Autumn pleasures - a forager's dream

Poor summer but the flowers came through in the end

It’s true that the summer has been nothing to write home about – at least if you are a sun worshiper penning a postcard from Sheffield.  Nature though is a resilient thing and despite the rain badly affecting some mainstream crops there is still an abundance of foraging opportunities out there in Sheffield’s wild hinterlands.  So why not get out for a walk with a focus and pick up snack on the way?  In this and forthcoming pieces I am looking at the best seasonally available wild foods and finding exciting ways to prepare and preserve them for eating enjoyment into the winter.

Available now:  Cherry Plums, Blackberries, Bilberries, and Wild Fennel
Coming soon – Hazelnuts, Apples, Sloes, Elderberries, Rosehips, Rowan Berries and of course lots of fungus (as always never consume any wild mushrooms unless you have had your find expertly verified and please see notes on sustainability below).

Cherry Plums

Have you noticed these recently by the wide scattering on pavements and roads of their red or yellow fruits?  These are a good sign post and reminder that you better get picking fast before they all fall.  Not actually a wild plum these small trees/scrubs have been planted widely in hedges and on housing estates as well as escaping into countryside coppices.  The harvest this year seems to be particularly good and each tree’s fruit tastes slightly different.  Sweeter or a bit more tart, more water or in some cases a bit clothy!  Save the sweetest and juiciest to eat just as they but good use can also be made of the others by preserving and enhancing their flavours.


Red Cherry Plums ripening in the late summer sun

Cherry Plum Jam

This simple recipe uses my patent method of stone extraction turning what could be a torrid job into a simple pleasure (well just about).  Making a little extra of this plum pulp will give the basis of the hazelnut and plum tart below.

First extract the pulp.  Rinse your harvest of cherry plums in clean water and dump into your largest pan.  Don’t add any water but carefully increase the heat until the natural juices start to run and the plums gradually break down into a juicy puree.  Whilst the plums are cooking you could add flavourings such as star anise, cinnamon sticks or feeling flush even vanilla pods.  Now take a very coarsely holed sieve or my choice of a basket (easily obtainable from your local Chinese supermarket along with lots of other goodies) and simply rub the pulp through into a suitable receptacle.  Given a device with the right gauge of hole you will be left with the stones and more stubborn skins in your basket and lovely plum puree in your receptacle.


Pushing the pulp through a coarse sieve


You should be left with skin and bones/stones!

Making the jam.  This couldn’t be easier.  Just add the same weight of sugar as you have of plum puree along with some lemon juice.  For a typical 1.5kg batch of plum puree the juice of one lemon is great and you will be adding 1.5kg of sugar.  Whilst doing this pre-heat some jam jars that you have previously collected to sterilise in the oven at 350°F/180°C/Gas 4 for 10 minutes or so.  Once the sugar goes into the plum puree raise the heat stirring until the sugar has dissolved and then allow to gently boil until the temperature reaches 104°C or the jam forms definite ripples when a sample is put onto a saucer into the fridge for a few minutes.  At this point it is ready to bottle so pour into the hot jam jars filling to the top and securing the lid whilst still piping hot (this helps the preservation by creating a vaccumn in the top of the jar).

Hazelnuts

Found in many of the same places as Cherry Plums Hazelnut trees grow up to 6m and producing distinctive catkins in the spring (the male catkins hanging down up to 8cm).  This year the harvest is looking really good with the white un-ripe nuts already bigger than I have seen before.  Although quite interesting at this stage tasting really creamy, its better to wait until the nuts turn brown before picking.  Timing is everything as the window between ripeness and the loss to squirrels or simply high winds can be short.  So locate your trees now and then watch and wait ready to time your foray perfectly!


Sheffield hazelnuts in 2012 may be the best crop for a very long time

Hazelnut Frangipane and Plum Tarts

Lovely as posh individual tarts for a dinner party or as a larger pie/tart for everyday dining!  The recipe for this sweet pastry gives a lovely light and crisp pastry shell and I think simpler to make than say short crust pastry where you have to control the amount of liquid you add to bring the dough together more carefully.  There are admittedly few stages in this process but if you have made the jam and reserved some plum pulp and if you use a food processor to make the pastry it’s not too bad.

The most satisfying scenario would be to make the frangipane from locally collected hazelnuts, the nuts simply roasted for a few minute after shelling to enhance the flavour.  I must admit that I used ground almonds recently as the hazelnuts in my immediate vicinity need a few more weeks to ripen.  There may be a need to freeze some of the plum pulp whilst waiting for the nuts to catch up – a very good solution which helps extend the season.

Sweet pastry
Makes a 30cm tart tin or twelve 8cm individual tarts

175g butter
65g icing sugar
2 egg yolks
225g plain flour


Our Cow Molly Milk is for drinking whist making the pastry – it’s not needed in the recipe!

Blend all the ingredients except flour in a food processor and then blend in the flour.  Roll into a ball and rest for half an hour in the fridge.  Carefully roll out and use to line your choice of tin.  Blind bake at 350°F/180°C/Gas 4 until golden brown.

Hazelnut Frangipane

150g butter
150g icing sugar
150g of ground roasted hazelnuts (or use ground almonds for the more traditional approach)
50g plain flour
3 free range eggs

Cream the butter and icing sugar together before beating in the hazelnuts and flour.  Finally fold in the eggs one by one.

Assembly


Filling the tarts

Take some of the plum puree and spread onto the base of your pastry cases – you can add as much or as little as you like and you can also adjust the sweetness and flavouring with sugar and spice.  I left it quite tart as a contrast to the quite sweet frangipane mix.  Finally bake at  200C/400F/Gas 6 until the topping is nicely brown and appreciably risen – about 15-20 minutes.


Finished tarts just cool and eat

Some thoughts on sustainability.

Although picking wild food is very satisfying you quickly begin to realise that we are all custodians of this natural larder and that we have a responsibility to pick unselfishly to ensure that fruits and seeds are left to propagate a crop for next year (although leaving hazelnuts to be gobbled and hidden away by grey squirrels is a bit galling).  In addition many species, particularly many wild fungus species are in decline and collecting of any sort can endanger them.  Modern agriculture has evolved so that as nations we grow lots of a few very limited crops –actually 60% of the worlds food is derived from only four crops; potatoes, rice, wheat and corn.   This is in stark contrast to the Stone Age where man gathered hundreds of plants ensuring less dependence on limited crops.  So the next step up from simply helping yourself is to grow your own.  Locally there are a number of organisations involved in all sorts of growing projects many of which are linked under the umbrella of Grow Sheffield (http://www.growsheffield.com/index.html).  This is well worth checking out if you are interested in help with starting your own community planting scheme or simply to get involved in organic growing or say picking local fruits with Abundance (http://sheffieldabundance.wordpress.com/).

N.B. For more information on a new ways of eating and obtaining food see the speakers at last year’s MAD symposium – restaurant Nomas event which brought together chefs, grower and foragers to think beyond the norm – particularly Tor Nørretranders “From Wild to Tame – and Back Again” talk which can be seen on video here: http://madfood.co/mad-2011/video-2011.html

Happy foraging.  In the next piece I will look at the exciting bilberries available up on the moors, check in with wild fennel and blackberries and look ahead to a host of other wild Autumn edibles.

 This blog first appeared on the Exposed magazine site