Lying in bed this morning, I watched dark shapes fluttering earthwards in the breeze. The oak tree has begun to shed its leaves. Soon we will be awash in brown mulch and kept awake by acorns hitting the caravan or car roof!
The last few weeks have been a rush of gathering. Red rosehips and blackberries will soon be too ripe to pick and birds will have devoured all the elderberries.
As September departed in warm sunshine, I went foraging in the Friary field around the corner from my house. Everything was still damp from recent rain, so I left the bounty of nettle seed, but I found enough elderberries, haws, sloes and rosehips to make up a large jar of elderberry vinegar for Jacki and a delicious cordial. Since the latter is for enjoying rather than as a medicine, I didn't bother to evaporate it very much, which gave a larger yield.
Strip elderberries from stalks discarding any green ones and place in a glass jar. Cover with cider vinegar. Podge with a chopstick to remove air bubbles. Refill the jar with cider vinegar, seal, label and date. Keep in a warm dark place for three weeks then strain or use with the elderberries still in.
Place elderberries in a glass jar about 2/3 full. Cover with runny honey. Infuse for 4-6 weeks in a cool place watching carefully. Elderberries are covered with wild yeast and if kept in a warm place in too full a jar they can ferment and ooze over the side of the jar or even explode. Elderberries stain pink/purple, so should be wiped up immediately.
To make a delicious anti-viral oxymel, add 2tsp of elderberry vinegar to 2tsp elderberry honey in a mug and fill with boiling water. Otherwise, use the honey to sweeten other herbal drinks for an added anti-viral kick!
Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
An amount of hedgerow fruit – haws, sloes, rosehips, elderberries
1 inch of root ginger (grated)
1 nutmeg (grated)
2 large quills of cinnamon or cassia (whichever you have to hand)
Juice from one or more lemons
As many lbs of honey or sugar as you have pints of liquid remaining after evaporation
Strip the elderberries from their stalks using a fork. Remove any green elderberries. Wash remaining fruits if you think they need it. Place your hedgerow fruit in a large pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about half an hour. Strain the liquid and push any juicy bits you can through the sieve. Discard the debris and wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and put on a low heat to evaporate for a while, depending on how thick you want your cordial to be. When you are happy with the consistency, measure the liquid again and add 1lb sugar or 1lb honey to every pint of liquid. Heat very gently until the sugar/honey is dissolved. Add lemon juice to taste. Sterilise bottles in the oven for ten minutes on a low heat and sterilise the tops by putting them into a saucepan and boiling for ten minutes. Pour cordial into bottles, seal, label and date. To make the drink, add 1 tablespoon of cordial to a small cup/goblet of boiling water. Sip and enjoy.
I stole time last weekend to visit my parents and the Sanctuary. I really enjoyed searching for conkers in the empty pasture as light faded. The following day, my father wanted to dig up potatoes planted in the new bed, so while he dug, I gathered a last harvest of calendula petals and seeds, roses for white wine vinegar for cleaning, hops to tincture and New England aster to dry and display. Later, we picked rosehips and elderberries to dry and freeze.
I decided to use technology on the conkers this year instead of Chris and his hammer, so about thirty went into the grinder for an infused oil and the same amount into the liquidiser with some vodka to prepare a tincture. This is James Wong's method. It is a lot easier if you haven't managed to pick conkers in early August when they're still immature enough to slice, but it's going to be a pain to strain when it's ready. Luckily I have some butter muslin and will be able to squeeze! The oil came out a beautiful pale green. I shall be using it in a moisturising salve for my legs along with calendula and marshmallow leaf oils.
Like many people, our apple tree has been laden this year. The fruit is a flavourful cooker, but it's almost impossible to keep. The fruit starts rotting almost as soon as it hits the ground and some years on the tree as well! I haven't had time to pick all the apples on the tree, but I've been trying as much as I can to keep up with the windfalls.
