April offers us one of the most abundant harvests of the year and we celebrate that in this month’s Forage Box with some hyper-seasonal products, showcasing the edible qualities of plants and trees we are already familiar with. This box marks the end of our launch period - an enormous thank you to everyone who has given our little company a go - as we fire up our snazzy new website, a new YouTube channel and many more exciting projects!
We are absolutely thrilled to be able to include our first alcoholic drink to our Monthly Forage Box… and what a drink too! Our guest product this month is a superb Medlar Liqueur from the fantastic Heavenly Hedgerows. Medlars are a fairly unique fruit on these shores, with a reputation for looking a bit unusual, taking a while to ripen, before needing to undergo a further process called ‘bletting’ where the starches break down to sugar. All this faff doesn’t exactly make them one for having in the fruit bowl then, but they are certainly worth knowing about and incorporating into your foraging repertoire.
Heavenly Hedgerows makes uniquely artisan preserves and liqueurs from wild and wonderful local fruits and berries, including this limited edition batch of Medlar Liqueur. Chris, the owner of Heavenly Hedgerows, makes all the hand-picked produce at her West Country family farmhouse, in small batches. None of her products contain commercial pectins or preservatives or flavourings. As well as striving for the best in quality and taste, Chris believes wholeheartedly in sensitive and sustainable foraging.
Here’s what Chris has to say about this wonderful beverage:
“I was at a market stall a few years back when a customer offered me her medlars. Living only a couple of villages away from me, I went over one day and after scrambling over brambles and ivy, we reached a magnificent medlar tree in her overgrown orchard. Instead of making the classic medlar jelly, I wanted something a bit different, so popped them in some vodka with sugar and left it for a year. The result was this award-winning liqueur that I just adore. It's not too sweet and has a similar flavour to dates. It's been an annual steep since then! My liqueurs are all hand picked and are steeped for a year - or longer if possible. Then drained, strained and bottled by hand. I don't use any essence of fruit in my liqueurs, just the fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit. “
Served over ice with a dash of soda water, this makes a perfectly sweet thirst-quencher. If you are after something a little slower and soul-nourishing, you can’t go wrong with filling up a sherry glass or tumbler and enjoying this alongside some sticky toffee pudding as you would a Pedro Ximenez.
We’ve waxed lyrical about wonderful wild garlic before and we certainly aren’t the only ones shouting loudly about it right now. This is for good reason too - it probably offers more than any other allium (onions, leeks, garlic, etc.) in terms of flavour, versatility, availability and celebrity status. A quick peruse of wild garlic recipes and you will find it used in soups, sauces, salads, sandwiches, side dishes and, of course, pesto. This is your chance to get creative then. Use it generously wherever you would regular bulb garlic, remembering to add it right at the end of cooking to preserve its delightful ‘green’ flavour. You can see how we got on using it in a wild stir fry at our new YouTube channel, Forage Box TV.
You will find wild garlic growing prolifically in woods across the country. It tends to favour banks near to running water but this is by no means the rule - it is a plucky little plant and will happily colonise any fertile bank from deepest winter to the middle of summer, given the opportunity. Keep your eyes peeled and your nose sharp when stomping through the undergrowth and you will be in no doubt when you reach wild garlic territory.
For real wild garlic fans, a more regular supply of fresh and preserved wild garlic can be found at www.wildgarliccompany.com
A reported 75% of all UK hedgerows are made up of hawthorn trees - although this number is dropping as species such as Blackthorn are encouraged to increase ecological diversity - so this gnarly native should not be a mystery to you. This may, however, be the first time you’ve ever had the opportunity to eat it.
In old reference books, you will find mention of pre-war kids enjoying the young, green shoots of heart-healthy hawthorn as a wayside snack. So much, in fact, that hawthorn was nicknamed ‘bread and cheese’ on account of its snackability. This is a bit of a dubious nom de plume because (spoiler alert) it tastes like neither. However, enjoyed raw, it goes very well served with both. Let those two merge further by enjoying a cheese and hawthorn leaf sandwich in your next packed lunch. Alternatively, its mild flavour suits being wilted in a pasta sauce, although this may be a waste when sampling this abundant, wild, salad leaf for the first time. We reckon this might just be a watershed moment for our subscribers as they all help themselves to a cheeky nibble of the next countryside hedge they pass. It is incredibly nutritious, particularly for the cardiac system, so you’ve really no excuse.
A stalwart of suburban gardens and paint colour charts alike, Magnolia tends to only be found where humans want it. It is rarely found in the wild, but looms over many a pavement right across the nation and offers up a stunning floral display early in the season, when other dramatic trees have yet to get started. Magnolia trees are a prehistoric species, long before flying insects were around, so pollination was the duty of beetles and other crawling species. It’s this dependency on larger bugs that encouraged the glorious, open flower heads to evolve, and exactly what we are looking for as foragers.
Magnolia petals have a distinct ginger flavour, without all the fieriness of the root variety, which lends itself to being used in cake-making, cocktails and other sweet serving suggestions. We’ve preserved these petals in a light syrup, which extends the lifespan without losing any of the delicate flavour. If you can resist wolfing down the whole jar, we recommend trying it floating atop a sparkling cocktail on a sunny day, or baked lightly in a cupcake. However you choose to enjoy it, it will be a prehistoric taste being explored by a modern palate via the means of traditional harvesting methods, and we are pretty chuffed with that as a concept (and phrase!).
P.s. when you are finished with the petals, make sure you save the syrup. Mix it into drinks, freeze it as an ice lolly or bake it into a cake!
“The British Empire was built on tea” is the sort of glib slogan you may find adorned on a mug in a staff kitchen, but there is some substance to this bold claim. We are a nation of tea drinkers and, aside from the marketing illusion that tea plants grow in Yorkshire, it is generally accepted that a good, old-fashioned builders brew is our national drink. However, this has only been the case for the last one-hundred years or so. Before then, it was actually this wonderful tea that we consumed in abundance and defined our tea-drinking reputation. A hugely popular product imported from Russia at the time, this delicious tea fell out of favour due a variety of theorised reasons and has since been confined to the enjoyment of foragers and their afternoon tea guests.
Rosebay Willowherb tea is made using the same fermentation process that oxidises regular tea from green to black, and has similar earthy flavours to match. We find the ‘freshness’ of this tea more suitable to being enjoyed without milk, although when served at the start of one of our workshops, this still goes down a treat with a dash. There should be enough for a few portions or one strong teapot.