Tasty Treats From Winter Foraging For A Night By The Fire

Well folks, it's that time of year and the Christmas season is upon us!

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Well folks, it’s that time of year and the Christmas season is upon us!

A large, rotund man with a big white beard and questionable animal control issues is preparing to crawl down our chimneys, while the shops fill up with ornate Christmas jumpers and edgy queues form for the last box of mince pies as panic buying takes off due to a bad Brexit writes Helen Hastings.

The 21st century Christmas has started to resemble a reformation of sanity rather than a season of goodwill to all men (and women)!

But what is the true meaning of Christmas? It seems to vary from person to person, but I can tell you mine… FOOD! 

The last ten Christmases hang off my hips like saddle bags and my backside is the size of a well fed country. But, regardless, I just can’t resist the allure of Christmas food.

It’s like a festival of childhood comforts and drunken shenanigans.  Let’s face it… Christmas just isn’t Christmas without someone staggering into the Christmas tree after too many ports. Many years ago, my family even had an exploding turkey episode but that’s a harrowing story best left to another time!

Of course this year is looking very different with the Christmas dining table looking much smaller and a lot quieter than previous years.  We are being forced to re-imagine Christmas and look past the usual hustle and bustle and general chaos of the festive period. (although the number of folks doing a celebratory dance at being in law free this year is probably off the scale) and instead take a simpler yet heartfelt  view of the whole thing.

In this edition of wild food and foraging, our expert Alison McGrenaghan will be taking a step back from the usual scurrying around our hedgerows.

Instead be taking us on a magical journey through her pantry (and trust me, I’ve been in her pantry and the excitement is off the scale) and introducing us to some incredible Christmas recipes that go hand in hand with our store cupboards (or magical pantry’s if you have one).

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Alison McGrenaghan, local forager, chats to Helen Hastings about winter foraging.

Hi Alison…Well, here we are again, finally nearing the end of an incredibly strange and tumultuous year.  Do you think the spirit of yule and our love of food is enough to save the day?

“Hmmm, I don’t know about it outright saving the day, but it is certainly one of the tools we have at our disposal in our own, personal, psychological buoyancy kit.

“Anything that assails the senses in a positive fashion, should be used to facilitate happiness. I have a mental list of ‘favourite things,’ which bring me small, but wonderful little moments of joy, for example, the sound of swans flying, the smell of Christmas trees, cats purring, full moon rise and yes, of course, good food and comforting flavours have to be included in that.

“Also planning menus for this time of year are beneficial for other reasons, cooking in itself is both creative and therapeutic and planning and organising are great ways of helping us to feel in control, albeit in a small way.”

I know that like me you LOVE the winter solstice, can you give me your reasons for why you find this time of year so magical?

“I really do love it. Weirdly, I love cold weather, ice, frost, snow, hard blue skies and the coldness of the skin on my face in this kind of weather.

“I particularly like the clear cold winter nights, when you can see all the constellations so clearly that you feel you could almost touch them and then you can come in doors to the warmth of the fire and the soft light of candles and a warming glass of sloe gin.

“I think that those of us descended from the Northern tribes are hard wired to celebrate the winter solstice. Our ancestors have done so for literally for thousands of years, as testified by the alignment of ancient sites such as New Grange and Stonehenge, which show evidence of such events going back some five thousand years. It is like a gravitational pull that we can’t escape.”

 It seems that the pandemic has given birth to a new obsession with batch cooking and freezing, it makes me wonder if a small army of frozen lasagnes is suddenly going to take over the Earth!  What are your top tips for freezing and batch cooking?

“Well, although I like fresh, local and seasonal from choice, I will freeze and preserve if I have too much of anything and sometimes because I know there are useful plants which only have a short season, for example wild garlic.

“I also tend to batch cook Christmas puddings using my Grand Mother’s original recipe from the 1800s, partly because it’s a voluminous recipe and partly because I like to have a few spare to give away.

“I would say get a few good chutneys, jam and syrup recipes under your belt. You can preserve a lot of berries, fruits and vegetables this way, and they make great wee gifts this time of year too.

“Infusing rum, gin, vodka and brandy will preserve fruit for eating with ice cream and will give you a delicious warming winter drink too. I have black currant and sloe gin on the go this year, as well as various fruit meads.

“Other years I have made things like rowanberry schnapps and blackberry brandy, again, great wee gifts. Rum Topf is another good way to preserve fruit in alcohol and is simple to create.

“Some herbs and most berries can be dried when they are in season. Herbs and leafy plants can be chopped finely and frozen in ice cube trays for adding to cooking. Remember two things when freezing: 1) label and date clearly. 2) several small packages can be thawed together if you need a big portion, but it is not so easy the other way around, so make up multiple small servings.”

We have foraged a lot over this year and I like to think we’ve taken people on a foraging journey with this column in Down News.  Can you give us an example of anything that we’ve highlighted that is now sitting in your pantry as an exciting condiment?

