Drunken cherries and Summer Pudding

IT’S BEEN a good year for wild cherries. I beat the birds and on two foraging trips picked three or so kilos, enough to eat fresh, preserve in brandy, make jelly and help stuff a summer pudding full of bursting, juicy fruit.

And I still have some left over in the freezer for later.

The easiest use is preserving them in brandy. All you need is some cherries, brandy and a tablespoon of sugar but you do have to stone the cherries first. Don’t even try stoning those titchy little bird cherries but I know trees with larger fruit and an olive stoner works a treat.

You get a dessert cherry for puddings and a cherry brandy from the fruit-infused acohol. And if you don’t want to go to the bother of taking the pips out try making  ginjinha as here.

Smaller cherries can be used for jams or jellies: just jellies in my case because you don’t need to get rid of the pips first. Put the fruit in a pan, just cover with water then bring to a boil and simmer until soft, breaking up the fruit with a potato masher.

Now put into a sterilised jelly bag and let it strain overnight. Cover with a plastic bag to keep out insects. Discard the solids, measure the juice (in millilitres) and add two-thirds the quantity of sugar in grams. So if you have 600mls of juice you need 450g of sugar.

Boil until you acheive a light set. As cherries have little or no pectin add strained lemon juice and/or pectin powder to ensure a set.

But what I like using cherries best for is my annual summer pudding. You can find a recipe here and this year it didn’t fall apart when unmoulded. If you butter the bowl rather than the bread, overlap the slices, then put the basin into boiling water before unmoulding (easing down the sides with a palette knife) you should get it out in one piece. As I did.

A bagful of poppy seeds

WITH A paper bag in my pocket I strolled into town, ready to do a little bit of foraging along the way.

I bake bread a couple of times a week and always have a supply of poppy seeds to incorporate in the dough or sprinkle over the crusts. But why buy when you can get them for free?

They’re not hard to find. The ground outside some blocks of social housing have been turned into wildflower meadows and at their height they look spectacular.

The project has been put on hold this year but the area has become self-set and there are plenty of crimson field poppies ablaze at the height of summer.

But I wait for the flowers to fade and the seed pods to ripen. They turn from green to blue-grey to brown and little windows open just below the top for the seeds, myriads of them, to sprinkle out in the breeze.

Unless, of course, I get to them first. It’s coming to the end of the poppy foraging now but even so I managed to collect a couple of tablespoons worth of seeds this week.

Pop the heads into a paper bag and work your way along the poppies. You’ll find the seeds tumble out and collect in the bottom of the bag. Resist the urge to crack the pods open for any last seeds for you’ll only get little shards of pod.

Then remove the heads and you’ll be left with the seeds which you can funnel into a suitable container. There is no need to dry them, they will be dry enough already.

I won’t get enough to last me all year but it will for a few months as I have collected them on a few trips out. That will spare me spending a few pennies!

I like the thought of saving dough when I make my dough . . .

Foraging for “autumnal excrementa”

IMG_0569 medlars 30-11-2017 12-50-20

Medlars. Remind you of anything?

I HADN’T been the first to spot the tree. Most of the fruit on the lower branches, right besides a footpath, had been stripped of fruit. But higher up there were still some I might get. I needed a long stick but there was an empty lager can discarded in the leaf litter. I took aim. Bull’s Eye! Two of them came tumbling down.

I’d noticed the medlar tree earlier in the year while foraging in a Sheffield park. Tiny brown fruit were on the branches but it was much too soon to pick them. They only ripen around November time. No wonder this was a medieval favourite in the days when fresh fruit all year round was impossibility.

Chaucer mentions them, and Shakespeare, not always kindly, and D H Lawrence, who had a thing about fundaments, wrote of “wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrementa … an exquisite odour of leave taking”.

But the medlar has long fallen out of favour. In part, it’s its looks. It has the appearance of a greeny brown crab apple split open at the bottom into five crinkly segments. It resembles for all the world what leads the French to call them cul de chien, dog’s arse. But don’t let that put you off.

The medlar is only edible when it is ripe, that is beginning to rot or blet, so I made a mental note to come back in late autumn. It was on the last day of November that I went in search of the tree.


IMG_0573 inside a medlar 30-11-2017 15-21-02

Inside the medlar – squidgy with pips

One or two of the medlars had already bletted. I squeezed one gently onto my tongue. The nearest thing it smells and tastes like is apple. A very soft, squidgy apple. And the texture is somewhere between a slightly fibrous pear and a ripe fig, although without the latter’s graininess. And it was sweet. I can honestly say it was the best I’ve eaten because it was the first I’ve eaten. I also got a mouthful of pips. There are five. Enthusiasts declare that medlars are a fruit you either love or hate. I quite like them.

I’ve only got eight or nine and have already eaten a couple. The rest will go into the cellar, in the dark, to ripen. You can make fruit cheese, jam or jelly with them although I haven’t got enough so they will be an occasional treat. This has been my most exotic forage of the year. I’m waiting for my cellar to be full of that exquisite odour.

