Category Archives: Foraging

Abergavenny Food Festival day two (From Indiana Jones to James Bond)

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Abandoned 18th Century Ironworks at Clydach Gorge, the site of our forage eexpedition

Day two of the Abergavenny Food Festival dawned and I decided to escape the bustle of town for a while. The weather was beautiful and the lure of a forage tour entitled Forgotten Landscapes drew me in. Much as I love town/city life I guess I’m a country girl at heart and I keenly grasped the opportunity to explore around Abergavenny, something I’ve not had the opportunity to do, despite working at the Green Man Festival for the last three years.

The tour was led by hedgerow guru Adele Nozedar, author of The Hedgerow Handbook and enthusiastic exponent of getting outside to collect wild food!  It turned out to be the perfect start to the day, a hill walk to get the circulation going, with stunning views to waken and  enthuse the senses, combined with words of plant wisdom from Adele.

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Adele telling us all about Ash keys

I think of myself as a pretty avid forager. I pick a variety of seasonal fruit from the hedgerows; sloes, blackberries, elder flowers and berries, rosehips, ramsons and sorrel. Occasionally I manage to grab crab apples when they have a good season. Adele on the other hand knows the secrets of more than just the most popular plants. As we ambled up hill she regularly cried “STOP!” and drew our attention to plants like coltsfoot, plantain, horsetail, ground elder, and hedge woundwort. Who knew that woundwort stems the flow of blood so efficiently? A few leaves applied to a cut and hey presto! bleeding stops. She is a goldmine of useful information on plant history and folk tales and has an extensive knowledge of medicinal as well as culinary herbs. Inspired, I picked up her book, which I know will prove a very valuable addition to this forager’s library. It’s easy to get stuck in a groove cooking the same foods and making the same things so I’m looking forward to trying out some of the recipes in the book.

Watching Adele in action reminded me of a friend of mine, Jules Cooper from the Incredible Edible Hedgerow project who has the same enthused approach to explaining nature and loves sharing her knowledge. I secretly wondered what it would be like to throw the pair of them together, and then sit back and listen to the conversation.

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The view from the top (above) and pointing out ancient trees (below)

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We had such a lovely day we ran over time, so it was a brisk walk downhill to our coach with just enough time for a bit of tasting. Adele gave everyone two sweets, having us guess what ingredients she’d used. The flavours of the first were an easy guess for me – jellies made from a distinctive mix of elderberry syrup and elderflower syrup. She’d already given the game away as earlier she told me she’d get me liking elderberry (which I find quite harsh normally). The second was a creamy centred chocolate. Adele informed me no one had ever guessed the secret ingredient. The centre had a caramel taste, but not sweet and sugary. She gave me a clue that it was a common plant found in the garden. I had a feeling I knew what it was. Is it a weed? Has it got a yellow flower? Is it Dandelion? It was, but not the flower. I was very pleased with myself for getting it right. Something in the back of my mind reminded me that dandelion root is often used in coffee substitutes, as it has a caramel taste when roasted.

Back in Abergavenny time was short. I missed lunch, did a quick bit of shopping for gifts to take home and headed off to The Borough Theatre for a talk/tasting with Xanthe Clay and William Chase (the man behind Chase Vodka and Tyrells crisps), entitled The Spirit of Enterprise. I love to listen to stories of succesful entrepreneurship. Triumph over adversity where you start with nothing but an idea, and then building, creating, facing defeat, riding the hard times and finally making something work. They are the stories that drive us new entrepreneurs with small or growing businesses. They inspire and motivate and tell us that nothing is impossible with a bit of hard work and commitment.

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Will Chase farmed potatoes for years. He didn’t shy away from talking about bankruptcy and starting over. His father made him buy the farm, no inheritance for Will, and I guess that taught him that nothing comes for free. He sold potatoes as a commodity but it didn’t work out and didn’t inspire him. Then came what he calls his “eureka” moment. He saw the potential for his potatoes not as a commodity but what they could become. This was the moment he came up with the idea to turn them into crisps and in 2002 he formed Tyrrells.

With Tyrrells growing fast Will went looking at other avenues. In 2004 while travelling the States he stumbled across a small distillery that made potato vodka. A seed was planted. Will returned home, had a think and the idea matured and grew until he decided that vodka making would be a lot more fun! Production started and it soon transpired that you actually need a lot of crop to produce a small amount of vodka  (16 tonnes of potatoes made only 1000 litres of alcohol!). Disheartened initially, he soon realised that this produced a higher quality product than the other mass-produced vodka on the market.This heralded the birth of Chase Vodka

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While we listened to Xanthe and Will we were treated to arse-kicking cocktail tasters mixed by bar manager Dominic Jacobs and served by the exceptionally glamorous mixettes, dressed head to toe in beautiful vintage outfits provided by a local shop. For a few minutes I sat musing over the contrasting experiences of the day, like stepping from an Indiana Jones movie set to full on James Bond. As I sipped dry Martini and rhubarb and ginger gin I rued the decision to skip lunch, the slightly glazed expression I wore as I left the theatre testament to an empty stomach.