“I have been gradually gathering up preserved foods over the last few months and as you have quite accurately imagined sitting in my pantry at the moment, many of them will soon be packaged into hampers and given out to friends and family for gifts. 

“There are several chutneys, my personal favourite being, ‘Wild Apple and Spiced Pumpkin,’ although there is a ‘Wild Pear and Ginger,’ which comes in a close second. I can also recommend the ‘Crab Apple Jelly’ and ‘Pumpkin and Ginger Marmalade.’ “

Winter gifts… made up from the hedgerows.

I know from experience that you make incredible chutneys and festive liqueurs, can we have your favourites and maybe a recipe or two?

Here’s a recipe for Black Currant Gin.

1 litre gin

½ litre sugar

½ litre fresh black currants

 Put the sugar and blackcurrants into a large, flip top jar or bottle, top up to the top and seal. Over the next couple of weeks turn or gently shake the bottle daily until all of the sugar dissolves. Then store somewhere dark for the next few months.

Use in much the same way as Crème de Cassis. An example would be to pour a measure into the bottom of a wine glass and then top up with prosecco.

Spiced Wild Apple and Pumpkin Chutney

“This is my version of a BBC Good Food recipe that I came across a while ago:

Ingredients:

4 tbsp vegetable oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

100g piece of ginger, peeled and thinly shredded

1 fat red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

15 cardamom pods, bashed open

2 long cinnamon sticks, snapped in half

1 tbsp black mustard seeds

2 tsp cumin seed

4 fat or 6 smaller garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1kg pumpkin flesh, peeled and cut into sugar-cube size pieces

500g of wild apples, peeled and cut into sugar-cube size pieces

1 tsp ground turmeric

500g light soft brown sugar

300ml cider vinegar

Method.

“Wash and sterilize your jars.

“Gently fry the onions, ginger, chilli, cardamom, cinnamon, mustard and cumin seeds together for 5 mins, until the spices are aromatic.

“Stir the garlic, pumpkin and apples into the onions, then cook for 10-15 mins more, until the onions and apples are soft and the pumpkin yields a little here and there.

“Stir in the turmeric and sugar and let it melt around the vegetables. Simmer for 5 mins.

“Add the vinegar and 2 tsp salt, and then bring back to a simmer. Continue, stirring regularly, for about 30 mins or until the ingredients have cooked down to make a squashy chutney, with chunks of pumpkin and apple here and there. Ideally it should be a little syrupy at the bottom of the pan, as it will dry and thicken as it cools.

“Spoon the hot chutney into sterilised jars and seal.

“Eat within six months (trust me this shouldn’t be a problem!).”

A Christmas door wreath made up from cuttings from hedges and bushes in the area.

Of course Alison, as you and me both know, foraging doesn’t just stop with food, it can also be used to decorate the house!  What are your favourite things to do with all the beautiful evergreens?

“Oh. there are so many things I like to do. Yesterday I made a large, fresh, Yuletide wreath for the front door, using foraged greenery and garden herbs, it smelled even better than it looked.

“I love packing the mantle piece with all the traditional wild plants: holly, Ivy, mistletoe, pine and fir. Also yew can work well, but has a bit of a reputation as a poisonous tree.

“I used privet and leylandii for the door too. Add to this a few garden herbs like bay and rosemary, for scent and appearance. All this said, I think my all time favourite is the larger than life candle ring, that I decorate with greenery and candles and then suspend over the table each year. It’s so over the top, but it looks and smells intoxicating and to me it completely embodies the season of Yule.”

This year has forced us all to take a new look at how we live, and our attitudes to food have certainly been included in that.  Will the Christmas feast feel different in any way to you this year?

“Well, as with most things in life, there have been good and bad aspects to this year’s altered celebrations. On the one hand, I have never been so organised in my life, because I have had more time than usual to get things done and the constant threats of lockdown and store closures have meant that I have had to prioritize things that might have been put on the long finger otherwise.

“On the down side. I have had to cut back dramatically on guests and social events. We will still be enjoying traditional Christmas fayre at Moon Hare House this winter, but on a slightly smaller scale. I like to acknowledge the ancestors and absent friends at Yule, it will be that bit more poignant this year and we will all be extra thankful that we are still all here to enjoy the feast.”

 My family had a rather embarrassing exploding turkey incident one Christmas!  Dare to share any of your own funny festive food disasters?

Ha. ha! I well remember the story of your exploding turkey – how can I ever top that! I remember one Christmas a number of years ago when my husband had to attend a funeral on Christmas morning and then my sister gave birth to my nephew in the afternoon – a passing followed by a birth, all very symbolic of the Winter solstice I guess.”

Thank you Alison for all the great advice through the year on forgaging!

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Wishing you and all our readers a bright Yuletide blessing and a safe and happy 2021!

From

Helen Hastings.