Winter Foraging in Sheffield

As the dark days of winter settle in it would be easy to assume that the urban forager should hang up their wellies for another year and enter hibernation mode. 
 
But in actual fact grabbing the opportunity to head out doors on a crisp sunny winter's day lifts the spirit and any foraging finds of free food are a welcome bonus.
 
As a co founder of PJ Taste in Sheffield I have, for the last six years, been able to champion many excellent local producers and their food.  In this monthly column I'm going to look at the stories behind Sheffield produce, suggest enticing recipes in which to use these local resources and see how these food  choices can be protected for the future.  With a dash of foraging you'll need to  grab your wellies and brave the elements!
 
I managed to squeeze in an enjoyable hour in the Shire Brook Valley recently.  What always amazes me is how quickly you start finding things once your eye is tuned in.  This day was no exception and I had not gone 50 yards before finding two species which immediately got me thinking about making a hedgerow jelly.  So on adjacent bushes were hawthorn berries and right next to it a blackthorn bush covered with sloes.  If I could find a few crab apples I already had my key ingredients.
 

 
 
Picking Sloes
I picked a good quantity of both berries quite quickly, leaving a good share for the birds, conscious that in a winter anything like last year temperatures could plummet at any time and nature's needs would be greater than ours.
Moving a little further on I found patches of sorrel, thriving and looking quite hardy despite us already having had some frosts.
 

Common Sorrel – Rumex acetosa
 
Sorrel is a member of the Oxalis family. This is a clue to its sharp very clean lemony flavour given to it by oxalic acid present in the leaves.  Sorrel can be added, chopped fine, to salads or dips for its lemon piquancy.  It can also be used cooked as a flavouring element rather than a green. One method is to wash and clean the leaves, chop them then slowly wilt in butter or olive oil. When they are very soft they can be pureed and used as the vegetable element combined with cream in a sauce over fish or vegetables.
Its possible that in the higher Western parts of our region, for example on Wharncliffe Heath you can come across sheep sorrel another member of this family.  This looks very similar to common sorrel except that instead of the lobes of its arrow shaped leaves spread sideways and not backwards. 
 

Sheep sorrel – Rumex acetosella
 
Briefly back to the hunt last week in Shire Brook.  After walking into a wooded area and passing wild cherry which had provided fruit earlier in the year I came to a crab apple tree that I had remember from a previous season.  As they don’t always seem to bear fruit in successive years I was pleased to see the small hard but colourful fruits covering the tree.  Crab apples are not generally regarded as a worthwhile crop because the fruit is so sour (although in South East Asian cuisine they are used in a sour condiment).  However, they do add good flavour and excellent levels of pectin (which aids setting) in jellies so I quickly filled a small bag.
 
So despite only being out for an hour I had enjoyed a walk in the sunshine, foraged a bag of ripe berries and started to plan how they would be used in a hedgerow jelly.  For me at least each trip into the open spaces of Sheffield brings new discoveries and feeds my soul.
 
The following day I made the promised hedgerow jelly.  I have listed a full recipe below.  It’s a relatively simple affair as the fruit goes into a pan whole for its initial juice extraction with no preparation other than washing.  The juice can be left to drip out through a jelly bag or cotton bag overnight and the jelly finished the next day.  I actually then used the leftover pulp (cooked briefly again with a little water and added sugar), pushed through another fine sieve to make fruit leather.
 

Crab Apples, Sloes and Hawthorn Berries
 

Reusing the pulp for a fruit leather
 
If you would like more information or if you are wanting to get further involved they all run guided walks and other events during the year., then Sheffield Wildlife Trust, Sheffield Council and Sorby Natural History Society all feature a range of parks, woods, heaths and moors throughout Sheffield all of which are worth a visit.
 
You can find PJ Taste  at 249 Glossop Road.

Around 1kg berries (sloes, or rosehips, or haws or a mixture)
Around 1kg crab apples
Around 1.5kg granulated sugar
A jelly bag (or a clean cotton cloth and a big sieve)

Remove the berries from the stalks and wash them well. Peel and roughly chop the crab apples, but leave in the cores – they contribute lots of pectin, which helps set the jelly.
 
Put all the fruit into a large, heavy pan, along with enough water (at least 500ml) to come about halfway up the fruit. Bring to the boil and simmer, stirring occasionally and crushing the fruit against the side of the pan, until the whole mass is soft and pulpy. Tip the mixture into a jelly bag (or a large sieve lined with a cotton cloth) suspended over a bowl, and leave to drain. If you want a clear jelly, just let the liquid drip through, but if you want to get the maximum yield and don’t mind if your jelly is a little cloudy, squeeze the pulp to extract every last drop of juice.
 
Measure the juice, then transfer it to a clean pan and add 750g sugar for every litre of juice. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then boil rapidly, skimming off any scum that might rise to the surface, until you reach setting point – you can measure this with a sugar thermometer: it’s 106C. Alternatively, after about 10 minutes of hard boiling, take the pan off the heat and drop a teaspoon of the jelly on to a saucer which has been chilled in the freezer.  Put this back in the freezer for one minute then push your finger through the jelly. If the surface wrinkles, your jelly is ready. If not, boil for five minutes longer, then repeat the test. As soon as setting point is reached, remove the pan from the heat and pour the jelly into warm, sterilised jars. Cover with a disc of waxed paper, then a lid. Leave for a few weeks to mature before eating. The jelly should keep for up to a year.
 
 




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