Back Garden Foraging

I have been spoiled, living near lots of green space with many foraging opportunities. Long sections of the River Wandle, Mitcham Common and Morden Hall Park have offered up such treasures as elderflowers and elderberries, wild plums, damsons, crab apples and blackberries. But there are some less wild areas that have proved treasure troves too.
Sitting on the Croydon Tramlink on the way to Wimbledon all of last summer, I watched as a patch of waste ground next to one of the stops grew some of the biggest brambles I’ve ever picked. The kilos and kilos that I picked there were the base of the first wine I tried making. And a local park, basically a bit of grass behind some flats, is the home to a large apple tree.
Our garden has also been a surprising foraging patch. I know it’s odd to speak of foraging in a garden, where we are meant to be taming nature and prescribing what grows there. But nature still has its own way in lots of places
When we moved into our house nearly four years ago, the garden had been badly neglected. The people we bought it from had put all their energies into redecorating and rebuilding the house, but hadn’t been bothered about the gardening. This suited us, as we would both rather be outside digging than inside painting.
It appeared as if there were the remains of a well-loved garden somewhere under all the weeds. There were trees that were probably planted as shrubs, and shrubs that used to be small plants. There was also the slightly crazy rockery, which appears to have been planted over the top of a WWII air-raid shelter, and which takes up a good quarter of the garden.
For the first year or so, we hacked back badly overgrown shrubs, pulled up weeds and tried to fill in some of the holes with the plants we actually wanted to be there. My in-laws were generous with cuttings and seedlings from their garden, and we used some of the money we’d been given as wedding presents to buy more plants. We even received an apple tree as a wedding present. But there is still a lot to do, including replacing of the rotting, roofless shed, and building proper raised beds for the vegetable patch.
But one of the pleasures has been discovering the plants we didn’t plant ourselves. I’m not sure if these are survivors from the old garden, or have seeded themselves from elsewhere. The euphorbia that suddenly appeared at the edge of the lawn, is now a features of one of the beds, the rambling rose that is growing up the fence and putting out small pink blossoms, and the wild poppies that sprang up all over the rockery might be considered weeds by many, but were welcome in the first summer when we had nothing else growing there.
Among the welcome plants are patches of woodruff and lemonbalm. Finding these fragrant herbs unexpectedly felt a little like foraging in the back garden.
The lemonbalm is a relative of the mint family, and as such, can get quite invasive. As yet, it’s confined to a patch at the back of the rockery by vigorous weeding. Given half a chance, it would take over the garden.

Again, I had no idea what it was, until, that is, I started to pull some up. The strong citrussy smell made it easy to identify. I also tried steeping it in alcohol, with some mixed results! I was used to making sloe and damson gins, where the longer you leave the fruit soaking (and we have some still maturing from a year back) the better the results. So I happily added the lemonbalm leaves and some sugar to a jar, covered in gin and left it at the back of a cupboard for a few months. The final product is….interesting! It has a distinctly medicinal flavour, and we have been known to indulge in a small glass when we have colds.
Trying to learn from this, we also tried soaking the leaves for just a couple of weeks in gin. Again, the flavour is quite strong and herbal. My husband has taken to using it like he would bitters – just a few drops added to a gin and tonic.
More successful was combining the leaves with lemon to make a cordial. In this recipe, the leaves are soaked in the sugar syrup for just a few hours and then discarded. Lovely diluted with some sparkling water.
I adapted this recipe for lemon and mint cordial, substituting lemonbalm for the mint.
The woodruff has umbrellas of leaves and delicate white flowers. I had no idea what it was, but it wasn’t invasive and I thought it was pretty, so I didn’t dig it out. Then one night, I happened to spot a picture of it during a BBC4 programme on medieval herbalism.

A quick search online and I read about its aromatic properties. While it’s still growing, or even when freshly picked, there is no strong smell. But after only 30 minutes or so, as it starts to dry, the magic happens. Even a small bowl of the drying leaves release a wonderful scent, somewhere between vanilla and fresh hay. No wonder people used to add it to their straw mattresses.
I wondered if there were any culinary uses for it, and as often happens, my mind turned to booze. I left it in a jar, covered with a bottle of fairly cheap vodka.

With the leaves and flowers strained out, it has a delicate green tinge to it, and tastes great with tonic. I think that it should also work in longer cocktails where you want a sweet, vanilla-ish taste.
After foraging around the garden, I’m now looking for ideas for what to do with the fewerfew that suddenly appeared on the rockery, and investigate what I can make out of the mahonia berries…

Marmalade Competitions and Cider Experiments

Marmalade awards
Last week an envelope came through the door – the results of the Marmalade Awards. I had entered my Seville into the Dark and Chunky category, and the pink grapefruit and Campari into the Merry. In the end, I got a silver for the Dark and Chunky and a bronze for the Merry.

