Pluming the heights – Sheffield's Autumn Harvest

The summer might have been nothing to write home about, weather-wise, but one thing that is worth putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) about is the current menu of foraging goodies in our fair city… 
Nature's a resilient beastie, and despite the rain badly affecting some mainstream crops there's still an abundance of foraging opportunities out there in Sheffield’s wild hinterlands.  So why not get out for a walk with a focus and pick up lunch on the way?  In this and our next couple of PJ Taste blog posts I'll be looking at the best seasonally available wild foods and finding exciting ways to prepare and preserve them for eating enjoyment into the winter!
Available now:  Cherry Plums, Blackberries, Bilberries, and Wild Fennel
Coming soon – Hazelnuts, Apples, Sloes, Elderberries, Rosehips, Rowan Berries and of course lots of fungus (as always never consume any wild mushrooms unless you have had your find expertly verified and please see notes on sustainability below).
Cherry Plums
Have you noticed scatterings of these red or yellow fruits on pavements and roads?  Perhaps one has fallen on your head while you were walking down the street? Think of them as a reminder that you better get picking before they all fall. Not actually a wild plum these small trees/scrubs have been planted widely in hedges and on housing estates as well as escaping into countryside coppices.  The harvest this year seems to be particularly good and each tree’s fruit tastes slightly different.  They might be sweet, they might be a bit more tart, or in some cases even a bit clothy!  Save the sweetest and juiciest to eat just as they but good use can also be made of the others by preserving them…


Recipe – Cherry Plum Jam
This simple recipe uses my patent method of stone extraction turning what could be a torrid job into a simple pleasure (well almost)!  Making a little extra of the plum pulp can give you the basis of the hazelnut and plum tart below.

1. Extract the pulp.  Rinse your harvest of cherry plums in clean water and dump them into your largest pan. Don’t add any water yet, instead  carefully increase the heat until the natural juices start to run and the plums gradually break down into a juicy puree (while the plums are cooking you could add flavourings such as star anise, cinnamon sticks or feeling flush even vanilla pods).  This should take half an hour or so.
Next, take a very coarsely holed sieve or basket (try your local Chinese supermarket for this) and simply rub the pulp through into a suitable bowl. Pick something with the right gauge of hole and you should be left with the stones and more stubborn skins in your basket and lovely plum puree in your receptacle. 

2. Make the jam.  This couldn’t be easier! Just add the same weight of sugar as you have of plum puree along with some lemon juice.  For a typical 1.5kg batch of plum puree the juice of one lemon is perfect and you'll be adding 1.5kg of sugar.  While you're doing this, pre-heat some jam jars that you've previously collected and sterilise them by popping them in the oven at 350°F/180°C/Gas 4 for 10 minutes or so.  Once the sugar goes into the plum puree, raise the heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and allowing the mixture to gently boil until the temperature reaches 104°C or the jam forms definite ripples when a sample is put onto a saucer into the fridge for a few minutes.  At this point it is ready to bottle so pour into the hot jam jars, filling them to the top and securing the lid whilst still piping hot (this helps the preservation by creating a vaccumn in the top of the jar).

Found in many of the same places as cherry plums, hazelnut trees grow up to six metres tall, producing distinctive catkins in the spring (the male catkins can hang down up to 8cm). This year the harvest is looking really good with the white un-ripe nuts already bigger than I can remenber seeing before. Although quite interesting at this time of the year (they taste really creamy), its better to wait until the nuts turn brown before picking. Timing is everything as the window between ripeness and the loss to squirrels or simply high winds can be short. So locate your trees now and then watch and wait in order to time your foray perfectly!


Recipe – Hazelnut Frangipane and Plum Tarts
These are lovely as posh individual tarts for a dinner party or as a larger pie/tart for everyday dining!  The recipe for this sweet pastry gives a lovely light and crisp pastry shell and I think they're simpler to make than short crust pastry where you have to control the amount of liquid you add to bring the dough together more carefully. There's a fair few stages to this recipe but if you've made the jam and reserved some plum pulp – and if you use a food processor to make the pastry – it’s not too bad.
The most satisfying scenario would be to make the frangipane from locally collected hazelnuts, with the nuts simply roasted for a few minutes after shelling to enhance the flavour. I must admit that I used ground almonds recently as the hazelnuts in my immediate vicinity could do with a few more weeks to ripen. There may be a need to freeze some of the plum pulp whilst waiting for the nuts to catch up – a very good solution which helps extend the season.
Sweet pastry
Makes a 30cm tart tin or twelve 8cm individual tarts.
175g butter
65g icing sugar
2 egg yolks
225g plain flour

Nb. Our Cow Molly Milk is for drinking whilst making the pastry – it’s not needed in the recipe!
Blend all the ingredients except the flour in a food processor and then blend in the flour.  Roll into a ball and rest for half an hour in the fridge.  Carefully roll out and use to line your choice of tin.  Blind bake at 350°F/180°C/Gas 4 until golden brown.
Hazelnut Frangipane
150g butter
150g icing sugar
150g of ground roasted hazelnuts (or use ground almonds for the more traditional approach)
50g plain flour
3 free range eggs

Cream the butter and icing sugar together before beating in the hazelnuts and flour.  Finally fold in the eggs one by one.
Take some of the plum puree and spread onto the base of your pastry cases – you can add as much or as little as you like and you can also adjust the sweetness and flavouring with sugar and spice.  I left it quite tart as a contrast to the quite sweet frangipane mix.  Finally bake at  200C/400F/Gas 6 until the topping is nicely brown and appreciably risen – about 15-20 minutes.

Some thoughts on sustainability
Although picking wild food is very satisfying, it also brings home the fact we're custodians of this natural larder and that we have a responsibility to pick unselfishly to ensure that fruits and seeds are left to propagate a crop for next year (although leaving hazelnuts to be gobbled and hidden away by grey squirrels is a bit galling). 
In addition many species – particularly many wild fungus species – are in decline and collecting of any sort can endanger them.  Modern agriculture has evolved so that as nations we grow lots of a few very limited crops –actually 60% of the world's food is derived from only four crops; potatoes, rice, wheat and corn.   This is in stark contrast to the Stone Age where man gathered hundreds of plants ensuring less dependence on limited crops.  So the next step up from simply helping yourself is to grow your own.  Locally there are a number of organisations involved in all sorts of growing projects many of which are linked under the umbrella of Grow Sheffield. This is well worth checking out if you are interested in help with starting your own community planting scheme or simply to get involved in organic growing or say picking local fruits with Abundance.
For more information on a new ways of eating and obtaining food see the speakers at last year’s MAD symposium. Held at Nonna's on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield this event brought together chefs, growers and foragers to think beyond the norm – particularly Tor Nørretranders "From Wild to Tame – and Back Again" talk which you can watch here.
Happy foraging! Next time I'll be looking at the exciting bilberries available up on the moors, checking in with wild fennel and blackberries and looking ahead to a host of other wild Autumn edibles…
Situated at the top of West Street just around the corner from the University of Sheffield campus, PJ Taste offers a feast of locally sourced food to get you through lunch and beyond. Visit their website here or drop in to their shop at 249 Glossop Road, S10 2GZ.

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