Drink the wild
- Credit: Archant
This is the season when Somerset’s hedgerows are bursting with edible goods. Local authors NICK MOYLE and RICH HOOD show you what to look out for and how to turn your free bounty into a range of delicious home made drinks
Autumn is a time to reach for Tupperware tubs and plastic bags before any walk in the country, to capitalise on the season’s hedgerow harvest.
Somerset is a remarkably foraging friendly county to live in, with a huge range of wild edibles begging to be picked. Whilst the most common use for nature’s bounty tend to be sticky jars of jam or pickle and fruity puddings, there is an ever growing band of merry brewers plundering the free spoils for booze.
This being cider country, the most obvious start to a foraging adventure is with apples. If you’re lucky you then might encounter an orchard escapee and be rewarded with a true dessert, cooking or cider apple. But more likely you’ll be presented with a crab apple or wild seedling – a tree of no particular variety grown from a discarded apple core (hence their usual proximity to established thoroughfares). If your freshly plucked apple is too sharp or tannic to eat raw, it’s almost certainly perfect for turning into cider. A mix of varieties makes the best booze, so fill a bag and move on to the next tree.
Another common tree heaving under the weight of autumn fruit is the elder. Its berries make such an impressive wine that is afforded the name ‘English grape’, and a well made bottle has sumptuous peppery spices that can rival full bodied red grape wines. You can also use them to make a vitamin rich medicinal cordial, although we usually find any drink described as ‘medicinal’ is an excuse for it not tasting so great.
Instead, try some of the sweeter berries found on our doorstep - these include abundant blackberries, whortleberries (the local name for bilberry) and, if you’re lucky, you might even spot some wild raspberries. Besides cordials they can all be turned in to wines, used in numerous wild cocktails and, best of all, plunged into a sweetened spirit to make a liqueur. The most popular of all home made liqueurs is sloe gin, a richly sweet and tart drink that’s perfect to help the weary forager unwind in the evening, or as a crafty pick me up from a hip flask. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn and can be easily confused with the equally common bullace. These slightly bigger fruits are crosses between sloes and the plummier damson, but all three can be mixed and matched for your hedgerow liqueur.
Somerset has a long and proud history of beer making, so it’s not surprising that hops are a fairly common sight in our hedgerows. It is the flower of the hop plant that has been the bittering flavour of choice among brewers for many years, but they aren’t the only option - nettles, dandelions, rowan berries, yarrow and mugwort are many of the hedgerow flavours have historically been used to bitter beers or other infused drinks such as tonics, meads and aromatised wines.
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Elsewhere there is inspiration for all manner of unusual drinks concoctions: Nuts can be used to make deliciously nutty liqueurs, some tree leaves - including oak and walnut - have been used to make wine for centuries, spruce needles can impart a fresh woodland flavour to beers and cocktails, and if you’re after an especially healthy ingredient, then look no further than the rose hip. Rammed full of vitamin C it makes a stunningly tasty syrup which can be added to a variety of drinks and desserts. So next time you head out for a walk in our beautiful Somerset countryside, make sure to pack an extra bag and you’ll soon be raising a glass to nature’s harvest.
*Be safe: Make sure you’re 100% sure you know what you’re picking - many berries and plants can be confused with similar looking poisonous species. *Where to look: Old thoroughfares such as roads, railways and rivers are the best places to start looking for a free harvest. Sloes are often found on old grazing farmland – the spiny blackthorn branches were used as protective barriers before the arrival of barbed wire
*Embrace the demijohn: If you fancy a go at making your own wine, cider or even beer, then besides standard kitchen kit we also recommend getting a demijohn. They’re available from home brew shops, an increasing number of kitchen equipment retailers, and are a common sight in charity shops and car boot sales
Cider: Somerset’s favourite tipple is remarkably easy to make – it is simply apple juice that has been allowed to ferment until all the sugar has converted to alcohol. If you don’t have access to a cider press then a kitchen juicer is an acceptable alternative. To make your own, fill a demijohn with juice (it will take roughly 9kg of apples), fit an airlock or cover the opening with kitchen foil and let the wild yeasts get to work. If you’re less trusting of nature and desire more reliability you can add cider yeast to the juice instead, preferably killing the wild yeasts with a campden tablet 24 hours earlier. Leave the demijohn somewhere cool and it should be ready in late spring.
*Sloe gin: To make sloe gin (or an alternative with bullaces or damson; vodka or other spirits) you need roughly 450g fruit per 70cl bottle of gin and 220g white sugar. To release the flavour of the sloes (the stones also contribute an almond like smoothness to the drink) you need to first break the skins of the fruit. Traditionalists do this with the steady pricking of a needle. We prefer the more aggressive thrust of a fork, but even lazier booze makers can freeze the sloes for 24 hours – when defrosted the skins will naturally crack and peel. To make the liqueur combine the sugar, sloes and gin in a jar with a tight fitting lid and give it a shake before setting aside somewhere cool. Shake every day until the sugar has dissolved, then an occasional fortnightly shake should suffice until it’s ready. We suggest three months as a minimum, but the longer you leave it the more rewardingly mellow the results. Tip: for a sloe gin with a citrusy twist add the zest from half a grapefruit to the infusion.
*Rose hip syrup: Nothing else tastes quite like rosehip syrup and it’s well worth the small effort it takes to make a batch. It can be used in numerous cocktails or poured over ice cream, pancakes and other desserts. To make your own, mash up around 500g rosehips with a pestle and mortar and put in pan with 600ml water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 15 minutes. Slowly strain through muslin and add to a pan with 300g white sugar. Stir over heat to dissolve the sugar and allow to boil for three to five minutes, skimming off any rising scum with a wooden spoon. Allow to cool before pouring into sterilised bottles and store in a fridge. Consume within two weeks of opening.
Nick and Rich run the popular gardening and drinks making website twothirstygardeners.co.uk. Their first book, Brew it Yourself, is packed with drinks recipes from beers and ciders to wines, liqueurs and cocktails using home grown and foraged ingredients.