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Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

 

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

And you can follow my blog below too (please do 🙂 )

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Plot to Plate: Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers

Crab apples have to be one of nature’s most beautiful fruits – with their rich colours and glorious sheen. And to gather them on a crisp October morning is a real seasonal joy. I’ve loved everything about cooking with these foraged beauties – their sweet smell with a hint of spice, their massed colour and their versatility. Here’s what I did with my basketful – two in one as the leftovers from the jelly are the only ingredient for the leathers. These recipes celebrate autumn and its crab apples in all their glory… 🙂

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These two crab apples were laden with fruit

 

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A basketful of fresh, rich baubles

 

We harvested these windfalls from a couple of crab apple trees around the corner. I left the fruits on the tree as they looked stunning and provided a great source of food for birds. There were more than enough windfalls to fill my basket and leave a river of red still carpeting the grass when we left.

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Washed and ready for boiling

 

Once the apples were washed, halved, the bug infested ones removed and I’d weighed them (2.6kg), they were gently simmered in 5 pints of water with a thumb-sized piece of ginger and 6 cloves until soft which took about 2 hours. No setting agent is required due to the high levels of pectin already present in crab apples.

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Just cut the crabs in half and boil in a large pan

 

 

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Hubble bubble – here comes jelly trouble

 

Then the mixture was strained overnight through a muslin bag strung on a coat-hanger to produce a large bottle of juice.

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After straining we were left with this sweet, rich liquid

 

We added 450g of sugar per pint of strained liquid and boiled it, stirring constantly, until it thickened and wrinkled when placed on a cold plate and gently pushed with a finger. This took us about 25 minutes, but each jelly sets at a different rate.

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Boiling for a second time with the sugar

 

The jelly was poured into sterilised jars. It is a glorious colour and has a distinctive taste with an aromatic apple flavour and floral overtones somewhere between rose and quince.

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The shiny jelly – great on toast or with meat or cheese

The leftover pulp was then strained through a sieve to remove the skins and cores. I sweetened it with a couple of dessertspoons of local runny honey which I mixed in – any sweetener could be used (or none) to taste, then spread it on a baking tray with a reusable baking sheet underneath the pulp.

 

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As I was doing this bit it occurred that you could do the same thing with well stewed cooking apples

 

The pulp was dried/heated at the bottom of a cool oven (about 60ºc) for around 7 hours or you could use a dehydrator. It is ready to cut into strips with scissors once the pulp has dried and can peel it off the baking tray in one big sheet. I love the waste not want not aspect to these recipes – and apart from the spices, honey and sugar it only cost us the price of the heat for cooking/drying. Frugal, seasonal and delicious – a real celebration of autumn joy!

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Fruit leather treats for the kids (and maybe mum and dad too!)

I saw a friend’s crab apple jelly today and it was a lovely orange colour – different variety of apples to mine, I guess. I don’t know what variety my crabs were and I’d be interested to know if there are favourites for jelly and other recipes. What varieties have you used and what is the verdict? How do you use crab apples in the kitchen – I’d love to have more recipes to explore. Do leave me a comment about anything crab apple and autumn foraging related. I love sharing my growing and cooking stories and it’s really great when I get comments about other people’s experiences – I’m learning so much – thanks  🙂

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Exploring wild flowers: 5 coastal plants with interesting edible histories

These days I spend much of my time in private and community gardens (and sometimes even my own) working with plants and I’ve learnt a great deal over the past few years about where garden plants will thrive, how they will combine with their fellows and when they will steal the limelight. But my knowledge of our native flora is still at the seedling stage, with only a few stalwarts remembered from walks in the Welsh country lanes with my grandparents (Herb Robert, Red Campion, Lords and Ladies…). I’ve not yet developed the ability to connect with a landscape through observing its plants the way I have with birds, through years of watching, listening and learning.

So this year I’ve started developing my knowledge of our wild flora. I’ve attended several excellent courses at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens – on Trees in Winter (sticks), Trees in summer (sticks with leaves) and Tricky Taxonomy (focusing on Docks, Sedges, Umbellifers, Crucifers and Willows). These courses have been interesting and useful – not because I can identify a great deal more than I could before, but because they have opened up a whole new world of native plant life and a new way of looking at it – focusing on the structure of the plant and its links to native habitats, rather than considering plants in terms of their garden worthiness and aesthetic possibilities.