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Filed under British food, Food festival, Foraging, local produce, photography, seasonal food

Elderflower Presse: recipe

I’ve often listened to my mother regale guests with the story of my elderflower ‘champagne’.  I took them a bottle as a gift on one of my regular trips to London, and although I gave my aging parents strict instructions to unscrew the top slightly every now and again if they weren’t going to drink it immediately they failed to pay heed to my warning.  One day, long after I’d given it to them they discovered the bottle tucked in the back of the cupboard. They decided it was time to give it a try. My father oblivious to the impending danger he was placing himself in unscrewed the cap enthusiastically, swiftly and dramatically the bottle exploded. A highly pressured spray of elderflower champagne shot from the spout covering the walls, ceiling, cupboards, floor and him. He stepped back in shock, dripping from head to foot as the bottle, so full of long contained gas, spun like a dervish on the work surface spraying its contents on to every available surface including the mirror on the opposite side of the room.

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Pretty elder flowers

A less hazardous alternative to champagne is elderflower cordial. It’s one of those things I imagine they made back in the middle ages seeing as the plant has featured in legend and folklore since the early days of Christianity. Text refers to it as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot allegedly hung himself from an elder tree after betraying Jesus, and seen as a symbol of sorrow.

In Scandinavian folklore the elder has more magical connections with goddesses and spirits believed to inhabit its branches, while in Anglo-Saxon stories it’s described as a blessed and protected plant. The belief being that anyone who damages an elder would be cursed, and the only just cause for cutting one down or taking a part of it, was as a cure or to make a protective charm. In this case the dryads, protective spirits of the tree, would be entreated on bended knee and with bowed head, with a request, reciting the words  “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” (Trogillus Arnkiel, a 17th century Germanic religious scholar, quoted in Grieve’s Modern Herbal)

Elder flowers have a firmly established place in the repertoire of herbal medicine; often used to treat inflammatory disorders, congestive conditions of the respiratory system especially when accompanied by fever, coughs, colds, flu, asthma and hay fever. The diaphoretic action helping to reduce fever and so ease the symptoms of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. The flowers, were also  added to a bath to soothe irritable nerves and itchy skin,  a tincture of them used as an eyewash for sore eyes, while a poultice made from the flowers could soothe ear ache.

These days the most common reason for collecting elderflowers is to make cordial. It’s sad that there’s such a short window of opportunity to do this. I always plan to get out picking in good time, but as usual life and work conspires against me and before I know it the end of the season is approaching, and I just have enough time to rush out and collect what I can before the sun scorches the remaining blooms to a grubby mucky brown. It’s not as if collecting them is an onerous job around here. Just a short walk around the block rewards with views most dream of, and usually yields more produce than one can cope with. In a half mile stretch of hedgerow and woods I can collect elder flowers (followed by elderberries),  blackberries, sloes, cob nuts plus assorted wild herbs and plants (sorrel, pennywort….the list goes on).

It’s funny how my kids love elderflower drinks but can’t stand the smell of the flowers. Aroma of ‘cats piss’ as the teen describes them, but still they are always happy to have freshly made cordial, which if I don’t hide it away disappears in a flash. This time I used my foraged flowers to make elderflower presse, rather than the slightly more explosive champagne and in addition to some cordial. A presse makes a refreshing drink, with less sugar than the cordial. I use limes instead of lemons, or as on this occasion a mixture of the two which produces a lovely citrussy drink for a hot summers day.

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A walk through the woods to find elder flowers

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bingo! Found a good tree full

I love the folklore and recurring theme’s of protection, mystery, witch craft, healing and superstition that run through every account of the elder in nature, but I guess the real message as I sit in the sun sipping my elderflower presse, is to treat the elder with respect and nature will give back in kind. This is a message that translates to all nature really and is important for us to remember now, at a time when so much of our natural resources are taken for granted, ignored and destroyed (do I sound like a bit of a hippy? Well, I don’t care, its true!)

Elderflower Presse:

about 8 large elderflower heads

8 litres water

2 and a half pounds / 1.2 k sugar

4 lemons

2 limes

4 tablespoons of mild white wine vinegar

You will need a big bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a fine sieve or large piece of muslin.

Dissolve the sugar in boiling water. Leave to cool then add the elder flowers, the juice of 2 lemons, 1 lime and then slice the others up and add along with the vinegar. Cover the bucket with the lid or with a cloth and leave for a day or two. Strain through a fine sieve or piece of muslin and store in screw top bottles. Leave for at least two weeks (but drink within a month or so).

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flowers and lemons steeping in a big bucket

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Filed under British food, Food activities for kids, Foraging, home cooking, Recipes, seasonal food

A quick lobster starter

Some girls other halves bring them flowers, others bring chocolate, jewellery, wine, underwear….mine, what does he bring home to woo me? A lobster which he’d named Vinny.

Thanks babe.

Actually, it does sort of impress me, in a weird kind of way. The fact that in true hunter-gatherer style he wrestled it from the sea with a rod and line, while other fishermen looked on open-mouthed in a style reminiscent of the MAN V SEAL escapade in Ireland (see earlier post)…this time MAN V CRUSTACEAN.  He brought it home, claws taped and still alive.

