Thursday, November 22, 2007

Medlar magic

Have you tried medlars? I see them fairly frequently, but usually they're rock hard and inedible. That's because the medlar needs bletting before you can eat it - 'bletting' is a posh-sounding term that means rotting. You can't hurry this process, in fact it's not worth collecting medlars until early November. By then, the fruits have started to fall, collect them up and leave for a week or so in a box or bag somewhere not too warm. When you can squish one easily, they're ready to eat. Fear not; the bletted medlar may look a little manky and fit only for the compost bin, but its softened flesh is gently sweet: reminiscent I think of toffee apples, it definitely has potential for exploring in the kitchen.
This evening I processed 2 carrier bags of squidgy medlars... and spent ages researching recipes on line. I didn't do any of the ones I liked the sound of, being a bit pooped from this afternoon's leaf clearance in the garden, short on various ingredients and frankly ready for a glass of wine and a sit down.
But I found some double cream at the back of the fridge, plus some molasses sugar and mixed these up with a few dollops of medlar pulp: thereby proving to myself that sometimes the old traditional recipes perhaps become traditional because they're simple and excellent. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel like trying some more complex recipes with this rather underrated little fruit.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Seeds of Change Big Barn Newsletter 24th September

As the year continues into Autumn with shorter days and crisp mornings, we foragers are busier than ever! on my travels in the last week or so I've been gathering nuts and berries and the odd mushroom, although -I hardly dare write this after such a wash-out Summer- a little overnight rain would do wonders for fungi opportunities! It's a tough trick to manage the abundance of an Autumn harvest and still have the time and energy to process it, which reminds me of the golden rule of sustainable foraging is to never pick more than you can use. Fortunately elderberries, blackberries, and sloes all freeze beautifully, either au naturel or cooked and pulped.
In the garden where I grew up there was a big hazel bush that was always covered in nuts. Each summer we waited for them to swell and the shells to turn golden brown, eagerly anticipating a nutty feast. But every August, from the kitchen window, we watched the hazel branches being jiggled and shaken by a troupe of grey squirrels, well before the first nuts had ripened. Despite racing down the garden to chase away those pesky rodents, all we could find were the still green empty husks and broken bits of shell all over the grass. So it was with enormous pleasure that last week, spying a few nuts on the topmost branches of the hazel in my garden, I took a lesson from the squirrel's guide to harvesting and shook the branches.... my reward was a shower of almost ripe nuts...If you can do the same, simply remove the papery casings crack them carefully with your teeth and eat them straight from the shell. The sweet, mealy flavour of a ripening hazel is quite addictive, having something of the taste of a peeled broccoli stem - and if you haven't tried eating one of those, then I promise you're missing out!
Other nut news: beech trees in this part of the UK seem to be promising a good harvest. Wait until they start to fall within the next fortnight or so, then gather the whole unblemished mast (the correct term for nuts fallen and gathered from the ground). In the past I've peeled them by hand which is fiddly and time consuming; this year I'm going to try roasting them in the shell for around 10 minutes at 170C. I suspect that the shells will split and make the job of separating the nut meat much easier.
Now is also the time to start your own wild harvest garden with a spot of seed gathering. Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) and Burdock (Arctium lappa) seeds are all plentiful and scattered on a patch of bare ground, will provide you with your own back yard wild harvest next year. You might also be lucky to find some late ripening field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) seed heads. These plants, as well as being good to eat, will also help to attract beneficial insects into your garden.

A Forager's guide to seed harvesting

  • Shake ripened seed heads into a paper bag, remove any insects and label the bag with the plant name. Store seeds in a cool dry place, or sow them immediately.
  • Don't waste your time collecting under-ripe seed, it won't grow.
  • Be wary of harvesting burdock seeds with bare hands, as the burrs contain numerous fine hairs which will work their way into your skin. Tip the harvested burdock seeds onto a sheet of paper and shake, then very gently blow away the fluff. You can also rinse them through a fine mesh sieve with plenty of running water.
  • Scatter burdock seeds in a sunny location with good moisture- retentive soil for strong plants.
  • Fat hen prefers a rich and fertile soil, ideally with manure added, in full sun or part shade.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Big Barn Newsletter 31 August 2007

