It’s hard to think of something more satisfying than foraging for wild food and turning it into something delicious.
Since I was a young girl, I have always loved foraging in the woods and hedgerows as summer slips silently away and autumn creeps in. Early autumn is probably the best time for foraging when there are lots of wild offerings to choose from, with berries, nuts and fungi of all types in abundance.
This year, in August, I had an early bonus whilst walking in the French Alps when the wonderful small purple-black myrtille (bilberry) called out to me. The myrtille grows on high ground and is the fruit of low-lying shrubs with dark green leaves and is ready for picking from early August through to September. Within hours, my small haul of myrtilles had been transformed into ice cream, a compote to serve with panna cotta, and a rich fruity sauce for my filet de canard. A word of warning though: all foraged wild food should be washed throughly, and in particular low growing food, such as the myrtille, because of the increased risk of contamination by the fox tapeworm. It is estimated that up to 10% of foxes are affected in the Alps, so anything growing low to the ground is a potential infection source.
Following a booty of blackberries in early September, come the end of September it was time to seek out my favourite autumn berry, the sloe. The sloe is the fruit of the Blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa), the common name deriving from the thorny nature of the bush. The white flowers that appear on short stalks before the leaves, around March and April, eventually develop into beautiful blue-black berries. Cold and wet weather caused a disastrous sloe harvest in 2016, but 2017 looks to be a bumper year and in my neck of the wood they are now ripe and ready to pick, which is a little earlier than usual. The berries contain small stones and are very astringent and should not be eaten raw, but they come into their own when marinated with gin and sugar to make a delicious winter liquor – Sloe Gin.
Traditionally, the picked sloes would be picked after the first frost or pricked with a thorn from the same bush (or so they say!), in order to release the juices. However, this can more easily be done by freezing the sloes before mixing them with gin and sugar in a sterilised bottle or jar. The sloe gin should then be left for around 3 months, shaking the jar occasionally until the sugar has all dissolved. Come December, it is ready for decanting and drinking, a perfect warming drink on a cold winter’s evening.
With my sloe gin now on the way, I used the last of my berries to make sloe and quince jelly. The quince were given to me by a friend who has a heavily laden quince tree in her garden – 2017 seems to be a good year for fruit trees as well, as she also gave me a large number of apples which have been converted into various tarts, pies and compotes.
Foraging allows people to reconnect with both food and the environment, but there are of course some rules to follow. Foragers have the responsibility of being environmental stewards and to respect nature whilst enjoying the fruits of the forest. Whilst Common law allows foraging for personal use (not for commercial gain), you should only pick what you will use and it is essential that you leave plenty for others to enjoy, in particular the wildlife. It can get a little more complicated if there are local by-laws in place which prohibits foraging, though normally there should be a notice displayed so be alert for this.
It is also essential to be sure you know what you are picking!
700g of sloes
150ml sugar (you can add more or less, according to your taste)
Put ingredients in a sterilised jar or bottle.
Shake every other day or so until the sugar has dissolved.
Put in a dark cupboard for around 3 months.
Decant and drink!
Sloe and Quince Jelly
Use approximately 500g sloes and 800g of quince or apples (chop into pieces, but you can leave on skin, core and all). Add just enough water to cover the fruit, bring to the boil, and simmer until the fruit is soft. Leave to cool.
Strain the pulp through a scalded jelly bag or fine muslin into a suitable container. You shouldn’t squeeze the bag to hurry it up or you will have cloudy jelly, so leave it to dribble through overnight.
The next day, measure the juice and add 400g of sugar per 500ml of juice. You can either use jam sugar which has added pectin, or add the juice of one lemon, to help the jelly set. Stir it over a medium heat until it comes to the boil, and skim off any scum.
Boil the liquid until it reaches setting point (approx 10 minutes – you can use a sugar thermometer for this, or just keep checking it with a plate from
freezer), then ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal.
This jelly goes way beyond serving with toast and you can serve it with cheese, cold and hot meats, and also in gravies and sauces.