Thus I found myself at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk this week, crouched in the vegetative shingle, focusing on the plant life rather than the bird life. There was a brief foray into East Hide with the rest of the family to marvel at the iconic avocets and argue over the identity of a female whinchat/stonechat, but mostly I wandered along the shore learning to connect with the landscape through its vegetation. I’ve learnt to identify new species and enjoyed researching their history and uses. I’ve been surprised at how many have edible parts, at least theoretically and historically (some are now not eaten due to their toxic effects and some are protected species in certain areas).

Here are some of my favourite new acquaintances and a little about why I’ve found their histories captivating:

1. Sea Pea (Lathyrus japonicus)

These beautiful little papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) are tiny specks of colour in an otherwise green and tan landscape. A trailing perennial, the flowers have obvious links to sweet peas and garden peas with their 5 petals (the upstanding ‘standard’, the 2 lateral ‘wings’ and the 2 fused lower petals forming the ‘keel’.)

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The delicate sea pea flower

The seeds float and can remain viable for an impressive 5 years. It was first recorded in 1570 and used to be so abundant that it was regarded as a valuable food source in Suffolk in times of famine. However, like many other members of the genus, they contain a neurotoxin which can cause a disease called lathyrism if consumed in large quantities. Lathyrism causes paralysis and is still an problem in some areas of the world where large quantities of lathyrus seeds are consumed due to poverty and famine.

Suffolk supports a large percentage of the UK’s scarce population of sea peas, so foraging would no longer be a responsible option – even if there was a consensus on the safety of eating it in small quanitites – which there isn’t.

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Beautiful and enigmatic sea pea

 

2. Sea Radish (Raphanus maritimus)

A common sight along the coast, I love sea radish for its yellow or white flowers and its abundant profusion. The flowers aren’t conventionally beautiful, but I spent quite a lot of time studying Brassicaceae flowers through a hand lens last month, examining the four petals in a cross shape which gave the family its older name, Cruciferae. The open flower structure and generous quantities of sea radish blooms add a fresh, airy feel to the dunes. Although the Brassicaceae I’m most familiar with are grown for their edible parts, the family also includes ornamental garden favourites like wallflowers, aubretia, honesty and night-scented stock.

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Clouds of fresh sea radish flowers

The seed pods can be clearly seen at this time of year and remind me of the rat-tailed radishes which commandeered the vegetable patch last year and produced hundreds of (to my mind rather unpleasantly cabbagey tasting) seed pods. The abundance of sea radish and the fact that it can be harvested for leaves, flowers and young seed pods, especially in winter when other wild crops are scarce, makes it a valuable wild food source. Although I didn’t harvest any myself this time, it is possible that the taste will be better than the rat-tailed variety as I do generally like the radish pods of varieties which are not conventionally grown for their seed pods (not sure why they taste better – perhaps it’s just that I don’t get on with anything with ‘Rat-tailed’ in the title due to nettle compost tea trauma – see Nettle Soup blog post).

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Sea radish seed pods

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Rat-tailed radishes in the garden last year

 

3. Sea Kale (Crambe maritime)

Another member of the Brassicaceae family, sea kale was a favourite food of the Victorians and their habit of digging up plants to try and grow them in their gardens contributed to their decline in the wild. Today plants are still scarce in some areas, but they grow in abundance on stretches of the Suffolk coast. However, we can now grow sea kale from seed, thus avoiding putting pressure on local resources. Seeds are available from Suttons Seeds and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, or plants can be bought from Victoriana Nursery Gardens from 2017. (All links are based on my personal knowledge and use of these suppliers. They are not sponsored links). Sea kale is an interesting vegetable to cultivate because of its perennial nature and its many edible parts – roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. If you are interested in learning more about sea kale, Mark Williams’ fascinating blog, Galloway Wild Foods covers more foraging information and Alison Tindale offers excellent practical advice about growing and propagation in The Backyard Larder.

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Sea kale shoots emerging from the shingle

 

4. Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum)

Sea holly is another plant perfectly adapted to grow on vegetative shingle, with its long tap root growing down a metre or more and an extensive root system which helps protect the environment against erosion. It has a long history of usage as a medicinal and edible plant – the shoots can be blanched and used as an asparagus substitute whilst the root can be cooked as a vegetable or candied and used as a sweetmeat.

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Silvery sea holly on the shingle

 

Eryngium spp. have, of course, been traditionally planted in gardens for their ornamental value. The waxy, glaucous leaves and bracts which protect the plant from sun and wind damage, also create the beautiful silvery blue sheen which contrasts so well with orange and yellow flowers such as Helenium, Anthemis and Achillea, or complements blue and purple combinations with other flowers like Allium, Echinacea and Perovskia.

