31 Aug 2014
Edible urban: Foraging / preserving the taste of summer
City fruit. There's a surprising amount of it about on trees and shrubs in the street, parks, gardens and abandoned areas, just waiting to be turned into jams, jellies, sauces, chutneys and wine. Living near Hampstead Heath, I can also add woodlands and hedgerows to that list. Autumn abundance seems to have arrived early this year; masses of rowan berries, rose hips and haws are ripening in the streets. Large juicy blackberries lurked (past tense, the children have surprisingly long arms!) just out of reach on the nearby railway line and I was almost caught on the hop with elderberries.
Last Sunday's weather was good but forecast to change within the next 24 hours so, tucking a couple of carrier bags into my pockets and my camera over my shoulder, I headed off towards the heath hedgerows. There weren't that many elderberries to be had (I had about 300g of berries after de-stemming and picking out the green ones) but I found a long row of blackthorn bushes covered with sloes, loads of bramble berries and the motherlode of rose hips. Perfect for a Hedgerow Jelly.
Back at home my gathered fruit was lightly rinsed (drop of vinegar added) and dried - I like to know that there are no critters lurking. (And there were. We're dealing with nature here. There will be life, lots of it, in the hedgerows. Some people may not like that.) Blackberries were picked over for any insects and grubs, elderberries were taken off the stalks and green berries discarded, rose hips were topped, tailed and then blitzed whole in a food processor. This gave me around a kilo of fruit which I matched with another kilo of cooking apples. Crab apples would have been my first choice but I was unable to find any … for now. Apparently crab apples add a lovely rosy glow to a jelly, something I'd like to see.
After adding water and stewing the fruit to draw out the pectin and juices, I popped the fruit into my new jelly bag to strain overnight. Previously I've faffed about with muslin cloths and ingenious methods of suspending the fruit over a bowl; a tiny accident put a stop to that - it involved some rosehips, a cloth suspended on high, a bowl filled with juice and a plank of wood over the bath followed by a bit of redecorating. This jelly bag, for me, is progress.
I had about 1.5 litres of juice the following morning. I thought it was delicious at this stage, if ever so slightly tart. But, onwards. Into the pan it went, brought to the boil, sugar added (not quite as much as the recipe suggested) and brought to a rolling boil until setting point (104 C) was reached. I don't trust the cold saucer test so have a cook's thermometer. About 15 minutes later (using that time to sterilise the jars and lids), I had jelly, of sorts. It still looked very liquid when I poured it into the jars despite the required temperature being reached. Oh well, I thought, it can be reboiled to thicken if needed. And, actually, as it cooled, it set. A bit on the soft side, but I quite like that. We live and learn.
A bit more:
1, I wish I'd put even less sugar in the jam but then, would it have set? Would there be less flavour? I need to better understand the science behind jam making.
2, I was able to blitz my rosehips, seeds and all, because the fruit was being strained so the pips and their surrounding hairs were filtered out. The hairs are an extreme irritant, used in making itching powder!
3, Try to use fruit growing away from the road for less of those kerbside fumes.
4, I'm convinced that jam making, like baking bread and cakes, fulfils some deeply subliminal primeval urge. Despite there being absolutely no need whatsoever to make my own preserves, there is something so satisfying in the process.
5, I haven't gone Polaroid-mad, I've been amusing myself with an app that makes photos look like polaroids. Useful for cards, labels, recipes, etc. Find Pola (for Mac) here.
Finally (hurrah!), passing on some useful information. I've found a brilliant website for preserving, Rosie Makes Jam. Rosemary Jameson founder of the Guild of Jam Makers, has a plethora of inspiring recipes on her site (Beetroot and Elderberry chutney, anyone?) and links to her shop where she sells jars, etc. My favourite is the ingredient calculator that converts the recipe to the amounts available. Invaluable.