Saturday 30 August 2008

Making Use of Wild Foods

A wet and miserable August in the UK has made this month pretty bad for wild foragers. Wild blackberries, which you would expect in profusion really aren't lasting on the briars so it might take a few trips to get enough to be useful.

Indeed, I left much of my standard harvesting until far too late. Normally I pick Ash Keys early in August. It wasn't until this weekend that I picked them this year though. These you have to pick whilst young and green and you have maybe a week left now before they start drying out. This late in the season you will need to look for small ash trees in deep shade. This way you can still find younger, less mature keys.

Whether Ash keys are really worth picking is another rather vexed question. They're quite bitter and you will need to boil them through at least 3 changes of water to make them palatable (and to soften them). Once you've done this take about 400g Ash keys, add 300ml vinegar, your favourite pickling spices, 1 tsp paprika and 1 tbsp salt and bring to a boil. Bottle in sterilized jars and store. You will get something that tastes rather like bitter capers.

What I did discover, however, is that ash keys make a very acceptable substitute for a number of biter spices normally found in West African cookery. So this year my wife and I have developed a recipe for a Spiced Ash Key Pickle that works very well in West African soups and stews.

Just to show how this works, here's a link to a Kale and Ash Key Stew that's based on the classic Liberian dish of Cassava Leaf Stew. (You can find many more classic Liberian Recipes at the Celtnet Liberian Reicpes page which has the web's most extensive collection of these recipes.

Finding this use for Ash Keys really has changed my view of this wild food and I now have several large jars of pickled ash keys ready for use well into next year. It's amazing what you miss if you limit yourself to one type of cuisine.

This weekend I also picked my first elderberries. They're just beginning to ripen now and I had just enough to make an elderberry and blackberry roly poly (recipe below). It will probably be another 10 days before the elderberries are properly ripe, but you will have to be quick this year to get them as the birds are already stripping ripe elderberries from the trees. Pick them as soon as you see ripe ones (cut the whole spray of fruit from the elder tree and when you get home use the tines of a fork to strip the berries from the stalks).

Blackberry and Elderberry Steamed Roly Poly

300g blackberries, washed and cleande
100g elderberries, de-stalked and washed
5 tbsp soft brown sugar
450g plain flour
180g vegetable suet
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Place the elderberries in a bowl and scatter 1 tbsp of the sugar over the top. Meanwhile, sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir-in the suet. Mix together before adding just sufficient water to form a stiff dough. Cut 1/3 of the dough off and set aside. Roll the remaining dough on a lightly-floured surface until large enough to cover the base and sides of a 1l pudding basin. Combine the fruit, mix add the sugar then tip the fruit mixture into the pudding basin. Roll out the remaining dough and place over the top of the pudding to form a lid. Allow enough room for expansion and crimp the lid to the pastry lining the sides.

Either cover with a lid or a circle of greaseproof paper then cover the entire pudding in a double layer of kitchen foil and tie securely with string. Place in a steamer (or on top of an inverted saucer in a large saucepan) and boil for 2 hours.

When ready, remove from the pot an allow to cool for a few minutes before carefully removing the foil and lid. Invert a serving plate over the bowl then turn everything over so the pudding slides out of the bowl and onto the plate. Slice and serve hot with ice-cold milk.

This recipe is based on my mother's traditional family recipe for Blackberry Roly Poly, a dish that, in our family always marked the end of harvest time and the beginning of autumn.

I have to say that I was so delighted at getting a decent collection of elderberries on my first forage that I decided to create a whole new dish to use them: Chicken Thighs with Chickpeas in a Tomato, Chilli and Elderberry Sauce! Over the next few weeks, as my freezer begins to fill with fruit, be ready for recipes for Elderberry ice cream, elderberry sorbets, sauces, preserves and jams.

For all the wild food recipes on this blog, see the wild food recipes page.
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