Tip of the Iceberg?


Garden red sorrel peeping up through the giant lemon variety

February doesn’t strike me as the month for salads but people seem to be panicking about where their next Iceberg lettuce is coming from. The rain in Spain has been devastating the salad crops which we import from there.

Doesn’t bother me. I did what I always do when I want some salad: I did a sport of foraging. I didn’t have to go far, either. Just down the bottom of the garden.

 The red sorrel which grows like weed (that’s because it is a weed) has just started to come into leaf, as has my clump of lemon sorrel and perpetual beet spinach. And there are tender young dandelion leaves just waiting to be picked. If this shortage lasts just pop an upturned flowerpot over some healthy specimens to exclude the light and blanch the leaves to make them less bitter.

 I know celery is also part of the Great Salad Shortage but it’s worth buying a head. Unless you get them from a farmers’ market most of the leaves will have been cut off but there are usually enough nestling down among the stalks to make a salad. They are also a very useful herb. The stalks also go in so you get two for the price of one. Then just grate up a carrot and you’re done.

 Perhaps this shortage is teaching us  lesson to eat seasonally. I grew up through Februaries when tomatoes and lettuce were non existent and my parents wouldn’t have known what an aubergine was if it was put in front of them. It’s been said many times before but we’ve lost the thrill of the first strawberries, asparagus and the like coming into season because they are available all year round. Perhaps this shortage is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of what might happen if our trading patterns broke down.


Find a head of celery with plenty of leaves




Forty Minute Foraging

Still life: foraged apples, blackberries, damsons, plums, sloes, rowan, sloes and one blackcurrant

Still life: foraged apples, blackberries, damsons, plums, sloes, rowan, cobnuts and one blackcurrant

I’ve been foraging throughout the year, ever since the wild garlic pushed its way through the river bank but now things are really in earnest and it’s not yet autumn. There is a cornucopia of wild fruit to be had if you know where to look.

Now foraging can take up all morning or all day – I am still psyching myself up to go out on the moors to pick bilberries, a hot, sweaty, midgey business – but I’m a great believer in the Forty Minute Forage, just going for it whenever you see a likely site. For that reason, I always carry a bag or a box on my person or in the boot of my car.

I was anxious to gauge the state of the local plums and damsons and to see whether the first blackberries have arrived so headed off to my favourite spot, a rural idyll in the heart of the city. The plums and damsons still need a week to ripen but that didn’t stop me picking a few anyway.

The first blackberries are already ripening and I managed to collect a couple of handfuls. And I found a tree with small but lovely, sweetish apples. By now my box was filling up rapidly and I had to go back to the car to get another.

I found just the odd blackcurrant and all the cherries were gone (this was not Attercliffe) but I got a bonus in finding some cobnuts. They would go in a salad, the fruit in a pie*. I picked a couple of sprays of rowan to add a little colour. Later on I will be picking them in earnest for rowan jelly, great with meat or in gravies.

On my home, in the General Cemetery off Ecclesall Road, I found a few more blackberries and some sloes from a bush I hadn’t noticed before. They will be frozen until I have enough for a sloe gin. All in all, not a bad reward for 40 minutes or so. And for free.

*I cooked the damsons first and sieved out the stones, The apples were finely sliced and mixed with the blackberries. Adding rowans to a pie is perhaps not a great idea! Most of the sugar for the pie was from those little packets foraged in coffee shops.

Fruit pie: foraged in 40 and cooked in 40 minutes

Fruit pie: foraged in 40 and cooked in 40 minutes

Foraging or filching?

I have been hooked on foraging ever since reading as a child about a family living in the country who never came home empty handed, even if it was just a bunch of dandelion leaves from the verge for the rabbits or the pig.

In my Twenties along came Richard Mabey’s Food For Free and I learned how to find wild garlic, rosehips and elderberries and goodness knows what else.

And I’ve kept on doing it. I only have to walk down my suburban road and I can find hazelnuts, blackberries and damsons without any effort. These spill over fences and walls and I reckon when in public space they are fair game. All right, I might lean over into the gardens at times when no one is looking . . .That’s getting close to filching

Further afield in Sheffield I can pick at different times of the year, apples, cherries, plums, blackberries, damsons, pears and even the odd fig. But I’m keeping the locations to myself.

It doesn’t have to be food. On holiday in a cottage by the sea my wife and I kept a stove ablaze for the night with driftwood from the sea.

I am still foraging when I go for coffee. I don’t take sugar but if I did I am sure I would have a sweet tooth so I pocket three or four of those little packets to use in the kitchen, sprinkling on scones, in sauces to heighten flavours and, only just this morning, to add to my bread mix. Three of those little tube packets are the equivalent of a teaspoon, by the way.

Now is that foraging – or filching?