sweet chestnuts

I’m amazed to discover just how many local, foraged foods I’ve rarely even tasted. Traditionally roasted whole sweet chestnuts is one of them. Castanea sativa. We were thrilled to find heavily laden chestnut trees in the countryside around us, and gathered some whenever we walked by.

sweet chestnuts © elisa rathje 2011

I have eaten chestnuts, once. For an anniversary, when we were in Paris for work, my sweetheart and I went to a remarkable Corsican restaurant where marron is used in extraordinary ways. We tried chestnut wine, chestnut bread, chestnut ice cream. It was intoxicatingly delicious, unforgettably so. We don’t have enough from our foraging to grind chestnut flour, but I’d love to try some day.

sweet chestnuts © elisa rathje 2011

Author, gardener and forager, Alÿs Fowler introduced me to the sweet chestnut on a foraging walk in September, before the chestnuts were ripe. This autumn some neighbourhood children showed me how to gently step on the spiky cases to press them open and pinch the deeply coloured seeds from inside. My tall girl says to score the skin with an X around the tufty end before roasting, so that they don’t explode, an effect that she tested at her bushcraft course. I’d love to try a traditional chestnut roasting pan, a friend offered to lend us hers. Exciting! For now we’re saving the chestnuts in the fridge for the holidays, to roast them over an open fire.

rosehip cordial

Last year we made a rosehip infusion, sweetened lightly with a little stevia, and used within a short time like you would fresh juice. This year we wanted to preserve rosehip cordial to use medicinally throughout the winter. Gathering rosehips to make a vitamin C-rich cordial was encouraged during wartime in Britain. We’re growing very fond of the tradition. We used a combination of rosehips, including apple roses like the ones Alÿs Fowler showed us. We’re so fond of nibbling round those fresh, but they were starting to go, so we hurried to collect a bowl of them.

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Give the hips a rinse,

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Then remove the stems. Aren’t they just gorgeous?

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Chop them roughly. Keep in mind that the seeds are used for itching powder! You needn’t remove them though.

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Toss them in a pot of boiling water using just less than double the volume of water as their weight – so if you have 400 grams of rosehips, use about 700ml of water. Bring it all to boil again, leave it to cool somewhat, and pour through a scalded cloth.

rosehip-5

Hang up your muslin or jelly bag full of rosehips and let them drip for a while, and repeat the whole process again. This time leave it to hang overnight.

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Combine the infusions and measure them. The River Cottage Preserves recipe calls for 650 grams of sugar to about 1 litre of juice.

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

Slowly heat til the sugar is dissolved, then boil for a couple of minutes.

rosehip cordial © elisa rathje 2011

I sterilise my cordial bottles in the dishwasher and if I can’t time it well to have warm bottles ready, I fill them with hot water while they’re waiting, then quickly pour the water out just before ladling in the hot syrup and corking them. Preserves says to use within 4 months. This won’t be a problem over here. Sterilise in a water bath if you want to keep it longer, and keep refrigerated once opened. We love a couple of splashes of rosehip cordial in a glass of water and we’re very much looking forward to having it all through the cold seasons.

foraging with alys fowler

As luck would have it, things fell into place for me to go along on a foraging walk with the remarkable gardener and author Alys Fowler. Her little series, The Edible Garden, was pure joy, you must look out for it if you’ve missed it, my little children adored it just as much as I did. A group of friendly people showed up for an unforgettable lesson in wild food. To my utter delight my dear friend Sonny joined us too, my friend who foraged sloes, damsons and rosehips for me last year, whom I hadn’t seen in far too long. Amazing.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Alys is ever so lovely, just as you’d expect. We walked with her through parks in the city, and she introduced to us an astonishing variety of edible plants, many of which we sampled like wine-tasters in a vineyard. She’d brought along some greens from the allotment, delicious weeds like fat hen.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We found bittercress and also chickweed;

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

And a gentler nettle than the prickly giants that grow all around our cottage. Just the thing Eeyore would prefer, I should think. I shall be watching out for these to add to salads.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Lime leaves! Best young and fresh in the spring before the aphids attack.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Hawthorns in full fruit. My little one is determined to make a jelly from them, but Alÿs says it may be a lot of work to get much out of them!

She prefers a larger type, closer to the crab apple, it’s dusty orange just now and will ripen later on.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Rose hips, the kind I love to make into cordial.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Apple rose, these hips are astonishing, we ate them raw, nibbling around the seeds, as those are irritating if eaten, and watching out for creatures. Gorgeous. I found some since with my children and they adored them.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Ah, the medlar, so medieval, this is the first time we’ve met in person, and I’ve not yet tasted them. Wait til they are overripe.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sloes! I made sloe ginlast year, it is exquisite stuff, but my children are begging for sloe jam, perhaps mixed with apples from granny’s tree. Alys puts them in the freezer before popping them into gin.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Like a magician Alys revealed, hidden in the low leaves, quince – Japanese quince? She says to look around parking lots, they’re often planted there. I’ll be skulking in parking lots in early autumn, then, for these are beautiful, and the quince brandy I made last year is long gone and very much missed.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Then I fell head over heels for a fruit I’d never seen, much less tasted. The mulberry, oh, my goodness. I declare it the finest of all berries.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We swooned over an edible flower. Begonia, can you imagine? Lemony. I love it. How can I have lived so long without begonias in my salad! I want to float them in jelly.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Feverfew, terribly useful medicinally, if unpleasant. We didn’t sample that one.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

I’m so pleased to know what a walnut tree looks like. Perhaps one day I’ll beat the squirrels.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sonny and I inspected the leaf closely so we’ll know the tree when we see it. Apparently the nuts are bound up in little green packages, but they were all gone.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Then there is the sweet chestnut, which I’ve also never tasted! I hope to try cooking with them. One of things I admire about Alys is that she clearly knows how to enjoy using wild food in the kitchen, not just standing at the bush having a browse. I aspire.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sonny and Alys collected a few plums with the fruit picker, she says that they’re always mixing with other plums so the variations are endless. These were lovely. I’ve walked past a plum by my Canadian home for years, not sure if I could eat it, the way you do when you haven’t been properly introduced, and every year it litters the pavement with fruit. I’ll be up on a ladder with it now!

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

I’d love to find another place with so many types of apples.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Beautiful, bright sweet crab apples, nothing like the crab apples I tasted (only once!) as a child.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We ate the little red ones like candy. Identifying all these plants was a dream, like going to a party full of wonderful people you’ve long admired and hoped to meet. A bit like meeting the extraordinary Alys Fowler herself. Her knowledge of plants is equally matched by my sieve-like memory, so I’m very fortunate that she’s written
The Thrifty Forager
, and hope to be studying it soon. Thank you Alys, this was a marvellous evening.