Autumn Foraging In The RHS Forest Garden

“The mushrooms have arrived!” It was the cry everyone wanted to hear this afternoon as we finished arranging the forest garden plants and laying the woodland mulch. For the last couple of days the team, led by award-winning designer Jon Davies, have been creating an exciting forest garden installation at the RHS Autumn Show in the Lindley and Lawrence Halls, London. By tomorrow evening it will be completed for the preview and then the main show on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th October, when we’re all looking forward to chatting to visitors about the garden and its fascinating plants.

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The forest logs will harbour oyster and shittake mushrooms

The exhibit showcases the sustainable method of forest gardening – creating a self-supporting ecosystem based on natural woodland. Every plant has a role to play, either as a food source, for timber, medicine, material or providing support for other plants, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, creating shade or as ground cover to suppress weeds. In this way, the garden will be largely self-maintaining, lessening the need for human intervention and creating a diverse and resilient ecosystem. Forest gardens can be large areas, such as Martin Crawford’s seminal garden in Dartington, Totnes, but they can also be much more modest affairs like the one at the show, suitable for rural or urban areas in community spaces and private gardens.

One of the things I find fascinating about forest gardens is the way they combine a wide range of plants from across the world to create sustainable ecosystems. From Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis) to sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) and society garlic (Tulbaghia violacae), the RHS Forest Garden celebrates exciting plants with a variety of uses. The garden has several areas with different growing conditions from the woodland floor, to a pond and boggy area, a woodland clearing and an open glade.

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Crab apples create so much colour and interest at this time of year

On entering the garden my eye is first drawn to the canopy of the magnificent forest pansy (Cercis canadensis) with its vibrant yellow cordate leaves. But difficult as it is to ignore the stunning autumn colours above, the woodland floor offers equally inspiring botanical beauties, just in miniature form. Ever since seeing them in Jon’s Hampton Court Forest Garden, I’ve been noticing and appreciating clover leaves wherever I’ve seen them and this garden includes some delicate purple and red forms of Trifolium repens which encourage the visitor to engage with the detail on the forest floor.

The journey through to the clearing leads past the pond area with a range of hosta, sedum and mint (all with edible leaves) and the umbels of skirret (Sium sisarum) with its sweet-tasting roots. Out of the water rise the impressive spathes of arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) in front of the fabulous red leaves of Viburnum dilatatum with its edible fruit and foliage.

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Creating the woodland clearing

Inside the clearing, the logs support a range of fungi including oyster and shittake mushrooms. The canopy is created by hazels, crab apples and hops, sausage vines and kiwi trailing up and over the wooden supports. This area has a lovely relaxing feel and creates a calm space in the heart of the garden.

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Hops (Humulus lupulus) festoon the woodland supports

On the far side of the forest garden, in a more open area, plants like the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), myrtle (Myrtus communis), sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and the purple-leaved Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) thrive. In this area, more unusual understorey edibles like yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) offer opportunities for new taste sensations, whilst traditional ornamental shrubs like Mahonia aquifolium, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) remind us of the multi-functional nature of many of our garden plants.

It’s exciting that this year’s RHS Autumn Show has a garden of this nature at its heart, surrounded by organisations like the Permaculture Association, Pennard Plants (with its engaging display of edibles) and the Rabbit Pop-up Food Stall offering seasonally inspired food and drink made from sustainable and wild British ingredients. It also fits in well with current national initiatives such as the launch, this weekend, of the National Forest Garden Scheme (NFGS) which aims to bring us individually, and in our communities, to a new level of harmony and well-being through planting, eating from, and enjoying Forest Gardens. In our changing world, forest gardens, with their mix of sustainable methods and diversity of plant species, offer a real opportunity to work with the land, promote biodiversity and widen the range of edibles upon which we all rely.

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Slideshow of the finished garden

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Still Life

I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned… 

Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.

Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.

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  🙂

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.

If you have enjoyed this post and would like to follow more of my explorations into wild flower territory in the future, please subscribe to the blog:

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Delicious Recipes for Surviving a Rhubarb Glut…

It’s June, the weather is warming, there’s been plenty of rain (!) and the rhubarb is looking on top of the world. From the small knuckles of underground potential, huge forests have grown in a few short weeks and now, in a Jurassic corner of the fruit cage, garden or allotment a jungle threatens to swamp any passing gardeners.

