How to make sloe gin and hedgerow vodka this autumn
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The leaves are beginning to turn and the nuts and berries on hedgerows and in woods are ripening as nature offers up an organic supermarket for foragers.
Foraging for food in the countryside means bringing home the harvest for dinner and, while you’re at it, bringing home the sloes for gin to enjoy after dinner.
The countryside is bursting with produce and autumn is the ideal time to search for treasure in the hedgerows, fields and woods of Norfolk and Suffolk.
The time was when every child who lived in the countryside would be able identify the edible feast growing in hedgerows, fields and woods and confidently bring home a basket of mushrooms to be turned into a delicious autumnal soup.
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For our ancestors, the countryside was like an open-air delicatessen, packed with a ready supply of gastronomic goodies waiting to be picked, plucked or gathered and transformed into a wild food feast that was ethically sound and enormously tasty.
In his foraging bible Food for Free, Norfolk author Richard Mabey extols the virtue – and the joy – of opening Mother Nature's store cupboard.
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“To some extent we have become conditioned by the shrink-wrapped, perfectly-shaped, 'hero' produce we find in our supermarkets and it is the irregularity and the feeling that eating foods we pick ourselves in uncultivated areas is somehow unhygienic, that makes us reluctant to venture into woods, pastures, clifftops and marshlands in search of food,” he writes.
“In fact, almost every British garden vegetable has a wild ancestor flourishing here: wild parsnips, cabbage and celery all grow in waste places. Historically, these have always been sources of food in times of hardship, but we seem to know less and less about them and are becoming less confident about identifying them.”
My mother owned this book and now I have it, well-thumbed, well-worn, well-used.
She taught me the names of wild flowers and plants, the uses for fruits and berries and would often rise early to pick dew-damp mushrooms from fields in Old Costessey near Norwich.
I remember her wild feasts: giant puffball mushrooms fried in butter in inch-thick slices, frothy elderflowers collected and turned with a touch of magical alchemy into fizzy champagne or fried in batter as delicate fritters.
I remember the night the bottled Elderflower Champagne exploded in the early hours and we thought the house was under attack as the corks fired into the porch ceiling leaving marks and stories behind.
Each year, she collected plump blue-black sloes and steeped them in sugar and gin, putting them to bed in our dark larder, turning them religiously every day to create a thick, syrupy spirit which would be brought out the following Christmas after dinner for a comforting shot of late summer sunshine.
There were garlicky ransoms snipped into salads, stinging nettle wine bubbling in the outhouse, sweet chestnuts popping their skins on the iron roaster on the open fire, tickly rosehip syrup to stave away colds and then jar after jar of jam (today, not tomorrow).
Every autumn, I try to make a concerted effort to forage in earnest, to create a winter store cupboard of hand-picked delights to bring a flavour of this golden time of year to the darkest days and nights.
Here are some of my recipes for foraged treats which I've been making on and off for the past few decades, including some delicious alcoholic drinks which are perfect for gifts, if you can bear to part with them.
Foraging for beginners
• Be prepared: take bags, plastic tubs and a walking stick you can use to hold back brambles or pull down branches. Gloves are great if you don't appreciate being scratched and stung, although other collectors may mock and silently (or not so silently) judge you.
• Know what you're looking for: take a guide book with you, a knowledgeable enthusiast or expert or check your finds on the internet.
• Don't pick food from highly-polluted areas.
• Avoid hedgerows that may have been sprayed by drifting pesticide or bladder-emptying dogs.
• Wash foraged food before you eat it.
• Don't uproot plants and leave more on the bush than you take. Only pick what you need.
• Be careful not to disturb the habitat of birds or other animals when you look for wild food.
• Remember that very important golden rule: if you're not 100 per cent certain you know what you're picking, DON'T EAT IT!
Enough ripe sloes to half-fill the jar you will be steeping them in
Golden caster sugar (or normal caster sugar)
1 litre bottle gin (you could also use rum, vodka, whiskey or even tequila!)
1) Pick your sloes – you can tell if they're ripe enough by seeing if you can easily pop the berries between finger and thumb.
2) There's a debate over what to do next. Some prick each sloe before placing in their two litre Kilner Jar, others prefer the lazier option of freezing the sloes overnight. Both practices emulate the first frost and split the skin on the berries. At this stage you can add a vanilla pod if you’d like sloe and vanilla gin.
3) There's also debate about how much sugar to use. I'd cover the berries but Jamie Oliver only says you need 'two big spoonfuls'. I'm going to have to disagree with Mr Oliver here.
4) Add the gin to the top of the jar and seal. Shake. Every day for a week, shake the jar again and keep going until the sugar has fully dissolved. Then place in a cool, dark place and leave until Christmas, although the longer you can leave it, the better. I've still got some of my 2013 vintage…
5) When you bottle, line a plastic sieve with muslin, set over a bowl and strain.
When you've drained your sloe gin, don't discard the berries, re-use them and make your own port! Technically it's fortified wine, but let's not split hairs. You'll need the same jar you made your sloe gin in.
About 500g sloes left over from sloe gin
750ml of red wine
About 100g sugar
1) Add the sloes, sugar and wine to your container. Seal and shake daily for six to eight weeks, keeping it in a cool, dark place. Taste and adjust sugar if you think necessary.
2) Strain as above with sloe gin. Add the brandy and mix well.
200g hawthorn haws
200g crab apples
200g rosehips (the fruit of the wild dog rose)
A litre of vodka
150g white sugar
1) You can mix up the measurements here to make a fruit mixture that suits what you’ve foraged. Add more or less, make substitutes, be inventive.
2) Put the fruit in a large jar, cover with sugar and pour in the vodka.
3) Swirl the contents gently and place in a dark cupboard.
4) Turn over the jar once a week.
5) Strain as above after at least two months.
1kg preserving sugar
Juice of three large lemons
1) Wash the blackberries and tip into a preserving pan. Add 400ml water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for around 20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy.
2) Add the preserving sugar and lemon. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves which will take around five minutes.
3) Place three small plates in the fridge to chill.
4) Remove the lid, bring the mixture to the boil and cook for eight minutes.
5) Test for setting by spooning a little of the jelly on to a chilled plate. Allow to cool for a few seconds and then push the syrup with a fingertip – if it wrinkles on the surface, it has reached setting point. If it isn't ready, boil for a further two minutes and test again. Repeat until it is at setting point.
6) Place a large metal sieve over a mixing bowl and push the pulp through the sieve into the bowl. Extract as much syrup as possible and discard the seedy pulp.
7) Pour the strained syrup into clean, sterilised preserving jars, cover with waxed discs and seal. Store in a dark place.
Clive Houlder's Puffball and Wild Mushroom Feast (this was given to me by Norfolk's Mushroom Man – I leave out the bacon as I'm vegetarian)
Take a giant puffball mushroom, one of the easiest edible mushrooms to spot due to its resemblance to a discarded football, and slice it as you would a Halloween pumpkin, cutting a cap and then scooping out the flesh inside, leaving a shell about an inch thick. Fry a selection of foraged wild mushrooms, some garlic and some shallots with half the giant puffball flesh in butter and olive oil, adding some cubed Norfolk cured bacon. Pile into the puffball shell and baste the shell with melted butter. Wrap the puffball in foil and bake in a moderate oven for around 40 minutes. The puffball will collapse a little, but will form a bowl from which you can eat the mushroom and ham medley. Delicious.