Foraging and booze go hand in tipsy hand. The range of unique favours to be found are a treasure trove for the budding mixologist and home-brewer. Country wines have a long and noble history in the UK, with dandelion, blackberry, and elderberry often being the favourites (and of course elderflower fizz). It is possible to make wine from almost any fruit or vegetable, although the results can have varying degrees of success.
My first attempt at wine-making involved grapes from a vine in my garden. I used my feet to crush the grapes (it was a must), and followed a tried and true recipe. The result was drinkable, though produced a large amount of unwanted gas (and it was not the wine that was gassy). I did not give up, and have managed to produce an elderberry wine that, after a couple of years in the bottle, was very good. I currently have a demi-john of weird cloudy marrow wine bubbling away, which is an adventure.
An easier way to turn wild ingredients into a tipple is by infusing. This simply involves steeping your chosen ingredients, along with some sugar, in a strong spirit such as gin or vodka. Sloe gin is something that many people have made or tried, but the possibilities are truly endless. Berries, nuts, flowers; as long as something is edible and vegetal in nature chances are you can turn it into a liqueur. As autumn approaches and the hedgerows become heavy with berries, there are ample opportunities to produce something exciting in preparation of the longer colder nights to come.
The ingredients for this liqueur are blackberries, rose hips, and hawthorn berries (also called haws). We have spoken of blackberries before, here, so I will not repeat myself. Rose hips are the fruit of the rose, and are to be found growing wild most commonly as dog rose (Rosa canina) and field rose (Rosa arvensis). Both are large plants, trailing or arching from hedges and bushes. Both have oval, pointed leaves with serrated edge. The dog rose has flowers of pink and the field rose has white blossoms. The hips, which are red and range from large and oval/pointed to small and round, follow the flowers, and are to be found from August through into winter. When harvesting, beware the prickles which can be seriously sharp. The hips are very high in vitamin C, and were collected by children – mainly directed by the Women’s Institute – during the dark days of WW2, to supplement a diet limited by rationing. If cooking with them, be sure to remove the internal hairs (which will irritate your throat quite seriously) by passing the cooked pulp/syrup through a fine cloth a couple of times. For this recipe we will leave them whole, so no need.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a small tree, often found in parks, hedgerows, and roadsides. It has stalked leaves with divided lobes. The flowers, five-petalled and white with pink stamens, grow it great sprays, and smell either heavenly or fishy; opinion differs. The berries are small and red, looking like tiny apples (to which they are related – as indeed are rose hips). Again, beware thorns, as this is another example of a wild ingredient that does not give its treasures easily. The leaves are edible though not particularly flavoursome, and the flowers can be used to produce a floral syrup (heavenly or fishy, you decide). Research has shown that extract of hawthorn berries has promise in treating cardiovascular disease, arrhythmia, high cholesterol, and angina. It has a long history as a traditional medicine, primarily as a digestive aid or to balance blood pressure.
As ever, only use foraged ingredients if you are 100% sure of identity.
30g rose hips
3 bay leaves
120g Demerara sugar
600ml bourbon – do use the cheap stuff, as the finished drink tastes nothing like the sum of its parts, and an expensive bourbon would be wasted.
Remove any stalks and leaves from the blackberries, haws, and rose hips. Gently rinse in cold water to remove any lingering wildlife and cobwebs. Leave to dry on some kitchen towel.
Add 1/3 of your mixed berries to a clean 1 litre Kilner jar, pop in 1 of the bay leaves, then add 1/2 the sugar. Add another 1/3 of the berries, another bay leaf, and then the remaining sugar. Top up with the last of the berries and the third bay leaf.
Carefully pour in the bourbon to fill the jar.
Tightly fasten the lid, and then give the whole thing a good shake.
Place in a dark, cool, place, shaking once a day for a couple of weeks until you see the sugar has dissolved.
Really, this should be allowed to infuse for six months before filtering through a muslin cloth into a clean bottle, then left to mature for another six months before drinking. In reality, this is unlikely, as curiosity and impatience often prevail. I recommend making two batches, then. One for drinking earlier than perhaps you should, one to forget about in a cupboard somewhere, to be discovered in a year or two in time for Christmas – the result of this ageing being a strong, fruity, not-too-sweet, complex tipple.
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