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Blue flowers above the glaucous bracts

 

For more information on sea holly’s history and edible properties I’d recommend Plants for a Future. I first came across this resource several years ago when I bought the book second-hand at Conwy RSPB reserve. Online, it’s an astonishing database of over 7000 edible and medicinal plants, with their historical and modern uses. I use it regularly both as a source of fascinating historical information and to help me maximise the use of the plants growing in my garden and allotment.

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Prickly sea holly on the shingle/dune margin

 

5. Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marsh mallow is a plant of tidal river banks, salt marshes, damp meadows and coastal margins. The flowers are smaller and paler than common mallow. Most of the mallows have been used as food for centuries in the UK and all around the world and marsh mallow was apparently a delicacy in Roman times. Like the sea pea, marsh mallow is still eaten in countries like Syria as a staple in times of famine, but without the unfortunate side effects.

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Marsh mallow flowers have a softness with their pinky-lilac hue

The mucilaginous sap of the root has been used as a sweet treat since Egyptian times, mixed with sugar and egg whites to form a meringue which hardens as it cooks. Modern marshmallows no longer use Althaea officinalis as the base of the confectionary, but the plant still has myriad uses. The root can be cooked as a vegetable, the leaves used to thicken soups and the flowers and root made into tea. Marsh mallow also has many medicinal applications listed in Plants for a Future and further interesting historical information is available in Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931), now accessible online.

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Common mallow flower (Malva sylvestris)

Marsh mallow is scarce in the UK these days and therefore not a viable option for foraging, but seeds can be bought from numerous suppliers, such as Kings Seeds and Jekka’s Herb Farm. With a damp area in the garden it should be possible to grow Althaea officinalis to make marshmallows, as a vegetable or for medicinal purposes. Alternatively it could simply be grown to attract pollinating insects and to create a link to our diverse and rich natural floral history.

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It’s always great to have comments on the posts – I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. Do you forage, grow or cook with these or other coastal plants? Looking forward to hearing from you…

Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream – perfect for a summer afternoon tea

The best thing about scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream is that you get two bites of the raspberry. You can make the jam in July with a glut of summer raspberries as we did, or wait until the autumn fruits begin and then start jamming. Or even make jam all summer long with both types. Our summer canes haven’t stopped producing yet although they have passed the glut stage and the autumn canes are already producing fruit – mostly the lovely yellow ‘All Gold’ raspberries.

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A mix of summer raspberries ‘Glen Moy’ and ‘Glen Ample’ and autumn raspberries ‘All Gold’

All the rain in June and early July suited the summer raspberries perfectly, swelling the fruit and providing us with baskets of delicious berries for adults, children and jam pan alike. We didn’t have many autumn fruiting canes, but the allotment we took on in March has two 6m rows of autumn raspberries, so I think we’ll have our first year with not one, but two raspberry gluts.

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At the allotment the raspberry canes go on and on…

I’ve always loved raspberries best – there is an intensity about their flavour which can’t be matched by even the best strawberries or blueberries. I collected them from the hedgerows as a child foraging in Welsh lanes and then planted them as soon as I had my own garden. I love their long season, their varied colours and their cheerful, robust nature.

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I enjoy our blueberries, but I’m still a raspberry lover at heart

So here’s my (or actually my husband’s) recipe for raspberry jam and gluten free scones. He’s the preserve enthusiast in the family and makes excellent desserts too, whilst I tend to make the cakes and biscuits (once you have lots of jam you have to use it up in jam tarts and Victoria sponge cakes!) We run a gluten free kitchen because of the severity of my coeliac disease and we’ve both enjoyed getting to grips with new recipes over the past 5 years. I avoided scones for a couple of years as the shop bought gluten free ones were dry and crumbly, so this recipe allows me to indulge in a spot of clotted cream and jam all over again. The jam can, of course, be spread on whatever type of scone comes to hand.

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Raspberry jam also turns homemade rice pudding into an indulgent supper

Raspberry Jam

Ingredients

450g raspberries (make sure some of the raspberries are slightly under-ripe as this ensures there is enough pectin)

Approx. 450g granulated sugar (or weigh the raspberries you have and add an equal weight of sugar)

Method

Put the washed fruit in a jam pan or other large pan and gently crush it with a wooden spoon to release some of the juices. Gently heat to boiling point.

Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let the mixture cool a little, then push it through a stainless steel sieve to remove the seeds and create a puree.

Measure the puree and pour it into the clean jam pan. Add 450g sugar for each 600ml of puree (450g of raspberries should make about 600ml of puree.)

