Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Wild and free – or the art of self-preservation

On family walks when I was a child, my mother always had a couple of bags in her pocket, for blackberries or crab apples, chestnuts or cob nuts, sloes or rosehips. She saw the invention of the polythene bag as a particular gift to foragers, especially when it came to the juicier fruits. In later years mum believed that the environmental impact of too many plastic bags was cancelled out by the benefits of gathering nature’s beneficence. She was also of the generation that washed and dried her plastic bags for re-use.

Foraging remains an important part of our walks in the country, not to mention in towns and cities too. A couple of years ago we discovered in the valley half a mile or so from the cottage, a clump of wild damson trees laden with small round purple fruits. The bounty generated jars of sharp and flavoursome plum jam, rekindling enjoyment in teatime toast and sponge cake. I also discovered the pleasures of crystal clear, crimson damson jelly, which heightens the flavour of roast meats and game. Not to mention the thrifty satisfaction of converting the leftover pulp from jelly making into damson cheese - just as delicious with cheddar and brie as those smart little pots of membrillo from upmarket stores..

Alas, hopes of replenishing the store cupboard last year vanished thanks to a broken wrist. So it was with great anticipation that we set off last week down into the valley to inspect, and hopefully gather, the 2011 wild damson harvest. Grandchildren entered into the foraging spirit with gusto, especially four year old Finlay, who was keen to use the bent-wire-coathanger-on-a-walking stick tool devised to reach the higher branches.

We returned with three kilos of damsons, plus another two kilos of larger and sweeter fruit discovered on plum trees in one of the secret little lanes that criss-cross the village. Then we picked a few of the apples from our tree to add to the blackberries from the brambles in the churchyard for a quick pudding.

The next evening, as I gathered jam jars and jelly bags for sterilizing, rinsed the preserving pan, organised thermometer, labels and pens, the sky above the hills turned to a glorious crimson – just the colour of damson jam as it bubbles and swirls in the pan.

And a few days later, my larder is re-filled with pots and jars of preserves of fruits foraged and gathered for free. The only costs are sugar and vinegar from the village shop, plus the cooking fuel.

Wild damson jam

Put one kilo of damsons, washed and with stalks removed, into a preserving pan with 1.4 litres of water. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently until the fruit is soft. The dark skins will split, revealing golden flesh and then the whole lot turns a lovely rich crimson.

Add one kilo of granulated sugar, stir until completely dissolved and then bring to the boil. The small stones will begin to float to the surface, so scoop them up with a perforated spoon and then remove them with a teaspoon. (Sounds fiddly, but far, far easier and quicker than stoning damsons before cooking.)

Cook at a fast boil for a set (105 degrees C or 225 degrees F on a sugar thermometer). Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 10 minutes, skim off any scum and remaining stones, then pour carefully into hot, sterilized jars and seal. Label when cold.

Damson and apple jelly

The beauty of jelly making is that you don’t need to stone or peel the fruit first, simply wash. Put 900g of damsons into a pan with 450g of tart apples, (chopped and including cores and skin), 150ml of cider vinegar and 750ml of water.

Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Pour the fruit and juices carefully into a sterilized jelly bag suspended over a large bowl and leave to drip (at least three hours, or preferably overnight.

Measure the strained juice into the cleaned preserving pan, adding 450g of granulated sugar to every 600ml of juice. Bring to the boil, stirring to ensure the sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly for a set (105 degrees C or 225 degrees F).

Remove from the heat, skim any scum, then pour into warm,

sterilized jars. Cover and seal while hot. Use within two years.

Damson and apple cheese

Remove the pulp from the jelly bag, stir in enough hot water to make a soft puree, then push through a sieve.Weigh the puree and put into a clean pan with an equal weight of sugar (eg 450g of sugar to 450g of puree). Stir to dissolve then simmer the mixture until it is so thick that the spoon leaves a clear line when drawn across the pan. (I call it the Red Sea test). Stir frequently to avoid sticking and burning. Spoon the fruit cheese into warmed sterilized jars (preferably with straight sides) and seal. Alternatively put into small ramekins, cover with cling film and refrigerate - but eat within a month.

These recipes come from the excellent The Complete Book of Preserves & Pickles, Jams, jellies, Chutneys & Relishes, written by Catherine Atkinson and Maggie Mayhew. ISBN 1-84477-016-8. The book also contains very useful advice on sterilizing and sealing, together with stockists of preserving equipment.

All photographs taken by Sandi in her Cotswold kitchen.

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