Hedgerow harvests

I like to eat. And I like to cook. I haven’t always – when the children were small and I was working full-time I loathed the very sight of a recipe book. I’m ashamed to admit that in those days their diet revolved around a choice of fishfingers, chicken nuggets or macaroni cheese. How they’ve grown up to be so enthusiastic about food is beyond me. In fact, apart from an aversion to raw onions (fair enough) and mushrooms (though chopped up really small in a sauce they go unnoticed), the three of them will eat just about anything now. Even more extraordinary is the fact that they’ve all become extremely competent if not inventive cooks. They certainly don’t get that from me – it’s probably sheer desperation!

In my own defence I can say that I’m now much better than I used to be in the kitchen. Which is to be expected, as I now have a surfeit of time. So much time that this year I’ve been doing something I managed to stay away from previously – except when we had a glut of figs from our tree in the garden at the old house. I’ve been making jam. Or jelly. Whatever. The recipes may say one thing but I’ve found that this is an area where science and cookery do whatever the hell they like. And to be honest, I don’t care if the sweet, fruity stuff I pour into my jars hasn’t reached its setting point or if it’s evolved so much that I have to carve it with a knife (though I’d draw the line at having to chip away at a block of something that was likely to break my teeth).

The first attempt was for a delicious concoction called Apple and Grape Jelly, a recipe passed on from my sister. As Mr B had just harvested his very first crop of white grapes from the greenhouse we thought it was worth a try. And it was absolutely delicious! The problem was that it was so good I totally ignored my intentions to reduce my calorie intake. I spooned the stuff onto toast at every opportunity and four jars of pinky-gold syrup vanished in a fortnight.nov 2014 2Looking for inspiration

So now there was a real crisis! No jelly! How quickly I’d become addicted and I needed to find another source – but what? It had been a good year for blackberries and we’d already had plenty of tarts and crumbles; but now they’d more or less dried up and there was nothing in the garden that could be cooked to within an inch of its life in enough quantities. And unfortunately not everything that grows is safe to eat…dec 2015 9Pyracantha – pretty sure we can’t eat this!

But then we were saved! Thankfully by now it was the end of September and there were a seeming never-ending supply of elder trees, dripping with clusters of berries. So armed with pockets of carrier bags we shuffled up and down the lanes and along the canal until we had collected several pounds of raw materials. Not without a competition as to who could pick the most or the nicest looking ones (if you’ve never picked elderberries you won’t appreciate the idiocy of that statement) and a certain amount of scorn from Mr B when I dutifully followed my sister’s instructions that at each tree we burgled I had to say ‘thank you, Mother Elder’. Nuts.sep 2015 11.jpgNo, this isn’t an elder tree – but who says trees don’t have personalities?

For anyone reading this (I know there are only two of you), if you ever feel like making elderberry jam (and I know one of you already has), I feel I should give you the benefit of my experience. The best way to get the berries from the stalks is with a fork; do it in the garden and accept the fact that your hands will be purple for the next two days. When the cauldron is bubbling away the kitchen is filled with a smell that, quite frankly, isn’t too promising. Our batch didn’t seem to want to set so we ended up adding some leaf gelatin – and it set a bit too much. But despite our doubts it tasted pretty good, which was just as well as there were six jars of it.

We’ve now eaten all the elderberry jelly and so have been forced to take the bag of rosehips from the freezer, where they’ve been for about six weeks. I was a bit worried about this particular recipe because my extensive research (a prowl through some internet sites and a natter with some mates at singing group) had implied that there can be unfortunate side effects to preparing and eating rosehips. The problem is with the seeds; they are covered in tiny hairs which are irritants. In short, if you handle the hairy seeds, you find that your hands itch. Furthermore if you don’t remove the hairy seeds and they find their way into your jam/jelly/marmalade you may well find that your rear end will be itching a little while later…

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This afternoon we boiled up a kilo of rosehips. Then we drained them, added piles of dark brown sugar and boiled them again before we realised that we couldn’t strain the mess we were left with because it was too glutinous and so it may be better to throw the lot away… Greed took over. And a certain amount of resolve. So we added more water, swooshed a wooden spoon through everything and then ladled it all through a sieve before repeating the process. Finally we poured it all into a clean pan and boiled it up again until… well, until we got bored. The jelly is now sitting in jam jars and it occurs to me that the cost of a large bag of brown sugar plus the gas bill incurred throughout the extended cooking period is probably three times what we’d have paid to buy a couple of pots of jam from Waitrose!

BUT…Thank god for the internet…rosehips are apparently a superfood! And they are nature’s answer to osteoarthritis! Who’d have thought? I wonder how much I’ll have to eat? Not that I suffer with OA but it’s best to be prepared.

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