If this sounds familiar then maybe you, like me, need some new ways to turn your rhubarb riot into snacks, puddings and store-cupboard treasures. Here’s my old favourites and some new twists to help you turn excess into success…

1. Rhubarb and Ginger Compote

This is one of my favourite ways of cooking rhubarb. It’s so simple and can be used as the basis for many other recipes and meals.

Ingredients:

4/5 stems of rhubarb, washed and chopped

3 pieces of stem ginger and some of the ginger syrup from the jar

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Our utility sink is usually full of some Jurassic vegetable or other… usually with its very own ecosystem!

Method:

Put the chopped rhubarb in an ovenproof dish. Add the stem ginger chopped into small pieces and 1-2 tbsps of syrup (to taste).

Roast in the oven at 180 °C until the rhubarb is soft (usually around 30 minutes).

The compote can be added to porridge, natural yoghurt and used as the base for crumble. We have also been known to add it to heated leftover homemade chocolate birthday cake to make chocolate fudge cake and rhubarb (a particularly fine pudding).

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Compote with natural yoghurt and a little ginger syrup on top

 

2. Rhubarb and Mint Jam

We first made this jam last year for the school plant stall as we were selling food (alongside the plants) with herbs as the theme. The idea was to include herbs in the produce and then for the fete-goers to guess what the herb was (part of my attempt to get people smelling, tasting and growing all things herbal.) The jam was so successful that all the jars went at the beginning of the day, with only the tasting jar left for samples!

Ingredients:

1kg rhubarb, chopped

1kg granulated sugar

Large bunch of mint leaves

2 tbsp finely chopped mint

Method:

Leave chopped rhubarb layered with the sugar in a bowl overnight. Next day, add the rhubarb and sugar mixture to a preserving pan and add the mint leaves tied together in a bunch. Cook gently until the rhubarb is softened (about 30 minutes).

Remove the mint and bring the mixture to the boil. Cook over a high heat until it reaches setting point (105°C). Leave to stand for 10 minutes, stir in the chopped mint, pour into sterilized jars and seal. Enjoy on toast or scones with jam and cream.

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Toast and jam? Don’t mind if I do...

3. Rhubarb Cupcakes with Cinnamon Frosting

I love baking cupcakes for the kids – especially when we can fold treasures from the garden into them, like tiny alpine strawberries, blueberries, Chilean guavas or, in this case, rhubarb.

All the recipes in this blog are gluten free (I live in a Coeliac/gluten free household), but the cake mix would work just as well with ordinary self-raising flour.

Ingredients:

12 pieces of rhubarb, roasted until soft (recipe makes 12 cupcakes)

3 eggs, weighed

Equal weight gluten-free self-raising flour as the eggs

Equal weight golden caster sugar

Equal weight softened butter

A few drops of vanilla extract

250g icing sugar

125g butter at room temperature

2-4 tsp milk

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My little helper carrying half filled cupcakes with rhubarb chunk

Method:

Mix the equal weight of eggs, caster sugar, flour and butter in a blender or with a hand whisk. Spoon into cupcake cases, adding a piece of roasted rhubarb to the centre of each cake. Bake at 180°C for 15-20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the edge comes out clean (rather than the middle as then the skewer will hit the rhubarb.)

Top with swirls of cinnamon buttercream icing (whisk the butter and icing sugar together with 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon mixed in and add 2-4 tsp of milk to soften to desired consistency) as a sweet contrast with the tart rhubarb in the centre. Sit down with a cup of tea and enjoy!

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It’s cupcake time…

 

4. Rhubarb and Apple Sponge

This one is a family favourite with whatever fruit happens to be in supply from the garden or allotment. (I secretly even prefer it to rhubarb crumble.)

Ingredients:

4 stems of rhubarb, chopped

2 cooking apples, cored, peeled and chopped

A handful of raisins or sultanas

Splash of water

2 eggs

115g unsalted butter

115g golden caster sugar

115g ground almonds

 

Stewing the fruit

Method:

Gently stew the apples, rhubarb and raisins in a little water, stirring as they cook (takes abut 30 minutes). I don’t tend to add sugar as the topping is sweet, but additional sugar can be added to the stewing fruit to taste.

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Fold in the ground almonds. When the fruit is soft, put it in an ovenproof dish and cover gently with the sponge mix. Cook at 170°C for 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve with yoghurt, cream or ice cream.