Berry Bonanza
If you've been out for a walk in the last week or so, you must have noticed the abundance of ripening fruit: blackberries, sloes, hawthorn and one of my personal favorites, the elderberry. I'm particularly drawn to this hedgerow fruit, partly because they are so abundant, and in case you're wondering if they're ready to pick, the clusters have a considerate habit of drooping downwards when most of the berries are ripe. I also like them because they appeal to my subversive side; last year I overheard a mum telling her son 'Don't pick those, they're poisonous! ' Although a large quantity of raw fruit might cause a tummy upset, the elderberry is one of our native power plants, the berries contain weight for weight, more vitamin C than oranges, vitamin A, plus high levels of the free-radical busting nutrient, beta carotene and potassium, which is essential for a healthy nervous system.
So what can you do with elderberries? Recipes abound on the internet, from country wines and cordials to pickle and desserts. A mixing bowlful of ripe berries is enough for a pint of cordial - which you can use to flavour apple pies and cakes, and to make a hot toddy - one part cordial to around 7 parts hot water, a slice of lemon and a dash of whisky. Mmm, that thought almost makes me look forward to winter!

Elderberry: essential foraging facts
  • Avoid under-ripe green or pale purple berries, pick only the black ones.
  • Choose elderberry heads which are beginning to droop.
  • Process them as soon as you can as the high water content will quickly turn them mushy.
  • The easiest way to remove the berries from the stalks is to rub them gently between finger and thumb - the ripe ones will come away easily, although your fingers will be a scary shade of purple...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Big Barn Newsletter 31 July 2007

I've been writing a foraging column for the email newsletter of, the excellent local food portal website. As I've been a bit busy recently and have been neglecting my blog, I'm going to post the articles here.

Opportunity Knocks!
The heavy rains of the last few months are proving a mixed blessing for foragers... on the one hand, there are plenty of lush greens such as lawn daisy, fat hen, sow thistle and common mallow still around, on the other, edible mushrooms such as puffballs, and fairy ring champignons are definitely not enjoying these wet conditions. Summer fruits such as blackberries and bullace plums, gorged on rain, can be a bit watery and prone to splitting. But foraging is opportunity driven, and my tips this month will help you make the best of what's available.

Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
The showy purple blossoms of this lovely plant continue in profusion. If you look along the flower stems, you might find a few green seeds: peel off the calyx (the green, papery bits below the seed) , they make a pleasant nutty flavoured trail snack. If you have the patience to collect a handful, try roasting them in a tiny bit of olive oil to bring out the sweet nuttiness. I like them as a salad sprinkle or scattered into a sandwich. Young mallow leaves can be given the spinach treatment, washed and cooked gently over a low heat in a little butter. The more adventurous might like to try this recipe for Melokhia, a traditional middle eastern dish full of warm, spicy flavours.

Dewberries (Rubus caesius)
If, like me, you've found plenty of fat but blandly flavoured blackberries, hunt around for the blackberry's smaller cousin, the dewberry. The plant looks like a weedier, less robust blackberry plant and tends to grow lower to the ground. The fruits are just three or four berry segments which are covered in a dense bloom, giving them a bright blue-purple appearance. Despite their small size, they pack a good acidity punch and a small handful will perk up a dish of watery blackberries a treat!

Mallow: Essential foraging facts
  • Choose fully green seeds only, and discard any which are starting to turn brown.
  • Avoid mallow plants infested with rust virus, shown by bright orange spots on the leaves and stems.
  • The older leaves may produce a harmless but slightly slimy result when cooked, simply rinse the cooked leaves in fresh water to remove it if not to your liking.
  • Best quality leaves are the young ones to be found by reaching down into the centre of the plant.
  • Avoid collecting from busy roadsides.
  • Be mindful of the Countryside Code when out foraging.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The chicken day

Funny how things come in threes....

On a wild goose chase today ( excuse the phrasing!) for a free range chicken, I eventually tracked a 'Label Anglais' one down at a butcher's on the other side of town, late on when the traffic was beginning to get nightmarish. So many agressive motorists hogging the kirb side, making life harder for us bikies, grrr! So I took the longer but less traffic clogged way home across the common, and was rewarded by my second 'chicken' , a big clump of chicken-of-the-woods fungus on one of the old riverside willow trees, just above head height! Rich pickings indeed.
At the base of the tree there was my third chicken of the day - a lovely lush patch of young chickweed! I haven't decided what to do with my forage haul yet, I was set on a Thai chicken curry but that was this morning. Humm, time to get a bit of inspiration with a nice cuppa!

Monday, June 25, 2007

What's your most craved dessert?

