Our little family has never been foraging for food before. In fact, it seems a bit strange to just go and pick berried from parks to eat or preserve. My mom does go foraging on the Canadian prairies, but usually only around the farm hedges where she knows the owners and has their permission to pick the fruit.
This past Saturday our local borough sponsored a morning in the new Diamond Jubilee Wood which was just planted this spring. It was all about Celebrating the Hedgerow. The little tree fledglings aren’t yet much higher than they were when they were planted (you can see us taking part here), but the wildflowers are blooming and each time we return something has changed somewhere. It really is going to become a magical place over the next couple of decades.
For this particular event, we learned about hedge-laying. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but now I know what it is.
Here in Northern Ireland often rather than use walls or fences to keep animals such as sheep and cattle in a field, hedges are planted. This is a great idea as birds use these hedgerows for nesting, insects live in them, and other creatures can also use them for cover. Over time, if the hedges are not maintained they will want to grow up into trees. Like trees, all the branches and leaves are at the top, and the bottoms become bare, which means animals can get through them. So a good farmer will ‘lay’ about 5% of his hedges each year. This means cutting almost all the way through the trunk and laying them over at a 30 degree angle. By next summer you’ll not even notice with all the regeneration and new growth that will appear! Some folk also planted some new hedges on this day, but we ran out of time for this.
We looked at wasps under a microscope, and saw lots of critters small and large, not all alive, and not all native to the area, but interesting none the less. We picked up some good information on building a bird garden, which will come in handy over the next few years as well as we try to make our back yard more child-interesting.
Dermot Hughes of Forage took us on a foraging walk. He didn’t have to go very far before stopping to let us know of some of the plants that are appropriate for eating and making into salads. Some of these are the oxide daisy, mountain ash, red leg, and fire weed. Please don’t take my word on these in case I’ve written them down wrong. If you are interesting in foraging, only pick what you know is safe, and when in doubt, leave it out. Find an expert in your area and learn what is available there. As you can see by the tables that were set up at the start of the walk, some of these berries look very similar, yet have very different results when consumed!
When we reached the hedges, there were hawthorns, blackberries, and rose-hips to be found. When the walk concluded we returned to this are of hedge and I wanted to taste a rose-hip as my 2nd favourite tea when I was wee was rose-hip and hibiscus. I couldn’t reach them as there were too many nettles, but Phil did get a couple.
Tristan enjoyed the flavour once he was able to get his teeth through the tough skin of the rose-hip.
At this point Phil was thoroughly enjoying himself foraging for blackberries so we left him to it and went back to the tent to learn how to make jam with the fruits of our forage. There wasn’t quite enough time for Dermot to finish the jam before the end of the morning when the tent had to be taken down, but it sure looked good!
And previous year’s batches tasted good on the fresh scones, pancakes and soda bread Dermot’s wife, Mary was making! Just look at Kallista!
There was a table set up where you could taste different varieties of apples that are local to Northern Ireland. I hadn’t heard of some of them, and most of them I had never tasted, so this was very interesting as we’ve been doing some taste-comparisons with different fruit varieties at home lately. My favourite was the Russet, which isn’t the prettiest, but then it also has the same name as a potato! I will definitely be purchasing some of these from our green grocer soon as I have seen them there.
We watched Mary show some young children how to make pancakes, and they enjoyed helping out mixing as well as eating them. Tristan and Kallista were kind enough to share a pancake with me, and they were good.
When Phil arrived back with his litre of foraged blackberries Mary talked me into helping with some Irish soda bread. Well, actually she told me what to do and I did the messy work, but that’s the best way to learn! I even looked the part in my original 1950s apron (This is good, I should have one from the same era in the kitchen drawer at home).
I have tried to make a soda bread earlier this year, but as it turns out, I had the consistency all wrong. It tasted good, but just wasn’t quite right. Mary told us that the best thing to use is proper ‘soda bread flour’, but this is only made at three mills in Northern Ireland and no where else in the world. If you really want to make it, don’t fret, you can substitute self-raising flour and baking soda. Now this is how I learned to cut and shape the soda farls, making sure to cover the inside cuts with flour.
I love the griddle that these were baked on, but they can also be done on a cast iron pan or in the oven. According to Mary, you know they are ready to turn over when they are puffy and stretchy like a pregnant tummy!
After everything was cleared up and the tent taken down we set out back home. It was such an interesting and educational morning outdoors and we all enjoyed ourselves and had loads of fun! There is nothing like having a productive day and learning some important skills that will be used for the rest of our lives. I’m a little late to the game of foraging, but I still have plenty of life left in me yet, and you can be sure we’ll be out next year seeking the fruits of nature around the country.
Fruits of our foraging labour preserved:
In fact, Phil put his new-found/learned knowledge to use the next day and made his very first home-made jam from the blackberries he had brought home. The apples were bought; the ones we had on the table for snacks, but they worked just as well, especially as we were short by half on sugar so the sweetness was OK.
I think Phil’s jam looked pretty good while it was cooking, and it filled the house with a wonderful aroma!
Here is Phil’s finished jam alongside my home-baked soda bread. A winning combination anytime of the day!
All of the recipes here (as well as their delicious warm fruit hedgerow punch and sloe gin, among others) are available on Mary and Dermot Hughes’ Forage website. They also have lots of interesting information on a whole host of other topics relating to the outdoors. Stop by and check out their site, I’m sure they’d be happy to put on a cup of tea!