The kids had a field day with it. Opening and closing the fridge every five minutes, insisting it be ‘saved’ and returned to water only to almost kill it by putting it in a bowl of unsalted water. A narrowly escaped disaster as this would have been the height of cruelty, plus from a chefs point of view lobsters really should not be consumed after they have died, particularly if you want to retain their flavour.  So, Vinny the lobster sat in the fridge for a day until the other half and I decided it was time for our lobster supper.

The problem is I have a thing about lobsters. I love the taste of them but after a close encounter with a large bucketful while working in a restaurant as a teenager and later watching them boiled alive I just can’t bring myself to eat them (or certainly not deal with a live one anyway). Watching poor Vinny wave his dopey tentacles around the fridge made me realise that I still have a thing and so when that pot of water came to the boil and it was time to throw Vinny in I couldn’t do it.

I had to find a kinder way to avoid further trauma. There are now RSPCA guidelines on humane ways to kill crustaceans before throwing them in the pot, so reducing their suffering and saving the poor chef dispatching them from PTSD. They recommend electrical stunning, but of course the equipment is expensive and if like me you only end up with one randomly and very occasionally, its unlikely you will have it knocking around the house. The best option for the home cook then is to follow the RSPCA piercing through the brain method. First put your lobster in the deep freeze for 15 minutes. This renders it ‘unconscious’ (if you leave it too long it starts to destroy the flesh as it begins to freeze and too little time just gives you a rather chilly lobster). At this point it should be ready to plunge into boiling water although some lobsters will wriggle still. In this case you may still feel the need to finish it off before boiling so just use the RSPCA method to pierce the brain and mid-point.

Of course the other option is to calm your crustacean with lobster hypnosis, do feel free to try!!

For my part I ran and hid and let the other half dispatch the poor creature! Pathetic I know.

An insensate Vinny was eventually plunged into boiling water for a couple of minutes…drained, basted with butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper and wrapped in a double thickness of baking parchment tied with string. He was then baked in a preheated hot oven (230C) for about 30 minutes. I think we probably over cooked him a little, but he still tasted delicious served with some salted parsley and lemon (Maitre D’hotel) butter, bread and a rather nice Pinot Grigio for a very simple but decadent supper starter.

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The best accompaniment for Sloes is gin!!

You may have been wondering (if you were bored for a few seconds) what happened to all that lovely foraged fruit that I collected the other week. Well, its all been put to very good use. You may remember we collected damsons, elderberries, blackberries and sloes.

Well, I’ve been harping on about the damsons ad infinitum and you are probably heartily sick of hearing about the damson fool we  lived off for three weeks (not the same one, I just made it rather a lot). Believe it or not I still had damsons leftover which I’ve been slowly ploughing through. Those not frowzen for the winter months  (when we most need an edible reminder of summer and a bit of extra Vitamin C) were mixed with vodka and left to steep.

Freezer full of Damsons and Blackberries

Freezer full of Damsons and Blackberries

As for the Sloe’s, in my opinion there IS only one thing you can do with them…. it has to be Sloe gin, dark, syrupy sweet, goes down like fruit juice and satisfyingly lethal! I have to admit my sister and I got through a whole bottle on Boxing Day last Christmas (not a whole litre bottle Ok, although i’m sure we could have done that with ease; it was the size of a half bottle so not that bad). We had a very happy day, but as we nursed our hangovers the next morning we stared sorrowfully (through our dark glasses) at the empty bottle and wished we’d saved some for the rest of the festive period, it was just too good not to drink. Oh well, we learn’t our lesson, make double next time!!! Sloe gin for Christmas: 2lb (900g) fruit to 2 pints (1.2litres) spirits (it doesn’t have to be the best gin, as the fruit will flavour it beautifully) to 1lb (450g) sugar….or thereabouts.

I’m none too careful with my measuring when it comes to Sloe gin. I prick any firm fruit with a needle or try and crush them a little then feed into a clean demi-john or very large preserving jar and top up with gin. Either cork the top with a tight fitting bung, screw on a lid and give it a bit of a shake so the sugar, fruit and gin is mixed. Leave in a cool dark place for as many months as you can before the urge to start drinking it takes over. If you make it now it will definately be ready in time for Christmas. Every week or so give it a turn and a little shake as the sugar will settle on the bottom. When its ready strain the gin into clean bottles and cork. The recipe tells me that the flavour gets better with keeping, but I’ve never been able to keep mine for more than a few weeks. I really must try and develop some willpower. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same luck with my Elderberry syrup. Once the fruit was prepared and in the pan cooking I noticed an odd, slightly nausea inducing aroma. It took me a while but I finally worked out, that it reminded me of that Henna powder I used to get from the local ‘Head’ shop when I was a hippy teenager. With sugar added it was no better, I tried to taste it a few times to see if I could convince myself that I liked it, but alas I feel the experiment failed. I haven’t wasted it though, its bottled in the fridge and due to be recycled in an apple and elderberry chutney…surely the addition of chilli, onion etc will stop it smelling like hippy hair dye!The evil, nausea inducing, Elderberries

Demijohn with Sloe's, sugar and half topped up with gin