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The way to my family’s hearts – a good pudding

 

5. Rhubarb, Strawberry and Elderflower Sorbet

I love recipes which celebrate seasonal produce. This one uses produce from the garden, allotment and hedgerows, and epitomises the taste of summer.

Ingredients:

200g strawberries, halved

500g rhubarb

5 tbsp. elderflower cordial (I used my homemade cordial, but any undiluted elderflower cordial would work well)

50g sugar (could add more if preferred – we like fairly sharp sorbets)

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Homegrown rhubarb and strawberries ready for roasting

Method:

Roast the rhubarb and strawberries in the cordial at 180°C until the fruit is soft (about 30 minutes). Remove from the oven, cool and blend to a smooth paste. Put in the freezer for at least 2 hours (until the mix has partly frozen). Take out and mash the sorbet with a fork to break it up or mix in a food processor. Repeat process 2/3 times and then the sorbet is ready to serve in a gluten-free cone, on its own or as an accompaniment to other desserts.

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A refreshing summer treat

 

6. Green Rhubarb Salsa with Mackerel Paté on Toast

This is a lovely summery lunch or snack, packed full of omega 3. The tartness of the salsa complements the salty fish paté perfectly.

Ingredients:

4 smoked mackerel fillets

250 cream cheese

1 tbsp lemon juice

50g rhubarb (1/2 stem)

50g cucumber

1/2 shallot

1 chilli (I used the first chilli of the season – a ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ which has a medium heat, but any chilli or amount of chilli can be used depending on tastes)

2 tsp lime juice

1/2 tsp sugar

pinch salt and pepper

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Green rhubarb salsa

Method:

Mix the finely diced rhubarb, cucumber, shallot and chilli. Add the sugar, lime juice, salt and black pepper. Mix together. Leave for an hour to marinate.

Put the flaked mackerel, cream cheese and lemon juice in a food processor and mix until smooth.

Serve the pate on toast with salsa on the side.

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Tasty lunchtime treat

 

7. Spicy Rhubarb Relish

Cheese and crackers with relish or pickles is a favourite supper of mine. So I’m always after tasty recipes to liven up pre-bedtime snacks.

Ingredients:

200g rhubarb (about 2 stems)

1 small onion

1 chilli

1 clove garlic

50g muscavado sugar

50ml white wine vinegar

1 tbsp sunflower oil

1 tsp fenugreek seeds

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp turmeric

Large pinch salt

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Small jar: big taste

Method:

Fry spices in oil, stirring well until the mustard seeds begin to pop. Add crushed garlic and chopped chilli and fry gently for a few minutes.

Add chopped rhubarb, diced onion, vinegar, salt and sugar to a pan with the fried spices. Cook over a low heat until the rhubarb is soft and the relish thickens (about 30 minutes). Bottle in sterilized jar (makes one small jar.) Store in the fridge for up to a month.

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Going to bed happy tonight…

 

8. Rhubarb and Banana Smoothie

The kids love smoothies and they are a great way to use up left over fruit and old bananas. I use our rhubarb ‘Champagne’ rather than our ‘Timperley Early’ for this recipe as the stems tend to be thinner, less fibrous and sweeter.

Ingredients:

3 very ripe bananas

1 large stalk of young rhubarb, with the skin peeled off

4 dessertspoons of natural yoghurt (we used our homemade yoghurt which we’ve been making for a year or so, but any natural yoghurt would be fine)

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A great way to use up excess and over ripe fruit

Method:

Chop the rhubarb into 5cm pieces and add to a blender with the yoghurt and bananas broken into 2/3 pieces. Blend until smooth. We didn’t need to strain ours, but if there are any fibrous strands in the mix then strain before serving.

Generally the smoothie is sweet enough to please the kids because of the ripe bananas, but if it needs further sweetening, runny honey can be added to taste.

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Smoothie never lasts long in our house

 

These recipes will hopefully help you deal with some surplus rhubarb and then, when you’ve given so much away that your friends hide when they see you coming, maybe it’s time to line up the jam, relish and smoothie in the fridge and admit defeat until next year 😉

I really enjoy trying out new recipes and inventing meals with ingredients from the garden, allotment and from foraging trips. If you have enjoyed reading this post, please subscribe to get more recipes in later posts. If you have other lovely ways to use lots of rhubarb do leave me a comment. My rhubarb just keeps on coming, so I need as many recipes as possible!

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After all that cooking, I’m off for a cup of tea and a cupcake

 

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.

 

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.

 

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