Monday, 2 January 2012

Wild food from the park – November

So, with November, we were nearly there for a full year of wild food from the Park. If you’d asked me in January if November was likely to yield much wild food, I suspect that I would not have been hopeful of finding much beyond some meagre greenery and a few jelly ear fungi. But, as you’ll see, a long extended tail of a mild Autumn left us with a relative cornucopia of delights in November... which does make for a more interesting blog!

In a previous attempt to use the wild food in our park, we tried to make some hawthorn jelly sweets using a recipe in Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book. On that occasion, the haws (collected late in the season) were rather sparse and quite dry and the resultant sweets were a bit of a disappointment. This year, we were able to pick them a bit earlier, so the moisture content was higher. But there was, again, quite a poor hawthorn harvest in King’s Park’s. So, we supplemented these with hawthorn berries, or haws, from East Lothian, where the hawthorn bushes were so red this year with big, plump haws that they looked more like cherry trees. On a visit to see family, I collected a couple of kilogrammes of hawthorn berries from the Longniddry-to-Haddington railway walk, which is lined for much of its length with hawthorns and which, in October this year, was distinguished by dense, bright red drifts of haws. This photo is a bit out of focus but it shows the lovely, fat, red hawthorn berries:

 The recipe calls for the boiling of the haws with water, straining the resultant mash, then boiling the resultant liquid with sugar until it thickens. It is then poured into moulds or onto a flat tray to set – a bit like a fruit leather, I guess. The resultant sweets are then rolled/coated in icing sugar to stop them sticking and the final result is not unlike Turkish Delight! And did I mention, surprisingly tasty?

We did a bit of both – here are some hawthorn jellies produced in silicon moulds:

and here’s the process of forming it into a sheet and cutting it up (free tip: kitchen scissors proved more effective than a knife):

Just as with the start of this project in January and February, when we were able to harvest jelly ear (or Jew’s ear) fungus, even in the coldest weather (when everything else in the Park was frozen solid between -10° and -20° C for weeks), as the rest of the wild food harvest began to dwindle in November as winter approached, so we were able to collect many large, freshly-emerged jelly ear fungi from dead elder trees or broken-off branches. We used them with some of the wild chanterelles we collected earlier (not from the Park) in a potato and wild mushroom ‘au gratin’ dish from Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book. Finely-sliced potatoes are layered with wild mushrooms and garlic in a casserole dish, cream poured over the top, parmesan grated on top and the lot is baked in a hot oven:

The jelly ear fungi, although quite tasty, have a tendency to rubbery chewiness when cooked (we normally cut them up very small), but prepared this way, they were quite tender.

One of my favourite discoveries this year has been a large area of wild garlic in a relatively inaccessible corner of the Park, and the riotously-tasty wild garlic pesto we made from some of it in April (here). I’ll definitely be making more (much more) in 2012, now that I know we have such a large local supply of wild garlic. That experience made me keen to explore other possible pesto ingredients from the Park. One of the key ingredients of ‘true’ pesto is pine nuts. Obviously, that’s a difficult wild food ingredient to source locally but I couldn’t help thinking that the few beech nuts (or ‘mast’) that we started to find in the Park from late September were very like pine nuts in look, texture and even to some extent in taste. Now, as I wrote about in the September wild food post, most of the beech mast cases we looked at were empty or contained hollow beechnut cases but a few had little beech nuts and we began to collect them, along with the few hazelnuts we could find that hadn’t been snaffled by the darned grey squirrels. Comments on Twitter by TV gardening broadcaster Toby Buckland and in the Guardian newspaper’s nature diary suggested that 2011 was, at least in the south of Britain, looking like a classic ‘beech mast year’, with a prodigious crop of beech nuts. I had high hopes, therefore, of a great opportunity to make lots of beech nut pesto but, by late November, our local crop proved to be thin pickings, it was obvious that we weren’t going to find any more and we had to make do with a small dish of local beech and hazel nuts supplemented by some shop-bought hazelnuts (boo – the best-laid plans and all that):

Our meagre catch of local hazel and beech nuts

But, with the addition of the more usual oil, parmesan, basil, etc ingredients, we made a more-than-passable pesto:

Beech and hazel nut pesto certainly looks the part...

And it was pretty tasty on cracked-back-pepper oatcakes. Next stop, some pasta.

We managed to gather a few remaining sloes from the Park but, on my East Lothian visit, I also found a blackthorn bush that yielded nearly two pounds of sloes (and that was only a small part of the crop). Then, at the eleventh hour as far as this particular harvesting opportunity is concerned, I discovered a little crab apple tree out in the middle of the Park’s golf course. All but three of its crab apples had fallen and been removed (actually only the day before!) when the greenkeepers sucked up all the leaves along the edge of the fairway with their leaf and (crab apple) sucking machine. But I picked those remaining three (and watch out next year!), and with some of the few apples our garden’s apple trees managed to produce, we used the sloes to make a sloe and apple cheese using another recipe from Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book:

Amazing sticky red sloe and apple cheese goo!

...transformed into preserved ‘product’ and awaiting consumption on a cheese board!

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