush at my parent’s house if it has a good year – it makes a glorious jelly with an exquisite perfume, simply moreish on hot buttered wholemeal toast.
We are lucky in that we are usually given a brace of pheasants each week during the season, and blackberry syrup is a wonderful accompaniment to the roasted bird, although rowan jelly is a nice alternative. The rowan tree is often the first to bear fruit in the autumn and is surprisingly common in towns as well as hedgerows – its clusters of orange berries can be skimmed off with a fork in the same way that you would tackle elderberries. The jelly is jewel red and quite sharp – perfect with rich meat or cheese of any sort.
Crab apple also makes a lovely jelly, especially as a Christmas gift when spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, while hedgerow jelly makes the best of any wild fruit you can find, including blackberries, hawthorns, bullaces (wild plums) crab apples, hips, and sloes.
Squashes are not always free but are usually available in such abundance that it feels criminal not to do something with them, especially after making Hallowe’en lanterns when all that pumpkin puree is on the verge of being thrown away. My favourites here are pumpkin pie, made the American way and served with ice cream – people have been known to write from the other side of the world for my recipe – and pumpkin preserve, which is so pretty it seems almost criminal to eat it.
Chutneys are the other great harvest time bounty, and the choice can be almost overwhelming between what you can gather from free in the hedgerows and the surplus you will receive from neighbours and friends. One of our favourites is Irish Whiskey marrow chutney, a great way of using the ‘ones that got away’ in the courgette patch and apple orchard and, as it says on the label, mixed with a little Irish whiskey so it’s a great keeper that matures to a rich mellow finish perfect with cheese on Boxing Day.
Later in the autumn the nuts start to ripen, and we collect hazel nuts and sweet chestnuts when we walk home after school just as the dusk gathers in. Mostly these get eaten straight from the shell or husk, or roasted on the fire, but surplus might find its way into crunchy harvest butter made with wild plums or apples, later to be added to pies and tarts throughout the winter, and served with thick custard or crème fraiche.
And finally we come to mushrooms, an early morning treat these, gathered while walking the dog in the morning mist. My grandfather would put a bucket over favoured areas where horse mushrooms grew – he believed it made them grow sweeter and larger. They are certainly delicious fried straight up with bacon for a proper breakfast, as are spotted ink caps, which must be used almost immediately they are gathered (and obviously it’s important to know your mushrooms before you pick them).
Food for free is nature’s bounty, despite parts of our countryside having become so sterile and chemically-overloaded as a result of intensive farming and rationalisation – and it hardly needs saying to avoid areas of high pollution and chemicals when you are gathering your harvest. But with care you can still find a huge amount of food for free still thriving in the hedgerows, along abandoned railway cuttings and beside canals, and let’s face it, it only adds to the pleasure of the table to know that what you are about to eat didn’t have to be bought or grown.
Based on a kilo of petals (adjust as necessary)
• Non-chemically treated red rose petals – for preference use ones that are just about to drop as they are softer
• Place petals in the preserving pan
• Add a small amount of water – for a kilo for petals, use 300ml of water
Pectin sugar to your taste
• Bring to the boil for 7 minutes so they form a setting consistency, and then bottle in sterilised jars.
1 gallon cold water
1 ½ lb sugar
7 heads of elderflowers – make sure they are the really fragrant ones; some smell a little of cats, which isn’t nice. They are also better at the end of a hot sunny day.
2 lemons, sliced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• Bring the water to the boil and pour over the sugar; when cold add the flowerheads, lemon slices and the white wine vinegar.
• Cover and leave to stand 24 hours.
• Syphon off and bottle, using strong bottles (ideally champagne bottles).
• Cork well as this wine is very fizzy, hence its name.
• Drink young, ideally within 6 months.
© Claire Burdett. First published in Woman’s World, January 2010.