Will's Wild Food Diary

 Wild food diary

Fresh, organic and free! Of all things bushcrafty, nothing gets me more excited than a foraging adventure.

From time to time, I update this page with a different wild food that is in season –  gradually building up a seasonal diary of some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: there's lots of good wild stuff to eat, and much of it is fairly easy to identify. Unfortunately, there are also some plants and fungi that can make you seriously ill or worse. This diary is a brief overview intended to inspire and not a substitute for an in-depth field guide and/or skilled teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes, but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 per cent confident you know what something is, leave it alone! Also, please be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

Respect your elder

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ElderberriesThis post is something of a triple grand slam for the wild-food blog. I've already discussed the fragrantly frothy flowers and the intriguingly chewy jelly ears, so I thought it was about time I looked at elder's third delicious bounty – the shiny purple berries of late summer/ early autumn.

After the blackberry, the elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of the first edible hedgerow fruits to ripen in late summer. Indeed, although it lacks the often intense sweetness of the former, the two go very well together and it's easy to combine them in jams, crumbles, fruit stews and the like.

Last year, Twinkletoes Ruth and I made some wonderful elderberry syrup. It was a simple recipe involving the berries and some cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and muscavado sugar – there's various recipes online if you're interested. I added it to hot water for a comforting ribena type drink, drizzled it on porridge and, occasionally, when no one was looking, just ate it by the teaspoon.

Elderflower and elderberry ginThis year, as well as a batch of syrup, I have also been conducting some new experiments. The first has involved a creation I started back in June- elderflower gin. This year I thought it would be fun to elaborate on the recipe by adding elderberries and some warming nutmeg, clove and cinammon. I'll keep it in the back of the cupboard, give it an occasional shake, and I reckon by early next year it'll be ready to sample – as it's my first attempt at this, I've been careful not to go too heavy on the berries and spices as I do not want to override the subtle floral flavours. Update Jan 2014: Yep it's good, shared some of it on a recent bushcraft walk at Hengistbury and no complaints; I love being able to taste both the floral and berry tones in one shot.

On a more virtuous note, I have also been experimenting with dehydrating the berries. A few days on the car dashboard works well, and I'll be adding them to winter porridges and muesli or just making simple infusions with a dozen or so berries in hot water (as well as elderflower tea, elderberry tea is also available commercially).

Indeed, for centuries this has been a common medicine in the herbalist's repertoire with a powerful elderberries carreputation for curing flus and colds. Not only are they rich in vitamin C, they also contain a high amount of flavonoids. In very simple terms, flavonoids (which give the berries their rich dark-purple colour) help to protect cells against damage or infection and aid in speedy repair and rejuvenation. 

Foraging considerations.

Surprisingly, it is rarely mentioned, but there is a poisonous imposter in the shape of the dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus). This is an uncommon plant in the UK, but it's worth being aware of. The major differences are: it never grows above two metres high, it's single stemmed and it has berries that point upwards on their stems. 

In contrast, the elder we're interested in is a shrubby multi-stemmed tree growing up to about 6 metres high, with drooping berries. Its leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with a single one at the end of the branch – when crushed, they have a slightly unpleasant 'mousey' smell. This basic leaf description is also shared by the Dwarf elder, but if you follow the rule of only picking from elders that are well over head height with hanging berries, you can't go wrong.

Elderberry syrupIt's easiest to pick the berries at the stem, so you have the whole bunch to take home. They squash very easily, but a kitchen fork is perfect for stripping them away.They have a fairly short season, and usually by early October it's a struggle to find any fresh ones.

I have sometimes heard it said that the elderberry disagrees with some people when eaten raw. It tends to taste better when cooked anyway, but according to my research, it seems that this is mainly referring to the red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is very rare in this country and is easily differentiated by the red berries. Nevertheless, as with all wild food, it is wise to only try a small amount of something the first time you eat it, in case of individual sensitivities.

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