Gifts from the Hedgerow

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This piece was originally posted on the advent series for A Focus on Nature, the largest young conservationists’ network in Britain. The theme this year was ‘Gifts from Nature’ – you can read the original here!

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Winter is the season of feasting. Somewhere between potted stilton volcanoes and fruit cake heavier than Stonehenge, my most treasured foods are those ripened in the woodlands and hedgerows throughout the year, ready to be simmered, infused and fermented in time for Christmas. Once the blackbirds and dormice have looted the plumpest berries it’s time to swoop in for the harvest; this is nature at its most generous.

In spring the countryside is still recovering from the bitterness of winter. There is little to eat amongst the shrubbery, but our woodlands almost swell with the unmistakeable aroma of wild garlic, whose latin name Allium ursinum refers to the brown bear’s habit of digging up their bulbs for a pungent snack. Combined with nettles, wild garlic is the perfect ingredient for homemade pesto, and using Old Winchester cheese instead of parmesan deems it vegetarian friendly.

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Summer brings boughs strewn with sprigs of elder blossom (Sambucus nigra), reaching their prime in the month of June. The lime-cream flowers should be picked in whole florets, after which they can be transformed into cordial, cake or sparkling wine, which is terribly alcoholic… this year we added unwaxed orange zest to the barrel for an extra kick.

As the colder months creep in once more, sloe berries (Prunus spinosa) grow fat and mauve on their thorny branches. These should be plucked, slitted and crammed into bottles of gin, left to infuse with sugar for at least two months to make a delicious concoction. The combination of sloe gin, elderflower cordial and tonic also makes a fantastic cocktail…

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Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) are abundant in autumn, and if you can locate a few apple and pear trees to scrump from, nothing beats a fruit crumble with porridge oats scattered on top. For those skilled in berry identification you can also gather hawthorn, rowan, sloes, rosehips and elderberries, simmer them into gloop and set it as hedgerow jam – wonderful with roast dinners or simple bread and butter.

I had a chance to taste something new and intriguing this year when one of my workmates visited the West Country and returned with a bucket of sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). When eaten raw, these bright orange berries taste like those Toxic Waste sweets that make you cry, but they contain lots of vitamins and are a favourite winter fruit for fieldfares! It mainly grows on coasts where salt spray from the sea reduces competition from other plants, but if you can find it the juice makes an excellent addition to champagne.

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And so, with a cupboard full of gin and jam, I shall settle into winter and grow fat like a bear with too much honey. I love everything that nature has to offer, but there is nothing more satisfying than foraging free food from the trees and not worrying about packaging or pesticides. Here’s to a happy Christmas and a fruitful new year!

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