There was some useful feedback on the flavour and presentation. I obviously need to pay more attention to my filling technique. Next year, maybe I’ll manage a gold.

Cider experiments
One of my university assignments is to put together a guide to information resources for a specific area of interest. Given that W and I have been getting to grips with home brewing and home wine-making in the last year, I thought that a guide for home-brewers would be a good topic. ONce ou start looking, it’s amazing what’s out there. I’ve been looking through every home brewing book I could find, watching YouTube videos, reading blogs and listening to podcasts.
All of this research has been making me eager to start brewing again. I’ve been concentrating on wine up till now, and all my wine has been made with foraged fruits. As foraged fruit is in short supply at the moment, and it will be a few more weeks (or months) till the elderflowers appear, I’ve got three demijohns sitting around begging to be used so I decided to experiment with some CIDER!
I’ve read a variety of recipes, ranging from those whose ingredient list has been as simple as “apples” to others which include apple juice, honey, pectolase, tannin…. I decide to take the middle ground and ended up with

4 litres apple juice – NOT from concentrate
1 cup of brewers sugar
1 sachet yeast*
1/8 tsp yeast nutrient


* As this was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, the yeast had to be whatever I could get in the local branch of Lakeland. They currently had univeral wine yeast and beer yeast. I bought one of each. For this batch, I’ve used the wine yeast, but I’ll be trying the beer yeast for the next batch. A lot of the recipes I’ve read have used champagne yeast, so I might try that next. And apparently if you press your own apples for juice, there is enough yeast on the skins and in the air so that you don’t need to add any more.

After sterilising all the equipment, I poured 3.5 litres of juice into the demijohn. I dissolved the sugar and yeast nutrient into the remaining 0.5l and then added this to the rest. I then bunged in the yeast, added the airlock and waited for the magic to happen.
After a slow start, the fermentation took off. It bubbled up to such an extent, I wondered if the yeast was going to escape through the airlock. Its now calmed down, but you can see how far up the demijohn the mixture got.

It’s still fermenting quite vigorously. I think I’ll give it a few more days and then rack it off into a new demijohn for secondary fermentation, which will be in a darker cooler area. After about two weeks, it should be ready to bottle. Given the experience with beer, I should then wait for about a month before trying it. I’ll let you know how it tastes.

Cocktail Marmalades

After making last week’s Seville orange marmalade, I decided to branch out and try some batches made with other citrus fruits. A trip to the greengrocers saw me acquire pink grapefruit and a lot of limes. I also wanted to try adding some extra flavours. A lot of people add either whisky or ginger to their orange marmalade, but I don’t think either of those flavours would work with grapefruit or lime. I was pondering cardamon, but after sticking my nose in the cardamon jar, I wasn’t convinced I wanted tat flavour on my toast in the morning.
I looked into Niki Segnit’s excellent Flavour Thesaurus for inspiration. In this book, she lists just about any food you can think of and then offers flavour pairings that will complement it. If you look under Rhubarb, you’ll see the suggestion of almonds, black pudding or orange. Look under mint and she suggests blackcurrant, melon and onion.
When I consulted her ideas for grapefruit, my eye was grabbed by grapefruit and Campari. I already know that this is a great cocktail. Try it in a long glass over ice – the perfect summer drink. But it’s a long time till summer, so marmalade it is. Checking online, I found this recipe by Spectacularly Delicious. I adapted it slightly. After blanching and chopping the peel and adding the grapefruit flesh and juice, I also added about a litre of water and simmered the lot for about 45 minutes, or until it had reduced to the original volume. I felt that the peel needed a little more cooking than in the original recipe.
Here is the finished result. Isn’t it a great colour?

Buoyed up by this success, I started to think about other cocktails. Looking at the limes, I immediately thought of a gin and tonic with a slice of lime. Was there a recipe online for this? Yes, there was courtesy of Burn Black
I have to admit though that when I saw just how many jars I was going to end up with, I chickened out of adding gin to all of them. So, half are virgin lime marmalade and the other half have gin in them.
Here is the pan bubbling away.

I tried some on my toast this morning. It has a lighter, zingier flavour than traditional orange marmalade. I have to admit, I struggled to taste the gin too, but I might have to compare some of the boozy batch against the teetotal to see if I can taste the difference.
Now I have to think of the next cocktail to render in marmalade. A caipirinha – lime and cachaca? Amaretto sour – lemon and Amaretto? The possibilities are endless!