Gently heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly until it reaches setting point. (Stick a small plate in the fridge until it is cool, then remove and test jam after 10/15 minutes of boiling by putting a teaspoon of the jam on the cold plate. Leave for a minute, then slide finger across jam on plate to see if it wrinkles. If it wrinkles only a little, boil for another 2 minutes and try again.)

When setting point is reached, skim any froth off the surface with a slotted spoon and pour into sterilised jars. Seal and leave to cool.

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This year’s glut reincarnated

Gluten Free Scones

Ingredients

115g gluten free plain flour

115g rice flour

60g caster sugar

4 tsps. gluten free baking powder

1½ tsps. xanthan gum

75g unsalted butter (cubed)

200ml buttermilk

80g sultanas

Method

Preheat the oven to 220ºC (200ºC fan). Sift flours, sugar, baking powder and xanthan gum into a large bowl. Add the butter and rub with fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Stir the buttermilk into the mixture. Add the sultanas. Mix with a round bladed knife to make a soft dough. You may need to add a little more plain flour at this point if the dough is too sticky.

Kneed the dough a few times, then roll out onto a floured surface to around 15mm thick. Using a round cutter of any size, cut out scones and place on lightly greased baking sheet on a baking tray. (We don’t have a cutter of the size we like, so we use a child’s plastic cup to cut out the scones!) Rubbing the top of the cutter/cup with flour stops it sticking to the dough.

Make sure the scones aren’t too close together on the baking tray. Bake for about 15 minutes. Serve warm or cold with jam and cream.

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Don’t mind if I do…

I suspect these scones are probably at their best in the first couple of days, but to be honest they’ve never made it to day 3 for empirical testing! They can also be frozen – but why would you want to??

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Teatime…

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and read more of my recipes for Thai Curry, Elderflower Cordial, Rhubarb Recipes and Nettle Soup.

It’s uncanny how similar scones with jam and clotted cream are to Gladioli ‘Flevo Sylvia’ which I think should be renamed Gladioli ‘Scone’!

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A Taste of Summer: Elderflower Cordial Recipe

A couple of years ago I planted a black elderflower (Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Black Lace’) in the front garden. I’d hoped by now I would be harvesting armfuls of flowers to make pink elderflower cordial. Unfortunately it has spent the past year sulking and refusing to reach beyond 50cm despite its normal habit of growing over a metre a year. So until it cheers up, or I give up and replace it, I’m still harvesting white elderflowers from the local park for my summer cordial.

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Straining the mixture

It’s a good idea to check the flowers of each elder as you harvest. Some can have a rather strong smell which affects the taste of the cordial, so only gather flowers with a mild, sweet smell. I generally harvest between 20 and 30 flowerheads, depending on size.

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Straining through double muslin

Ingredients 

20-30 elderflower heads

1.8 kg granulated sugar

50g citric acid

4 sliced lemons

1.2 litres water

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Elderflower syrup ready to be decanted and diluted to make cordial

Method

1. Add the water and sugar to a pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.

2. Put the elderflowers (shaken to remove insects and bits, but not washed) in a large bowl and add the sliced lemons and citric acid.

3. Pour the cooled sugar syrup over the other ingredients and leave overnight. (A plate can be used to weigh down the lemons and elderflowers if they float at the top of the liquid.)

4. Strain first through a sieve to remove large pieces of elderflower and lemon. Then strain through a double muslin to remove smaller bits.

5. Decant into sterilized bottles. Enjoy the cordial diluted with still or sparkling water. Keeps for around 3 months.

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Fizzy elderflower cordial as sampled today by my chief tasters (the kids!)

 

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The finished product

 

 

Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

 

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Nettles revisited: how time removes the sting

Today I had nettle soup for the first time in over 30 years. Wind the clock back three decades and I am sat at a small kitchen table in a terraced house by the river Gyffin in Conwy, North Wales. A place of childhood culinary excitement mixed with not a little apprehension as Granny served tea for the family. I remember rich steak and kidney pies, soft chicken liver pate, sweet Welsh cakes and my particular favourite – chicken, chips and curry sauce. The kitchen smelled of mellow spices and ripening fruit; a pervasive smell which, even now, connects me with that past in a very tangible way.

