I often think that if I was to be reincarnated as an animal I would come back as a squirrel. Just as they stock up on nuts to see them through the winter, I am now busy making jams, jellies and pickles as if I was going to hibernate. I honestly get a feeling of real satisfaction when I see the cupboard full of jars labelled blackberry jam, bramble jelly and apple and pear chutney.
This is the peak time of the year for picking, with many of our native shrubs and trees heavy with fruit. When I’m out for a walk I’m mentally marking where I see good plump blackberries, hips or haws that I can reach and a crabapple tree close enough to the road to be able to pick the little apples.
I try to gather the fruit on a sunny day, as I think the fruit has more flavour when warmed by the sun. I set off with a basket and come back having eaten as many blackberries as I’ve picked. Most of the other berries are too sour so are safe from my munchings. Over the years I have taken recipes and tweaked them to fit what I picked and what I like to eat. One of my favourite jellies is a mix of lots of different things found along the road. I call it hedgey jelly and it could be the perfect project for you this weekend.
I put chopped up crabapples and the same weight again of a mix of rose hips, haws, blackberries, elderberries and anything else into a pot. Boil until it’s all soft, then strain through muslin overnight. Next day I add 450g sugar for every 600ml of juice, boil until setting point then fill the warmed jars. It really is that simple and you get the most gorgeous reddish pink jelly that is very yummy on a warm scone or on your morning toast.
The reason I include crabapples is that apples are naturally high in pectin, so they help the jelly set. Next time you’re driving on a country road, keep an eye out for crabapple trees. They are found in most old hedges, the seeds probably carried there by birds. The little apples are really sour and I wouldn’t eat them raw but they’re great in jelly. That’s the thing about this particular jelly – you are using free fruit and berries that you wouldn’t normally eat.
I remember, when I was a child, a lad in school used to split rose hips open and put them down the back of someone’s shirt. They make you really itchy as the little seeds inside are hairy. So instead of torturing someone, I prefer to pick them and turn them into a lovely preserve. Rosehips have such high vitamin C levels that during WW2 the British Ministry of Food recommended that rosehip syrup be given to children as there were no imported fruits, such as oranges, available.
What if, like me, you often pick a load of berries but don’t have time to make anything? They will go off pretty quickly, as described by Seamus Heaney in his poem ‘Blackberry Picking’: “Once off the bush the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.” Luckily, they freeze perfectly. Just throw them into a plastic lunch box and when you have time, you can make jam with them straight from the freezer – no need to defrost. You can also take a handful out of the freezer and add them to the apple in a tart you are making. They add a lovely flavour and colour to the tart. You could also make crabapple jelly, rosehip syrup or even a few bottles of Cre`me de mu^re from what you can pick for free along the road. You could even add a little red bow to the jars and give them as Christmas gifts... oops! Sorry for mentioning the “C” word this early in the year.