Marmalade Madness

If it’s January, then it must be marmalade time. What better way to banish the winter blues than to fill the kitchen with bright orange Sevilles and the whole house with the smell of simmering oranges. More than any other preserve, the process of making marmalade seems closest to alchemy, taking the base metals of citrus fruit and sugar and turning them into gold in a jar.
For the second time, I am planning to enter the Dalmain Marmalade Festival competition. They run the Marmalade Awards each year, with all the proceeds going to charity.
There are 13 different categories, and this year I’m aiming for the Dark and Chunky category, though if I can get hold of some interesting citrus fruits, I might try the “citrus with interesting additions” category too!
As I had such success with it last year, I’m using River Cottage’s whole fruit method. Rather than slicing up the peel before boiling, the whole fruit is simmered for two to two-and-a-half hours. Here are the oranges bubbling away in the pot. I wish I could link to the citrussy scents that filled the kitchen.

Afterwards, the peel is chopped up, as big or as small as you like. I once used the food processor for this, and though it speeded things up, it was hard to control how big the bits of peel were. So I’m afraid that hand chopping is best.

Then the peel and the remaining liquid are boiled up with the sugar. I like to add muscovado as well as white sugar for a really deep flavour.

In theory, it only needs ten minutes’ boiling, but I had to do it a lot longer. If it was any other jam, I’d worry that the colour would be too deep and that a caramelly flavour had been introduced, but for marmalade, dark and caramelly works for me.
So finally here are some of the 12 jars I ended up with. W and I don’t always get through it all in one year, but it always seems to be gratefully received by friends and family.


Slow sloe gin

As the nights draw in, there’s nothing like a small snifter of fruit gin. Pouring a glass of deep red liquid takes me back to the summer and autumn days when I foraged the fruit.
The first time we looked at houses in Mitcham, I was surprised to see wild plum trees by the side of the tram path. Further exploration on the common and along the Wandle has revealed a profusion of free fruit available to forage near our house. Sloes, brambles, damsons, plums, elderberries and apples are all available at certain times of year. At first, the fruit was turned into a variety of jams, jellies and chutneys. The jellies especially have become a staple in the spouse’s barbecue marinades. But with the cupboard shelves now groaning with jam jars, it was time to look at another use for the fruit.
The first experiments were with the classic sloe plus plum, damson and bramble. All are subtly different. The damson has a drier almond flavour in comparison to the sloe. The plum is similar but sweeter, while bramble has a lovely jamminess which makes it all too drinkable. All four became firm favourites.
Fearing we would drink the gins before we could make more, we might have gone over the top last year. There have now been sloe, damson and bramble gins maturing at the bottom of a cupboard for over a year now. They are all still slowly absorbing the flavours of the fruit, waiting for us to to decant them into bottles. I thought that we had made too much back in 2012, but despite the bumper bramble harvest this year, I didn’t manage to forage any plums, damsons or sloes thus year. I don’t know if the late spring that was such a boon to the brambles was death to the prunus family, or if another forager got to them first, but it seems like the over-production of 2012 has stood us in good stead. I think there’s about a glass left in the damson gin bottle before I have to decant another jar and all this writing is making me thirsty. And anyway, I’ll need a drink before I tell you about the lemon balm vodka.


The reluctant blogger

It seems like my question “to blog or not to blog” on Moodle created a fair bit of discussion. There seemed to be a 50/50 split between my fellow students on whether they embraced the blogosphere or not.

Now, I like to think I’m not a Luddite. After all I do have an O-grade in Computer Studies, gained in 1984. This was the very first year that the subject was offered as an exam option in Scottish schools. I learned Basic, watched in awe as my teacher booked a flight by connecting computer via a phone in an acoustic coupler and wrote an essay on an election simulation program that  I had to load up from cassette tape each time. And at home my brother had the classic Sinclair ZX81 which had to be connected to the TV.

At university for my first degree, (1986-1990) I quickly mastered the library’s fancy new computer catalogue, searching for and reserving books through it. However, all essays were still handwritten at that time – copying and pasting was literal. I would end up assembling a rough-cut by cutting up various drafts and sticking them together with sellotape. Then I had to make a clean copy, with any errors corrected via Tipex. Mmmm, love that smell – solvent abuse!

But my final long essay in Social Anthropology had to be printed out and bound, which meant evenings in the computer lab. I seem to remember that there were about 10 computers available, though I think the science departments had more available for their students. And the essay was printed off in that lovely green stripey paper with holes down the side.