It's a real bonus to sit on a sun-drenched bench and peel a basket of apples while honey bees cover the Michaelmas daises in the border. I bought my wicker gathering basket from Mellingey Mill Willow Craft Centre near Padstow over ten years ago. I love it. A basket of apples fills my largest 5 pint saucepan with apple slices which will then reduce by a third when cooked. I used to cook the apples into plain apple sauce with sugar, but this year I've been experimenting with a spiced apple sauce which we've been eating with Greek yoghurt for dessert.
Spiced apple sauce
Peel, core and slice cooking apples into a saucepan. Add half a grated nutmeg, 1 tsp powdered cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of powdered cloves. Add the minimum amount of water you can (I usually place the saucepan under the tap, turn it on and immediately off again). Place the now covered saucepan on the heat and bring to the boil slowly. Simmer until the apples are all soft stirring occasionally to ensure they don't stick or burn on the bottom. Leave to cool, then freeze or keep in the fridge.
Instead of spices, I've been experimenting with lemon juice, zest and honey replacing sugar. The first batch was too sharp for most tastes, but I'll try again soon.
I've also been cooking apple cakes using a family recipe from Germany. It's a really useful recipe if you have run out of eggs for a fruit or sponge cake or are entertaining vegan visitors.
12 oz flour (½ plain and ½ wholemeal)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt
6oz dark brown sugar
2oz walnuts (or mixed ground nuts)
10oz dates (or mixed dried fruits)
½ pint apples stewed without sugar
Prepare cake tin by greasing and lining with greaseproof paper. Heat oven to 180degrees C or Gas Mark 5. Sieve flour with bicarb and salt. Rub flour into margarine until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in sugar, nuts and mixed fruit. Add stewed apple and mix thoroughly. Pour into cake tin and place in the oven as quickly as possible. Cook for 1-1 ½ hours until a sharp knife or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Last night was the October West Mercian Herb Group meeting. The subject was herbs for Halloween and I'd asked everyone to choose a herb and make something from it. Unfortunately it was a very select turnout with only four people, but we enjoyed tasting Judith's clove and ginger cookies and my apple and honey muffins and soul cakes.
The muffins and soul cakes are a useful double act to cook since one calls for egg whites and the other egg yolks. I found the recipes from the internet, but I've adapted them to suit what I had available.
2 egg whites
240g (8 oz) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
170ml (6 fl oz) milk
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons honey
110g (4 oz) chopped apples
Preheat oven to 190 C / Gas mark 5. Lightly grease one 12-cup muffin tin, or line with paper muffin cups. Lightly beat egg whites. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Mix together milk, oil, honey with a whisk in another bowl until they emulsify then add chopped apples. Gently fold in egg whites to the wet mixture. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients. Fold together until just moistened. Batter will be lumpy. Fill greased muffin tins two-thirds full. Bake about 20 minutes until lightly browned.
The muffins have a delicate honey flavour. They seemed a little dry to me, although the others enjoyed them, so I might add whole eggs next time and see what happens.
12ozs plain flour, sifted
3 egg yolks
generous pinch (1tsp) of dried calendula petals
2 tsp mixed spice (powdered cinnamon/nutmeg/mace/cloves)
1 tsp allspice
3 tbsp currants
2 tsp milk
Crush the calendula petals in a pestle and mortar, add the milk and grind to combine. Sift together the flour and remaining spices into a bowl.
In the meantime, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat the egg yolks and add to the creamed mixture a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sifted flour and spice mix and stir in the currants. Add the milk and calendula mixture and enough additional milk to form a soft dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and shape into flat cakes about 5 or 6cm in diameter. Transfer to a well-buttered baking tray and place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly golden. Allow to cool on the tray for 10 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
I didn't add additional milk because I'd reduced the amount of flour from 20oz in the original recipe to 12oz as the former amount appeared somewhat excessive. I took a pinch of dough, rolled it into a ball between my hands and covered it in sugar before placing on the baking tray.
Only three of the three dozen soul cakes I made actually flattened into proper biscuit shaped, but the shape they retained makes them look something special, which is what you want with a soul cake which is made especially to remember and honour our beloved dead. Thankfully we still have two weeks until the end of the month, so there is still time for more foraging, cooking and enjoying the autumn bounty.