I’ve been staying with a friend in a very sandy area of the country, unlike my own heavy clay soil, and it’s been fascinating to see the different gardening crops and routines.
But most of all, we’ve been foraging: crab apples, rosehips and hawthorn, all of which are nationwide, whatever the soil is. 2.7 kilos of crab apples, 2kg of rosehips and another kilo of haws, all from lovely locations. The rosehips were gathered a mile from any road at all, deep in a local nature reserve full of sand dunes and protected toads (we saw a baby, less than a centimetre long).
We followed two recipes, both from the Preserves book from Hugh FW’s River Cottage series, the hedgerow jelly and the rosehip syrup. I can’t see it on Amazon at the moment, but this one is similar (and there are second hand copies for pennies via that link:
There were many lessons …
Firstly, get your kitchen organised, and have everything ready to process your haul. My own kitchen is more or less up to speed with this – though not as good as British Red’s setup shown on his blog English Country Life – but my friend is looking after an elderly lady, so while I was there, the kitchen was filled with the paraphenalia for three of us, all with differing nutritional and dietary needs. In a grid-down situation, of course, we’d have to focus more, and concentrate more.
Secondly, using resources as local to you as possible, for freshness, for convenience, for time: the haws were only five minutes walk away, but the rosehips and crab apples were 15 minutes drive away. So more research beforehand is needed to make it work without overwhelming your days.
Thirdly, walking your neighbourhood at different times of year, is helpful in so many ways. It will show you what crops you can experiment with, and you can learn how long a crop is available for. We scouted the rosehips in the second week of September, but didn’t have time to pick them till the following week, and more than half of them were nibbled by wasps or rotten by then.
Next, an outside space to sort what you’ve gathered is pretty important, especially if you’re cooking in your domestic kitchen, not a dedicated space in an outbuilding or shed of some sort. I’m not sure my friend quite agrees with me on this one, but I don’t want to bring extra pests into the home, I want the leaf detritus and rotten berries onto the compost heap as soon as possible. Plus the sheer amount of space needed when you also have to sterilise your jars and bottles and so on, just makes it impractical to do everything from the initial processes right through to the bottling in the same room that’s being used for domestic life. Luckily, my friend has a little courtyard garden where we could sort through things in peace.
Getting the equipment together would be my fifth point, and I’ve said it before during earlier experiments. But you have to be willing to improvise too. In our case, we had a “died in storage” situation with the elastic of the muslin bag my friend used to filter the crab apple jelly. It had completely collapsed, and nearly slid off its tripod, taking the crab apple pulp with it. So the muslin bag was held on with its loops and with wire tied around it, which you can see in the photos. It was great, and it worked.
Lastly, labels. Last, but important. Labels are good – if you were doing this sort of preserving even a couple of times a week, you couldn’t possibly remember what’s what. Labels may look chintzy in some shops, but they’re a real essential. Showing the month and year you made your produce is also a good idea.
Labels aren’t last, sorry. There’s also the crucial taste test! The rose hip syrup wasn’t good, to be honest – much, much too sugary. And as with any wild species, the taste varies from plant to plant. In this case, the taste of the actual rosehips was very mild, and overwhelmed by the sugar. The spicy crab apple jelly, which also has the haws in it, is still maturing. I’m hopeful.
If there was an ongoing crisis of some sort, there are better things to do with sugar than to make a sugary drink. Still, since we’d made it, I used it on my porridge instead of honey – it was certainly sweet enough, and there are nutrients and micronutrients in rosehips. Waste not, want not.