Then it was on to a career as a subtitler with the BBC (1994). In the early days, we saved our unfinished files on standard floppy discs. We were all given a little box that stored about 10 discs, because none of the computers was networked so the only way to ensure you could access your work from a previous day if you were at a different computer was to save it to disc and carry it around. Even better was the format used to transmit the subtitles – 8-inch floppy discs! And the delivery mechanism? Physically handing them to the playout team. For late delivering programmes, we had to run down Wood Lane from the White City building to TV Centre. Since Wood Lane was a bit dodgy in those days, we were all issued rape alarms to carry with us. There was much rejoicing when the computers were finally networked and we could deliver our subtitle files that way.

Around this time, probably about 1996, a bunch of us at work realised while digging around on the shared drives that there appeared to be an application called Netscape that let us access the internet. We weren’t supposed to use it – it had been reserved for our managers – but once we had found it, there was no going back. One unforeseen consequence of this was our use of the BBC’s own library services dropped off sharply. No longer were we asking them to fax through sheet music when we couldn’t hear the lyrics of a song, we were looking it up online. Along with John Birt’s system of internal charging, where we had to pay for each of our enquiries to the library, this had a huge impact on the library. (Side note – the spellcheck on WordPress just tried to change fax to facts. How quickly technology becomes obsolete!)

Soon after, e-mail was introduced at work, and after we had all been sent on a one-day course in how to use it, it was goodbye to paper memos in our pigeon-holes. And the same time, I bought my first home computer – cost around £1,500, took me three years to pay-off and probably had about as much computing power as the most basic mobile phone these days. I e-mailed friends in the US, wrote on message boards about my favourite TV shows and used ICQ to talk to someone in Canada who happened to share my surname.

So after that enormously long pre-amble, I should come back to the question of why I’ve never embraced blogging. It’s certainly not through a fear of technology – I enthusiastically embrace Facebook and Twitter.

Using “real-life” analogies, I suppose I see Facebook as an interactive version of the Christmas round robin letter, sending out updates on my life to my friends, whether they want them or not.

My use of Twitter it is an odd mix of entertainment and politics. I first seriously started Tweeting when there was a movement to pressure News Of The World advertisers via Twitter to withdraw their support after the phone hacking revelations. And my next big tweet attack was during the riots of 2011. As we watched Reeve’s Corner in Croydon burn on TV, the twittersphere was full of rumours that Mitcham (where I live) was also erupting. Except it wasn’t, and some responsible tweeters were posting photos of an empty town centre to show that nothing was kicking off. I added to the tweets myself to pass on and strengthen the message that the riots hadn’t spread to us.

The other part of Twitter I love is watching something on TV and reading the Twitter reaction at the same time. A big part of my memory of watching the Olympics opening ceremony is the Twitter reaction – the shared love for the NHS and the lightning quick slap-downs of MP Aidan Burley.  And for me, watching Strictly or Bake-off without Twitter is like a meal without salt.

So why am I ambivalent about blogging? I wonder if it’s just not as much a good match for to my personality. Already reading this back, I think to myself, God, I must be boring the pants off most of the readers. (If anyone is reading this to begin with.) Who wants to read this stuff?

Maybe I’m too tied up in the idea of a blog being an online diary and I’ve never been a diarist. A few teenage attempts died off after about 10 days in all cases. Laziness or just an unwillingness to embrace introspection?

Maybe it’s self-censoring – do I want my innermost thoughts to be visible online? And if I’m thinking this but still blog, how accurate is the blog? We all have an online personality that to a lesser or greater degree isn’t our “real-life” personality. If I’m always thinking about who might be reading this, does it just become a fiction?

Maybe I think I don’t particularly have anything new to add. I had pondered a blog about my foraging, jam and wine making and baking, but do any search and you can find numerous blogs covering the same subjects already. Why repeat what someone else is already saying? I think back to many meetings I sat through at work, where one person would inevitably talk for the sake of being seen to talk. They didn’t add anything of use or interest to the meeting and just stopped me getting back to doing my work.

Will a blog help my studying? Again, I don’t know that it suits my style of learning. It would be interesting to see the reactions of my fellow students to the course as it progresses, but if each of us has a blog, how will I be able to keep up with 30+ blogs plus all the other reading? Isn’t this what Moodle is for? But I suspect that Ernesto has something up his sleeve to address this. A shared blog may be the way forward.

Will I have to blog in my new career? It’s highly likely, and I have no problem learning how to do it.

I keep getting back to the idea that it’s horses for courses – everyone has their own personality and everyone embraces technology to the degree they feel comfortable. Web 2.0 is lovely box of chocolates, with lots of choices, but for me at the moment, blogging is the coffee cream. I’ll eat it if there’s nothing left, but I’d rather have a hazelnut truffle.