Monthly Archives: September 2015


Wild wines and liqueurs

For about four years now, I’ve been an avid amateur wine maker. I like wine and I live largely surrounded by a plethora of wild bramble, unmanaged fruit trees and forgotten hedgerows, it was only a short while before I put to put two and two together and begin to make my own.

Largely, my efforts have been a success owing to Jack Keller’s brilliant website. To date I have made, dandelion, blackberry, plum and sloe wines. I’ve also made some cherry vinegar. It was supposed to be wine, but at least it’s nice to clean with or on salad! Last year I had a bumper production of a whopping 25 bottles. One bottle remains of the sloe which was by far my favorite,  and shall make the trip to Norway.

By now, I should be surrounded by the gentle “ploop, ploop” of secondary fermentation from all of my favorites, but this year I can not partake. It is killing me. Instead, I’m making infusions. I like  them too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a pale comparison compared to the sense of achievement I get from making wine.

With infusions, you’re virtually guaranteed a good out come. You’re starting with gin or vodka or maybe even brandy, all of these  are from a shop and as such are more or less drinkable. This is not to take away the magic of making a furniture polish grade hard liquor into a sublime and palatable liqueur like the December favorite, Sloe Gin. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who has never made their own liqueur who wants to turn a forage into something amazing to do it. Sloe Gin is simple and very rewarding! If you can’t find Sloes or if you’re not one hundred percent sure what how to identify them, go for another soft fruit. Blackberries are  abundant in most of the United Kingdom and are easily identifiable. I quite like Blackberry vodka.

All you need to make a soft fruit liqueur is the store bought 40% alcohol, a jar, the fruit and some sugar. Exact measurements are not necessary. The more sugar you  use the faster the liqueur will be ready (within reason) and the sweeter it will be. My personal preference is about 25% of the jar to be sugar, 25% fruit and fill to the top with the alcohol. Shake daily until all sugar is dissolved and let the mix mature for one month. Sloe Gin matures very slowly and takes a minimum of three months, but gets infinitely nicer after a year or longer.

Some people remove the fruit after a week, The longer you leave soft fruit, the more it breaks down, so if you want use it I’d do so while after a week when it is still relatively solid.

Personally I prefer gin for sloes,  vodka for cherries, blackberries and plums.  I prefer plum liqueur to plum wine so if I happen to be lucky and get quite a bit, if I get I also do a brandy.

Be forewarned, making your first infusion liqueur is a very likely stepping stone to making wild wine!




Experimental forage: Hawthorn tincture

For several years I noticed the bright red berries and distinctive leaves of Hawthorn yet knew nothing about it. It’s not that the information about it is particularly hard to find, I was just busy with the abundance of the already known fruits I’d found growing wild.

Hawthorn’s medicinal use is widely documented in many countries. Indisputably one of natures best medicinal plants for cardiovascular issues. Studies have found it successful in treatments ranging from Congestive Heart Failure to Angina and even removing LDL the “bad cholesterol” from the bloodstream.

My introduction came by way of a Eastern European forager who explained to me in limited English and a lot of gestures, that the berry was for his heart. He went though a lengthy description of drying the berries and then crushing them and then finally using his Bialetti coffee maker to produce a tea which his wife and he drank daily. My second discussion of Hawthorn came from two English lady foragers, who simply said “adding it to brandy or gin made an excellent liqueur” Unfortunately for me, they told me so as they were harvesting the last of the berries in late October time.

IMG_20150918_165038Having high hopes for Hawthorn this year, I made it my business to forage for them early. I’ve made a tincture with 70cl of dry gin, two pints of berries and 6 tablespoons of sugar which will apparently take 12 to 24 months to fully mature. It looks stunning in the jar which is good, because unlike other fruits which only need to be in the alcohol for a week or so, Hawthorn soaks for a month or longer.

In researching I noticed that leaves are also used when making tea so I’ve included a good handful in my experiment.  I didn’t top and tail the berries, so I will have to strain sediment, but I’m ok with that!

Most of the Hawthorn I’ve encountered has been canal side lining the towpaths, but on this particular forage, I found it as the main cultivar of a well trimmed up hedge bordering a public common. It was an exciting discovery. Only this week I had been contemplating what my possible options for windbreak hedges might be for the smallholding. Unlike many other foraged herbs and medicines there seems a nearly universal acceptance  of Hawthorn’s effectiveness. I have to say, I am looking forward to taking this medicine.


Experimental forage: Rowan jelly

Experimental foraging isn’t a new thing for me, I was seduced long ago by the tales of my late great Canadian childhood hero, Farley Mowat. Those early days saw me pulling roots to munch from the marshlands and popping windfall nuts casually into my mouth whilst tromping through the woods with my parents. It never occurred to me then that I might just get it wrong. Today, I am a little wiser and a little more cautious but always searching and researching for those wild edibles that make me feel just a little bit more in tune with nature.

Growing up in the northern hemisphere, the Rowan tree, (or Mountain Ash) and I needed no introduction. It was a common yard tree in nearly every neighborhood I’d ever lived in. Finding it in the backstreets of east London’s Bethnal Green, lining the roads in front of council estates was just a reminder that I’d never explored what it’s bright red orange cluster of berries was used for.

