Thursday, 4 October 2012

Autumn Bounty

After months of blog silence – here is another post following swiftly on the last one! I have been pretty busy on the herbal front the last couple of weeks so forgive me if this post is a bit all over the place…
Every year at this time I think how much I love autumn – the colours, the particular autumn smell, the misty mornings that (sometimes) give way to sunny days and just generally something different in the air, which for me, always seems like expectation of something about to happen or a sense of pleasant anticipation. It may seem strange to feel like this about a season, which effectively leads us into the more dormant and indoorsy period of winter but September and October have evoked these same feelings in me since being a small child.
It is also of course a time when the bounty of the hedgerow is perhaps at its most apparent and, long before I became interested in the medicinal or even food properties of plants, the sight of a rowan tree dripping with orangey-red berries or a hawthorn tree full of haws brightening up the roadside had the power to lift my spirits and make me smile. The last couple of years the appearance of these fruits has also signalled the start of a busy period of harvesting and processing.
Last week when I went out gathering I was also reminded that although nature is generous with her fruits, she will not wait on our convenience; some of the trees I had gathered from only a couple of weeks previously had berries that were already starting to shrivel and dry (in the case of sloes), or were starting to go soft and squishy (in the case of haws). So, if you want the harvest you need to work in with the tree’s time or it is too late!
Reaching for a few ripe sloes

On a similar theme, the drastic shortage of elderberries this year, which a few other people have noted in their blogs means that I may end up not making anything with them this autumn – instead having to eek out the elixir and tincture leftover from last year or find alternative anti-virals for colds & flu (ideas welcome…). Although disappointing not to be able to replenish stocks of elderberry elixir, the abundance of haws, rosehips and rowans seems to be nature’s way of making up for this!

So, what have I actually been doing?
This year I have had a go for the first time at making rowan berry and apple jelly (pictured & recipe below), a small amount of sloe gin (although the sloes have not been particularly abundant around here this year so I only gathered a few), hawthorn berry brandy and vinegar (currently macerating in cold and warm dark places respectively) and rosehip syrup (recipe below).
Last weekend I took further advantage of the fact that the hawthorn bushes are so laden with berries to gather some more in order to have another go at the festive hawthorn chutney I made last year (will let you know how it goes & post the recipe if successful). Last year’s batch was very nice as a first attempt but this time I intend to use some jam sugar to help with the set and also to cut down slightly on some of the spices used – the cloves and allspice in particular were rather overpowering in last year’s batch.
RECIPE! Rowanberry & apple jelly
For the rowanberry & apple jelly I slightly scaled down a recipe that recommended the following amounts: 1.8kg rowan berries, 1.4kg apples, 450g sugar per 600ml juice (I used half & half jam sugar & normal sugar).
I simmered the berries for about ½ hour until soft & mushy then strained through a jelly bag which took some time, measured the juice & added the corresponding amount of sugar then cooked at a boil for a few minutes. To test for a set I put a drop of the liquid on a cold plate in the fridge. I had to bring back to a boil 3 times before the setting consistency seemed ok (i.e. there was a trail left through the jelly when you run your finger through it on the plate).
Although it is supposed to be left to mature for a few weeks, I did fill one very small jar to try after 10 days – pretty happy with the results. Nice on toast, with lamb and also with pate (according to my boyfriend anyway…)!

RECIPE! Rosehip syrup
There are a number of rosehip syrup recipes out there with widely varying measures, especially as regards sugar content of the mixture so I sort of took a middle of the road approach and combined a few suggested recipes to make this simple cordial. I basically used a weight ratio of 2:1, rosehips:sugar.  

I did not de-seed the hips but mashed them up in the blender before adding to boiling water taking off the heat & leaving to steep for about 30 mins. I then strained through muslin to ensure the hairs of the seeds (which cause itching and irritation) did not get into the final juice. I then used the pulp again to steep in the second lot of boiling water & repeated the steeping & straining process to extract the maximum amount of goodness from the berries. For the first steeping I used twice as much water in litres as there were rosehips in kilos (i.e. 2 litres water to 1kg rosehips) and for the second steeping I used 1:1.
Finally I added the sugar, cooked until it had dissolved & simmered for a few minutes then bottled the cordial. I would assume for thicker syrup you would simply need to either use more sugar or reduce the liquid for longer. However, mine has come out fairly runny but still flavoursome and ok to either take by the spoonful or dilute in water like squash. I had personally never had rosehip syrup before but when I gave some to my mum she said it brought back real memories of her childhood when she remembers it as being quite a treat – so the recipe can’t be too far off the mark!
Other Stuff

Dried herbs waiting to be stored
In addition to berry gathering and processing (all of which always take far more time than I think it will but is usually rewarding at the end of it!), I have been decanting some of the tinctures and vinegars I harvested herbs for towards the end of the summer as well as starting to find storage for the various herbs I have been drying and laying some of the late ones out to dry.

Elecampane root in honey
I have never really worked much with roots before but last weekend I dug up my HUGE elecampane root and split it, in order to harvest some to make a honey with the fresh root (pictured) and dry some for use in a cough syrup later in the year (I have a friend who always gets a terrible cough in the winter so hope to make her a cough syrup using the elecampane root and possibly some of the hyssop that I harvested and dried earlier in the summer). Whilst off work this week I also finally got round to adding beeswax to my double infused plantain oil in order to make a salve for insect bites next year (incidentally I also found that a ribwort plantain infusion used as a cold wash works wonders on sunburn so was extra happy I gathered some in Stow at the herb festival as that was probably the only weekend this summer where it was possible to get sunburnt in the UK - and I did!).

Here is a picture of me with some of the fruits of my labours – chopped elecampane root ready for drying, newly decanted motherwort tincture in vodka, 2 bottles of rosehip syrup and 2 pots of double infused plantain ointment.

I should also not forget to mention the grand opening of my first ever batch of elderflower fizz (recipe below), which has gone down well with those who have tried it and was very easy to make, although it took longer to go fizzy than the recipe I was using suggested.

RECIPE! Elder Fizz
For 4.5 litres water I used about 10 heads of elderflowers (the recipe said 6 but I increased it due to the amount of rain we had had washing off the yeasts on the flowers), 2 lemons, 2 tablespoons cider vinegar.
I left the elderflowers & sliced lemons in a bucket of water for 36 hours, strained, added the sugar and vinegar & stirred until dissolved then bottled in plastic bottles (apparently when the liquid starts to fizz there is a danger of glass bottles exploding if you forget to check them so played it safe with plastic). It took at least a month for the liquid to really start to get fizzy and another few weeks before I actually tried it – but was worth the wait.


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