Archives for category: Foraging

Richard piloted the boat through miles of undifferentiated green towards Bedford… The river, a muddy khaki brown color, the vegetation just a few shades greener…. No song birds, wildflowers or swans. Just a few dull ducks. And the sky grey. A constant roar of traffic in the background. Rain threatened. Passing through each lock seemed to take hours but at last we arrived in Bedford.

But for some reason, that was not enough. We had to go further, to the end of navigable waters. So we cruised on under the rail bridge, beneath the impressive arch of an all-wood pedestrian bridge, past a golf course and a cricket pitch. We left the precincts of the town behind, weaving through an ever-narrower river until finally, with the end — Kempston Mill — in sight, we ground to an ignominious halt on a shallow bank of gravel.

It took ages to reverse, and more ages to turn our 50-foot boat around. The prop, turning furiously, threw up great gouts of mud and decaying vegetation. For a while I had a vision of having to call the Environment Agency to come and rescue us from our own foolishness.

But then at last we were underway once more. We decided to moor against a concrete quay and have a belated picnic. And it was while I was hammering a stake into the ground to secure us that I noticed the tree groaning with ripe sloes. Aha, I thought, sloe gin. Everything’s going to turn out well after all.

Sloes

On Friday morning we  started the weeks’ long journey back to Braunston. The day before everything had looked grim. But today, the skies were blue, the clouds were white and fluffy. Greens of every shade imaginable lined the river banks and trees soared above us here are there forming cathedral-like canopies.

Lipstick-bright wildflowers growing in great profusion along the river banks added splashes of colour to the green. A slight breeze soughed through the poplar leaves. Butterflies, bees and dragonflies flitted from flower to flower. Songbirds provided the soundtrack and grebes emerged from the water with fish clenched tightly in their beaks.

At every lock there were ripe fruits and berries weighing down branches of overhanging trees and bushes. Apples, plums, elderberries, haws, blackberries and sloes. The locks filled fast and there was barely enough time to harvest some of the abundant sun-ripened fruit. (And I kept asking myself: where had all this plenty been on our way up the river?)

Hedgerow fruits

That was yesterday, Friday.

And on Friday night we celebrated the bounties of summer with a hedgerow fruit crumble.

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Hedgerow Crumble

Ingredients:

250g apples peeled, cored and cut into 1.5 cm chunks

250g plums, pitted and cut into halves or quarters depending on the size of the plums

250g mixed fruits and berries. We used elderberries (pulling off their stalks with a fork), whole sloes, haws and blackberries

grated rind of one lemon

10ml lemon juice (although not strictly necessary if your fruit is tart)

10ml vanilla extract

90g sugar

155g butter

125g ground almonds

125g rolled oats

freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Gently mix the fruit together with the lemon rind, lemon juice, vanilla extract, 30g of the sugar and 30g of butter. Tip into a buttered baking dish.

Mix together the ground almonds, oats and 60g sugar.

Rub the butter into the almond mix. It will be quite a solid ball, not crumbs. Then crumble the dough over the fruit in pieces of varying sizes.

Generously grind black pepper over the the crumble and bake in a moderate oven until golden.

Serve hot with Greek yoghurt, cream or even a rich vanilla ice-cream

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Today I was both cursing and loving rural north Oxfordshire. She gave of herself but she withheld something too.

We have been travelling along the Oxford canal both marveling at its relative remoteness, and enjoying it.IMG_6806 That remoteness though managed to thwart our plans for a productive working day. We got up bright and early, settled down at our computers but, horror of horrors, there was absolutely no connectivity.

Trusty Three had failed us. There was not even one bar of connectivity, not via Three, nor via Vodafone, nor via Lebara. We have three sim cards precisely so that we have guaranteed access to the internet and, therefore, the freedom to work. Well, in this instance, we HAD to get online, we had a Skype call scheduled so we had no option but to up stakes and push on along the canal. We put our modem in the hope that that a little way along the canal the ‘NO SERVICE’ words would disappear and we would be connected again. Didn’t happen.