That's the theme of the June Sugar High Friday challenge, hosted by SHF founder, Jennifer, on her blog, the Domestic Goddess. This one's taken me all month to narrow down.... holy guacamole - so many desserts, so little spare room inside my waistband!
I finally settled on a cheesecake, one of those proper baked ones which are miles easier to do than their flavour would suggest... and I've teamed the basic recipe with some of my haul of wild cherries - another bumper year, possibly thanks to all the late spring rain? My wild ones were perhaps a little smaller and not quite as juicy as canned ones, but hey, they were free, fresh, organic and they tasted fabulous. My twist of originality is to make individual 'cheesecakelets' using a flexible silicon muffin tray. I think paper cake cases would also work, as the cheese mixture in this recipe seems firm enough before cooking. This would make them ideal for a midsummer's picnic: no messy cutting and they can be made in advance and stored for a day or so; add the topping just before serving or packing your picnic. This recipe made 8, although two got eaten before I could photograph them!

Wild Cherry Cheesecakelets

Ingredients - base:

75g plain digestive biscuits, 30g melted butter.
300g plain cream cheese, 1 egg, 30g golden cane cugar, 1 tablespoon plain flour, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.
topping: 300g pitted cherries (that's about 400g whole cherries), 1 tablespoon golden cane sugar, mint leaves.
Method: Preheat the oven to Gas 3/140C, pit the cherries and melt the butter. In a bowl, crush the biscuits to fine crumbs and add the melted butter.Mix until the crumbs are fully coated. Firmly press a small amount of crumb mixture into the bottom of the muffin tray or paper cases if using. Beat the cream cheese with the sugar and vanilla until smooth, then add the egg and flour and beat in until the mixture is firm and creamy. Place a dessertspoonful on top of the crumb base and smooth with the back of the spoon or a palette knife. Bake for around 40 minutes or until the edges turn lightly brown. Allow to cool then put in the fridge to set firm. To make the topping, put the sugar into a pan over a high heat and when it begins to melt and caramelise, add the pitted cherries. Cook for around 4 minutes until they start to release their juice; be careful not to overcook the cherries, or they'll collapse into a pulp. Allow to cool then strain the juice back into the pan and reduce it down over a gentle heat until it becomes thick and syrupy. Take the cheesecakelets out of the fridge about 20 minutes before serving and spoon over the cherry topping. Give the syrup a quick blast in the microwave or over a bain marie if it's set firm, then spoon over the cheesecakes and allow to set. Decorate with a small mint leaf and serve

Sunday, June 10, 2007

On an errand into the depths of East Anglia's Fenland the other day, I came across vast quantities of one of my favourite summer eating greens, fat hen. The grey green leaves were at their absolute peak for picking: young, around 10cm high with very little stem and refreshed from some heavy rain the night before. It didn't take me long to fill a basket! Some for a salad and plenty more for cooking.
It's quite rare for me to find enough of one weed to serve as a single veg: in order to keep my foraging within the bounds of 21st century living ( short on time and living in an over populated country) my strategy is to gather a little of this and a little of that, reducing the distance I need to travel to find my wild food. so tonight's menu is: Fat hen pizza - I'll post the pic later!
Below: young fat hen nestling amongst stinging nettles

Friday, June 01, 2007

I found this yesterday - an online petition to get more fruit and nut trees planted in parks and public spaces. Seems sensible, free fruit with zero air miles, and fruit trees cost the same to maintain as the usual varieties we see in municipal plantings. You need to be a British citizen or resident to sign it.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Magic: mushrooms at last!

It's hard to remember that April was actually pretty pleasant weather wise, we've had so much rain recently. The wet is great when the sun comes out, but foraging can be tough going in heavy downpours. Increasingly, Nature dictates when and where I forage: rain makes low lying plant matter stick together, mushrooms go soggy, flowers droop or shut themselves up tight. My basket after a wet forage contains more than the usual haul of slugs and snails - yeuch. Why bother: the principle of least effort is a good one to follow!
But in between the storms, it's really quite warm and pleasant. Elderflowers continue to come, I notice the first signs of fruit set, next to a spray of green unopened buds, beside another flower head with trembling, creamy yellow pollen showers. 3 litres of cordial to date - the recipe is so simple, I can't resist making another batch!
St Georges mushrooms - traditionally an April treat - are beginning to show themselves. Maybe it's me and I've been too busy, but it seems as if this spring was the pits for wild 'shrooms. Happily, I gathered enough yesterday for breakfast this morning: St Georges on toast with last night's bottifara negra (Spanish black pudding) , Veggies, avert your eyes! :-)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wild and Wet in Norfolk