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Holidays with Granny and Grandpa in Conwy – happy times

Granny was an excellent self-taught cook – intelligent, exacting and experimental. She used local produce, often gathered from the hedgerows or bought on our walks in the country lanes from local farmers or producers. Her food was comforting and tasty, but also different, challenging, often because of its unfamiliar ingredients. Game always came with a warning to watch out for the shot and kale came with healthy looking caterpillars more often than not. Bilberries and hazelnuts were ingredients which I looked forward to having on my visits, especially if we got to forage for them first, but nettles had rather less appeal. I remember strong tasting dark green soups which I rather dreaded and the adults drinking dried nettle tea, whilst I, thankfully, had Granny’s lovely fresh lemonade.

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A little book of treasured culinary memories

Many years ago I gave her a blank recipe book which she gradually filled with her own recipes and her thoughts on food (including how best to remove the skins from chestnuts and how to make an effective substitution of different gluten free flours for wheat flour.) After she died, nearly 5 years ago, I found the recipe book and now keep it in my kitchen to refer to when cooking for my family and to provide a link with the person who inspired my love of cooking with ingredients closely linked to the natural world.

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One of the pages of soup recipes

The book lists 14 soup recipes, but makes no reference to nettles – maybe it wasn’t her favourite soup either. But this week I noticed the fresh new growth on the nettles beside the path on the way to school and felt a desire to reinterpret the past by cooking for the first time with this free natural resource.

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These young nettles brought back memories of childhood meals

I love making soups – they are so quick, versatile and economical. Curried root vegetable soups defrost even the coldest fingers after winter forays outdoors, green Thai cabbage soup deals with spring gluts and fresh tomato soup celebrates the bounty of the summer garden. The success of a good soup often rests on the quality of the stock, and Granny used boiling fowl as meat for chicken pies and carcasses for stock to improve the flavour of all types of soup. Although I do use powered stock, when we roast a chicken the stock made with the carcass (in addition to some vegetables and herbs) is as prized as the roast dinner which precedes it.

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Nettles washed and ready for steaming

My nettle soup began with a chopped large onion, a chopped clove of elephant garlic (because that’s what I happened to have in my garlic bag left over from last year’s harvest) and a chopped large potato, all fried in butter until softened and then barely covered in homemade chicken stock (you could, of course, use any stock). I simmered the soup base until the potato was fully cooked and then added two large colanders of well-washed young nettle tops and leaves.

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Soup ready to be blended

These took only a minute or two to steam (which removes the sting) and then I blended the soup and passed it through a sieve to ensure a smooth consistency (not essential and not a step which I imagine Granny would have approved of, but I wanted to give the soup the best opportunity to succeed.)

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My trusty mixer earns its keep blending soups throughout the year

After blending I added a cup of single cream and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Then we had a lunch packed full of vitamins and iron, which even my 4 year old daughter described as ‘delicious’. The flavour of the nettles was much more delicate than I remember and the frugal nature of the meal, alongside its fresh, spinach-like taste will definitely secure nettle soup a place on our lunch menu in the future.

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Lunch looked quite promising

If nettle soup doesn’t appeal to your sense of nostalgia in the way it does to mine, then nettles can still be used as a compost ‘tea’ to fertilise the garden for free. They are rich in nitrogen, so can be used as a feed for leafy greens or can be mixed with comfrey (high in potassium and vitamin B12) to make a balanced feed. Nettles can be harvested, crushed up and weighed down in a bucket, then covered with water and left for a couple of weeks to decompose. The resultant liquid can be diluted about 10:1 (water:nettle feed) until it resembles the colour of tea and then watered onto plants to encourage strong, leafy growth. (Avoid use on young seedlings as the nutrient concentration is too high and might cause damage.)

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Beginnings of nettle feed

I would advise using a bucket with a lid to avoid the interesting experience we had a few years ago when our compost tea became infested with rat-tailed maggots, most often larvae of the European hoverfly or drone fly, Eristalis tenax. I was astonished by the size of the tail or siphon, which can be as long again as its body and which is used as a breathing tube whilst the maggot is submerged. I must admit, shamefacedly, to enlisting the help of my husband to evict the inhabitants – by the time we discovered them I think they were probably dead as they would have been unable to crawl out of the bucket to pupate. A salutary lesson in covering the bucket in future!

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Walking with Granny on Conwy mountain where we would spend many happy hours picking bilberries

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We often had a margarine tub in hand and Granny always had a plastic bag in her pocket – ready to collect whatever treasures presented themselves

This year I will be using the free resource provided by nettles to feed myself and the garden in our own different ways. And I’ll be celebrating a woman for whom the natural world was both resource and inspiration for her love of cooking for her family.

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If you cook nettle or other foraged soups, I’d love to hear about it. Please share by commenting below as it’s always interesting to learn new recipes to add to my list of old favourites.

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Thank you very much.

Nic Wilson