drying nettles

The moment to forage for stinging nettles is early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves and great respect for the plants are required. A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to help me as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength. The old-timers would take bitters at this time of year, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens.

sun-dried-nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good sunny day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp.

Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring. You can make fresh nettle soup and nettle tinctures too. Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions and medicinal tisanes is a very old practice. I’m ever so fond of it.

dried-nettles

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.

elderberrying

Whenever I become familiar with a plant I begin to see it everywhere, ubiquitous, like the name of a star who appears everywhere you look. Each year the elderberry eluded me. I never knew it like I know the wild blackberry, sure of its stages, and though we knew where to find elders from gathering elderflower in the spring, we’d return each summer to England long past berry season. This summer we were resolute. On a sunny afternoon the children and I called on the first plants we’d collected flowers from, along an old greenway near our old flat in London, where nettles grow tall and rich and blackberries line the path.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

Abundance.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

I was warned that elderberries are a bit poisonous raw, and so we still only imagine their flavour, though we’ve since heard that’s only the unripe ones. The bucketful we’ve picked are bound for a medicinal cordial, but may not make it past us to flu season. While the berries on the sunny side of the path were glorious black, in the shade there are green ones, there’s time yet to return for more elderberrying.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

The elders grow tormentingly tall along our path, but we made a couple of friends, building at the end of a garden, who emerged with the perfect berry snips, and helped us forage a few extra umbels. Ever so kind! I spotted what I thought were plums high up, out of reach, and I’m delighted to hear they are likely damsons. My first glimpse of them. This is wild fruit I’ve only dreamt of in deep winter whilst poring over my copy of Hedgerow.

mirabelles © elisa rathje 2011

Our friends confirmed that we’d found a wild plum. Probably mirabelles, if Mark, the head gardener at River Cottage, can be trusted. He did just write their latest handbook, Fruit, which I must wrestle away from my tall girl so I can read it myself.

hawthorn berries © elisa rathje 2011

Our small girl was enchanted with the hawthorn berries and wanted to collect them. I’m hoping they will keep on the trees until we’re back in the countryside with our trugs and our preserving jars. I’ll be back soon to show you what I’m doing with all the wild food!

Before you go, subscribe to the appleturnover postcards, which will commence with this autumn’s equinox, in celebration of a year of homemade stories. I’ll be marking the anniversary with a gloriously delicious project that tells the story of how appleturnover came to be. Get the postcards to your inbox for a peek at what I’m plotting to learn to make in the coming months and to catch singular homemade projects appearing in the impending appleturnovershop.

red huckleberries

Huckleberry season is finally upon us. On the pacific coast the wild berries are flourishing.

huckleberry © elisa rathje 2011

Like the salmonberry, the red huckleberry is an indigenous plant along the west coast of Canada, and it picks up as salmonberry season leaves off. I’ve happy childhood memories of gathering the little baubles.

huckleberry © elisa rathje 2011

Our little berrypickers found a few the size of blueberries!

huckleberry © elisa rathje 2011

Apparently the berries were quite fond of the extraordinary rain on the coast this year. There’s such a crop, instead of simply grazing through the forest we’ve been filling buckets and there’s talk of huckleberry jelly.

huckleberry © elisa rathje 2011

The bushes are partial to growing out of nurse stumps, delightful habit. One stump mothered not only a healthy huckleberry but a very tall tree!

huckleberry © elisa rathje 2011

Today we foraged at a red huckleberry that was so aged, I wonder if I picked its berries as a child?

Indigenous peoples found the plant and its fruit very useful. The bright red, acidic berries were used extensively for food throughout the year. Fresh berries were eaten in large quantities, or used for fish bait because of the slight resemblance to salmon eggs. Berries were also dried for later use. Dried berries were stewed and made into sauces, or mixed with salmon spawn and oil and eaten at winter feasts.
The bark of the plant was used as a cold remedy thanks to the therapeutic acid called quinic acid. The leaves were made into tea or smoked. The branches were used as brooms, and the twigs were used to fasten western skunk cabbage leaves into berry baskets.
Huckleberries make a good jelly, or can be eaten as dried fruit or tea.

Wonderful wild fruit. I am awfully fond of going to the woods for a snack. What are you gathering?

Oh! About exciting plans I mentioned… those of you who followed me about last week may have spotted me learning to bake apple turnovers at Fratelli Bakery in Vancouver – there’s quite a story around this! It’s such a sweet one for me, I’m saving it up for appleturnover.tv’s first birthday the beginning of September.

salmonberries

Cold, wet spring pushed the berry season back, so the salmonberries are abundant for early summer.

salmonberry picking, animation, © elisa rathje 2008

Rubus spectabilis. They glow ruby and golden all through the lush pacific forests. Our walks are slowed to a berrying pace. When we lived here I drew them, I think they are such luminous wild things. It pleases me that they’ve never really been cultivated. Some say that they are named for their resemblance to salmon eggs. An important first berry of the year to indigenous people here, they fruit just ahead of red huckleberries. I’d love to know more about wild plants here, if I am very fortunate I can persuade my herbalist friend to take us on a foraging walk. Wish me luck.

salmonberry picking, animation, © elisa rathje 2008

Salmonberries are a childhood food to me, and I’ve never grown into preserving them as I have many other foraged foods. Yet. I’ve heard that they make a delicate jam, wine, or liqueur, perhaps like their relation, rubus chamaemorus, the cloudberry. (Oh! I didn’t realise that the cloudberry grows in Canada! I always think of it as distinctly Northern European. We adore the Finnish Lakka liqueur.) We were astonished to find the pink florets blooming along a lake near our cottage in Sussex, and so had the unexpected pleasure of following my Canadian coastal childhood practice of plucking off the petals and sipping the nectar, like so many hummingbirds.