So I should have known better than to book some quality outdoors time with the other half on a British bank holiday weekend. A walk in the countryside? No, a spot of camping was the order of the weekend.
Camping in a lovely 5 star campsite? Er no, wild camping: wild as in remote, in the woods sans mod cons. And rain. Plenty of it too! Still it was a chance to hang out together in the fresh air - literally, as we use a hammock and tarpaulin system for shelter.
Foraging was a mixed bag; to one side of the woods was a field full of baby lettuce, and a few small fat hen plants. The field margins were full of burdock, dandelion, nettle and dock. All a bit too mature for tender eating, and it's been very dry, so a lot of the plants were looking tough and chewy. They may have been ok in a survival situation, but it was a tad too far out of my comfort zone!
Better news on the other side of the wood, which was sandy heathland dotted with oak, hawthorn and rabbit holes: there was a simply astounding red tinge to the grass, which turned out to be the flowering stems of sheep sorrel- yay! Something good to eat! Further on I found some wild strawberry plants - not yet fruited, but noted for a return visit later on this year. Last but not least, a good quantity of very slippery slippery jacks (suillus luteus) They were delicious fried up with an onion and some wild garlic paste and eaten with slices of bread and butter, as we watched the the tree tops whipping around in the wind and listened to the hiss of raindrops on the fire... time to go home, methinks!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Elderflower Panna Cotta with a Strawberry Coulis

The subtle, indefinable taste of elderflower is a wonderful foil to the luxurious texture and muted flavour of panna cotta. I first came across the panna cotta recipe by Richard Phillips from and have since adapted it to intensify its floral flavours by using elderflower infused sugar: (a doddle to make; follow this link to find out how) The strawberry coulis adds a welcome dimension of acidity without overwhelming the elderflowers. Result: a dessert symphony with haunting descant notes of one of the UK’s most prolific, edible wild flowers… enjoy!

Serves 6 - 8

Preparation time: 25 minutes plus chilling – 4 to 6 hours


250ml fresh milk

250ml double cream

25g granulated elderflower infused sugar

2 large heads fresh elderflowers

1 sachet gelatine

For the coulis

300g fresh, ripe strawberries

3 tablespoons elderflower cordial

Squeeze of lemon juice to taste


In a heavy based saucepan, mix the milk, cream and sugar.

Bring to a gentle simmer then remove from heat.

Shake the elderflowers to remove any insects, then place them, stalk side up, into the hot mixture. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

Remove the flower heads and re-heat gently, do not allow it to boil.

Add the gelatine to 50ml freshly boiled water and whisk well until the gelatine is dissolved.

Add this to milk and cream mixture. Stir briskly until the gelatine solution is fully incorporated, then pour into individual dishes, or a flexible silicon muffin tray.

Place in the fridge until set.

To make the coulis, simply blitz the strawberries and cordial for one minute with a blender.

Adjust the acidity with a little lemon juice to taste.

Pass the coulis through a wire mesh sieve.

Store chilled and bring it back to room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

To serve:

Drizzle the coulis around the panna cotta and garnish with a scattering of fresh elderflower blossoms and a little elderflower sugar if desired before serving.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beech, rain, mushrooms?
In just a couple of wet weeks, the garden has reached jungle proportions... everything is so.... green! The ground squelches most satisfyingly underfoot... Hooray for a bit of wet!

But a week after our return from France, I suddenly noticed the beech trees on my way to work had come into leaf. Delicious silky green foliage- a classic spring moment for me is standing under the canopy of delicate new leaves (ideally in the sunshine for best light effects) munching, basking and foraging: as in: 'one in the bag, one in the mouth, one for the pot, one for me...' lol

Beech leaves have such a short season - they're only edible while soft, and so far, I've only managed to do a couple of things with them... one is beech leaf noyau, a liqueur type of drink and the other - a sandwich made with good bread, a generous slathering of butter, packed with shredded beech leaves and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper. The arterially challenged may prefer olive oil to butter - it tastes just as good!
Mushooms have been dismal so far this year, but I have a good 'shroom feeling in my bones - all this rain plus a bit of sun: we should soon be seeing morels, (see the pic above) fairy ring champignons and St Georges around these parts...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

So, it's end of April and miraculously my wild food experiences have leapt ahead to what I'm usually looking for in May - June.... That's because we're currently holed up in a lovely villa in Grasse France, enjoying 25C weather and a swimming pool.... :-)
This afternoon I went for a walk down the lane, the air was sweet with the scent of jasmine and elderflower... so I hopped over a wall and picked a few (elderflower) heads to fritter.... and made a mental note to do elderflower cordial and champagne when I get home.
Our friends here say it's been a wet and rainy start to Spring, so there's loads of wild greens to feast on.... Poppies... I love them! It's possible to make a scarily red cordial from the flower petals, though the flavour is a bit indistinct. On one of the old cultivation terraces behind the villa I found a big patch of very lush looking poppy plants, the greens make a good veg- I wilted them in pan and added them chopped to some rice and peas.