It didn’t take long for me to find that this vibrant tree has a long history of uses from jelly and jam to wine. I have a passion for making wine, and this use excited me more than the others. I’ll use the recipe with my regular modifications to exclude any chemicals, but not this year. My impending move and Norway’s insistence on not allowing more that 3 bottles of alcohol in with a person per visit, places this firmly in the “to do” list.

I settled for making syrup or jelly. I am not a big fan of sweet jelly or jam, and as a rule I don’t make things I will not eat, but a savory jelly that apparently is nice with strong cheese or rich roasted lamb? That is something I can certainly try.

My overall quest is to know if Rowan will make a nice wine, but since I may not have three months to ferment, this will have to do. Rowan is often dismissed as poisonous but it has a long history of being used throughout the northern hemisphere the Welsh, English and Norwegian people all knew the secrets of how to use her berries.

It took me two attempts to make something palatable. Rowan is quite astringent and as I was using tiny quantities it was difficult to reliably determine from various recipes what amounts I might like best. Below is what I consider a moderate success, but one with enough promise that I am keen to harvest again next year for wine.

250ml of Savory Rowan Jelly:

2 cups rowan berry
5 heaping tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice  + white rind to help set it
1 inch cinnamon stick
10 peppercorn whole
4 crushed
Cover lemon, cinnamon and rowan with just enough water to cover and  boil for 20 mins
Remove cinnamon and large pieces of white rind
Mash berries and let cool in pan
Strained / hung for 2hrs, over clean pan. Do not squeeze.
Add sugar to the juice and place back pan to boil.  Add crushed peppercorns
Boiled til setting
Jar, cap and let cool.


“The land will provide a rich and diverse range for your plate, if only you know where to look”.  A thought that has stayed with me since childhood and a theory that continues to prove itself the more my knowledge increases.

honey press

Pressing honey

I was very luck last week. I got to take part in the pressing of two boxes of honey from the apiary. Sean Hearn, is the man in charge of all things “bee” at Organic Lea. Through him, I’ve had my first introduction to the style of bee husbandry called “natural bee keeping” which I first wrote about here.

Natural bee keeping is much different than the more commonly practiced or industrial bee keeping, and the more I research different aspects, the more I find myself feeling that the natural method is more to my liking.

Following on from these differences, it should not be a surprise to learn that the process of honey extraction is another area where Sean steers away from the common industrial methods. I remember seeing a program about an off grid couple in the Blueridge mountains in the Appalachian mountain range who had top bar hives. Unfortunately the program was quite light in detail, but the woman did mention “pressing” the comb was the only way they had to release the honey.

I am not a cheap person when it comes to tools, nor am i frivolous. I believe that buying the best tools once is the best investment. When it came to a “honey extractor” I just didn’t like the notion of having a piece of equipment sit around for most of the year because it had only one use. When Sean said I could join the team for pressing, I was very excited but I had no idea how much that afternoon would teach me.

Foremost, wanted to know why Sean felt pressing was a better method than using a centrifuge extractor. I expected it was going to be a similar reason to my own conclusion, that a tool with one use that was used so infrequently wasn’t a good investment but to my surprise this turned out to be quite low on his list.

You see when bees gather nectar, that nectar includes  vitamins and minerals from the plant, the bee process it adding important enzymes and probiotics all in tiny trace amounts. When a bee fills a comb with her honey it is then capped off from the air and it all stays sealed inside.

Harvesting honey requires “uncapping” of the cells. In industrial operations, the uncapped honey gets inserted into a centrifuge which spins with such force air forces the honey out to the sides of the barrel where it drips down into a bucket. The process relies on air. Unfortunately, exposure to air releases some of the enzymes and probiotics. Thus the honey loses a significant amount of it’s original ingredients.

Cold pressing honey relies on pressure to force the honey out of the comb and while it still has contact with some air in the process of reaching the bucket below, this is reduced. Less of those important enzymes and probiotics are lost. Sean, and many other natural bee keepers believe that by retaining as much of these ingredients the honey is closer to it’s natural state and thus nutritionally superior.

I am a honey lover, but that day in the kitchen I tasted something far richer and more complex than even that which I have bought in local markets. It makes me wonder if that might have been the first real honey I have ever tasted?

Perhaps you have heard that honey was at one time considered a healing substance or even a cleanser? I have and I’ve often wondered. It seems logical that honey in it’s purest form was the start of these assertions. Perhaps modern technology, although faster has led us to harvests that may be high in efficiency but falling short on quality.


Community projects

For the past 9 months I have been a regular volunteer and a trainee at an organic farm in Chingford called Organic Lea. I love them. They offer a space to learn skills and meet people as well as running a box scheme feeds over 300 local families. Over my time with them, one of the things I find most inspiring  is their constant drive to evolve the site.

Since 2001 they’ve had the land and the transformation has been incredible. You can read about this in detail on their website. One of the projects has been a community wine making  and in true community fashion throughout September on Fridays they are accepting grapes from local gardens for processing into wine. For those not interested in wine, the farm also has a community juicing day where people are encouraged to bring their apples and pears along with bottles and help process juices.

How many folks have grape vines or fruit trees even but don’t actually use  the produce? Many. It might be that they inherited a garden or they don’t have the skills to make good wine, aren’t sure about how to use pears or apples or perhaps they don’t have the time. What ever the reason, this project is a complete win:win scenario.