This year’s amazing wild harvest might not thrill most keepers, but for anyone who enjoys a drop of hedgerow brew, be it sloe gin, blackberry whisky or damson vodka, it’s a very welcome sight. Branches are heavy
with fruit and after the complete lack of any in 2012, I’ve been out picking as much as I can. I was on the Worcestershire/Shropshire border a few weeks ago and during the drive home my car was groaning under the weight of baskets of damsons, hawthorns, blackberries and rowan berries. The blackberries were still at their best for eating raw — later in the season I find that they are better used for jams and jellies, or in pies, as they are less juicy and have more pips.
My carload provided enough for a very good stock of damson vodka and damson
cheese, as well as hawthorn jelly, rowan jelly and blackberry and apple jelly. For me, this year has been all about the jelly. I made more than 40 pots of redcurrant jelly and 30 of various apple jellies — flavoured with thyme, rosemary, mint, lavender and a rose-scented geranium. Both the apple and herb and redcurrant jellies are a fantastic accompaniment to game, so it’s reassuring to have a cupboard full. I’ll keep a few in reserve, just in case 2014 is another empty-basket season.
There are lots of unusual old English recipes, some of which are making a comeback — damson cheese, for instance, which now appears in many cheesemongers’ shops or sometimes even at Waitrose’s cheese counters.
Dorothy Hartley, in her fantastic book Food in England, says that the tradition was to leave it somewhere to dry, until sugar crystals appeared on the top of it, or to store it in layers with bay leaves and spices in between each layer. Apparently, some of these damson cheese towers measured more than a foot high and wide. I’ve made so much this year that I’m going to risk one of my trays in the airing cupboard.
In theory, you are supposed to crack the stones and add the kernels to the damson cheese while it is cooking (much like with apricots for apricot jam), but this is fiddly work and I’m afraid I don’t bother. We’ve been making damson cheese (when the crop allows) for around 10 years now and it’s delicious with cheese and biscuits, though Dorothy Hartley suggests turning the dried damson cheese out, sticking almonds in it and pouring port over it as a pudding — I’ll also be trying that this year. Damsons, incidentally, freeze extremely well — simply loose in bags, with no additions. They can then be turned into jams, tarts, cheese or used to flavour vodka later.
Another unusual recipe is hawthorn jelly. There are few years that this is really worth the effort, for the haws need to be red, juicy and flavoursome. There are two types of haws in the UK, but the ones you want for this are the juicier ones, which taste, oddly, of mushy peas when you bite into them. You’ll notice that the other variety has no flavour at all and are very dry. Watch out, as the hawthorn (as its name would suggest) does have some rather vicious spikes to contend with, but at least they aren’t as poisonous as blackthorns. The jelly sets well and can be cut — it is delicious served on its own, rather like Turkish delight.
Rowans (or mountain ash, as they are also known) make good jelly. We usually make this with crabapples, which add a bit of pectin and encourages it to set properly. Blackberries also need the addition of apples for a properly set jelly, or why not try the old English dish blackberry junket? I’m afraid I don’t bother with elderberries. I’ve made elderberry and apple jelly and found it lacking in flavour and I’ve tasted elderberry wine, which is not my cup of tea. Here are a few of the recipes I’ve been making this autumn.
This couldn’t be simpler, but you do need somewhere warm to stand the dish.
1. Use very ripe blackberries and put them either through a mouli-legumes or, better still, put them in a muslin cloth.
2. Tie the cloth together and use a stick to twist the tied end of the cloth, so that the juice is extracted into a bowl.
3. Place the bowl somewhere warm for a few hours and it will set, not hard, but like junket or posset.
1. Put the damsons in a large pan with a small amount of water and bring to the boil. Allow to cook rapidly until the damsons are completely soft and the flesh has fallen away from the stones.
2. Put the mixture in a sieve and stir, pushing through all the pulp, leaving behind just the stones — this requires some elbow grease.
3. Measure the pulp and for every 500ml add 350g of sugar. Put this into a large, clean pan and slowly bring it up to a bubble. Keep stirring during this stage, so that the sugar dissolves and the cheese doesn’t catch. Cook, allowing it to just bubble, for at least an hour, stirring every now and then to stop it catching. It should reduce quite a bit and turn a very dark purple. After an hour of cooking, start checking the cheese to see if it sets — the cooking time will vary from year to year, depending on how juicy the damsons are; mine took nearly two hours to reach setting point. Check for this in the usual manner, by putting a spoonful on a plate in the freezer. It should firm up completely within a few minutes. Pour the cheese into Tupperware containers that you have brushed with a little oil and cool. This will keep for months in the fridge.
1. Wash the hawthorns, picking out as many of the stalks as possible, then place in a large pan with approximately ∞⁄Π pint of water to every 1lb of fruit. Bring to the boil and use a potato masher to pound the fruit once it has cooked for around 15 minutes. Simmer until the fruit has gone pulpy. It will be an unappealing shade of brown, but don’t let this put you off.
2. Put the mixture in a jelly bag, or a piece of muslin, and suspend above a bowl. Unlike with redcurrants, this really does need to stand overnight. As with all jellies, do not squeeze it, or you will get a cloudy mixture.
3. Measure the juice and for every pint of juice, add 1lb of sugar. Bring it very slowly to the boil and allow to cook fast until it reaches setting point. Pour into jam jars or a bowl.
Tip I no longer bother sterilising jars, as a sugar mixture that has been boiling is going to do that job very effectively. Dorothy Hartley suggests serving hawthorn jelly with cream cheese.
I made lots of pots of this with the early windfalls this year, and the crops were so heavy that the apple trees were rather grateful for a thinning of fruit. You can make this with crabapples or ripe apples, too.
1. Cut the apples into quarters or halves, discarding any bits that are rotten. Put them in a very large pan and add enough water to come 2⁄3rds of the way up the fruit. Bring to the boil and cook for around 30 minutes stirring occasionally, or until the fruit is pulpy. Strain through a muslin cloth and measure 500g of sugar for every 1l of liquor.
2. If you are making a herb-flavoured jelly, put some herbs in at this stage — several rosemary branches or thyme branches. Bring the jelly to the boil slowly, then cook rapidly until it reaches setting point. While it is cooking, prepare some fresh herbs — chop very finely some thyme or rosemary or mint, discarding any tough stems.
3. Once the jelly is at setting point (it should have gone a lovely, light-orange colour), strain it, discarding the herbs that have been cooked, and pour it into jars. Add a good pinch of the fresh herbs, but leave the tops off the jars. After 10 or 15 minutes, the jelly should have started to set. Stir in the herbs so that they are suspended throughout the jelly and put a lid on the jar.