So we carried on through a series of locks with me cursing rural north Oxfordshire in no uncertain terms. Until something caught my eye. I stopped cursing and bent over the unassuming plant that I’d spotted in the shadows next to the lock. Was it? Surely not. It couldn’t be! But it was: not one but a cluster of of blackcurrant bushes, their  stems groaning with fruit.

Suddenly I lost interest in the modem and was scrambling to pick as many of the blackcurrants as possible in the time it took for the lock to fill with water behind me. Thoughts of connectivity, or its lack, fled my mind. Now my focus was on cooking.  Would I make blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant jelly or bake with the blackcurrants?

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Last week I bought blackcurrants, strawberries and tayberries from the Cultivate Veg Van in Jericho in Oxford. At the time I had had fleeting thoughts that it would be nice to find berries growing along the canal. I made a blackcurrant and marscapone sauce which we spooned over the strawberries and tayberries. You’ll find the recipe here on Scarlet Bennett’s creative challenge blog.

Once we were back in the land of connectivity and had moored I took my place in the galley, Richard asked, surprised, “Aren’t you working?” “No,” I said firmly, “I’m cooking.”

All thoughts of a productive day working were out the window. Over the next hour or two, I transformed the blackcurrants into a deep, dark and delicious jelly– and marvelled at the infinite charms of rural north Oxfordshire.

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As usual I made the jelly according to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s always reliable recipe. Thank you, Hugh!

In summer there are many, and varied, delights to be found in and alongside the rivers of England.

I couldn’t help thinking about all the centuries of history that came before us as we cruised up and down the Lee Navigation and then up the River Thames. That it is likely that dugout canoes from the Bronze Age and Saxon barges once plied the River Lea and that Viking raiders slipped up the river in their longboats to pillage villages.

The Thames has been described as ‘liquid history’. There is evidence of human habitation on the banks of the Thames dating back to Neolithic times.  Bronze Age settlements and artefacts have been discovered along the banks of the river, while the Romans recognised the river’s strategic and economic importance.

These rivers carried armies and freight as well as being a source of food and water.

As delightful as it was to contemplate the centuries, no, millennia, that preceded Narrowboat Patience on these venerable waterways, my interest was less in marshaling my army of one up and down the river to capture a village and more in the food I might find along the way.

I came upon supermarkets galore and pubs aplenty but the truth is, I was really in search of  something just a bit more thrilling.

I’ve had  fun in the past collecting berries on the banks of the River Nene and making a delicious jelly, but it was too early in the year for berries. I wondered if we might find fields of wild garlic as we have also done in the past, but I remembered that that was in April, and this was June.

Then one day while while impatiently waiting for a lock to fill, I admired the profusion of wild flowers on the bank. There were starry elderflowers, bright yellow dandelions, creamy nettle buds and droopy purple comfrey flowers. DSCF0969 I wondered whether to pick some nettle leaves to make tea but I had no gloves and didn’t feel like risking the mean sting of the innocuous-looking serrated leaves. I thought about the medicinal value of comfrey, aka knit-bone, and remembered drinking comfrey tea with my sister, Penny, when she broke her neck.

I know you can eat dandelions but I have never done so and as much as I looked at them and admired their sunny beauty, I wasn’t entirely sure about turning them into a meal. I knew of course one could make elderflower cordial so I thought that might be an idea. And I had in the past made borage fritters. Was borage not some sort of relative of comfrey? Could I make comfrey fritters?

The lock filled, I opened the gates, Richard expertly piloted the boat in. I closed the gates and opened the paddles so that the lock would empty and abandoning my army of one in the lock, I made a mad dash back to the elder and comfrey plants and quickly gathered leaves and flowers.

Supper was sorted. A botanical fritto misto.

IMG_6105After a quick goole search I consulted Neil Cooks Grigson for his Comfrey Leaf Fritters and Nigel Slater for his elderflower fritter recipe. I used the Nigel Slater batter recipe pretty much as it was but added a teaspoon of my friend togarashi to the mix. And to serve I drizzled the fritters with a syrup made of elderflower cordial seasoned with togarashi. A delicious sweet and spicy supper which was enjoyed by my army of one — and me, of course.

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