Winter Foraging: the City vs. the Forest

The blackbirds are skipping about in the leaves looking for insects, and the tapping of the woodpeckers can be heard throughout the forest. With the continuing frosts stopping growth in its tracks, there has been little recently to be foraged in the woods, as was to be expected. All the same, there are a few plants worth looking out for over the coldest of months, and even in the city, it’s possible to find sources of these, especially when several people are keeping an eye out.

One plant that doesn’t seem to mind even the Berlin winter (around -20) is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), and having seen it sprawling for miles down the Autobahn embankments from Berlin to Dresden in December, it wasn’t surprising to find masses of it at a point where the A-road meets the Autobahn in the direction of Hamburg. One of the positive qualities of the plant is its visibility; the tightly-packed clusters of orange-yellow berries stand out against the shade of many deep brown boughs, heavy with the fruit. A party of three, we opted against the advice of several authorities (that being to break off the fruit-laden limbs, a technique supposedly ‘less destructive than it appears’) and decided to strip the branches of their fruit by squeezing, crushing the berries and collecting the pulp in buckets.

So, a few words on sea buckthorn harvesting. As mentioned before, the berries are tightly clustered around the branches, which have long spines running down their length. Crushing the berries is very messy, especially when you lose your grip on a bent branch – it’s like getting hit with a springy, over-sized paintbrush. The juice is extremely acrid and astringent, and can irritate sensitive skin if left too long. It probably stains fabric if not washed out, so wear old clothes to the raid. After an hour of struggling with a plastic bag wrapped around my gloved hand, one of our party had been observing the mess I had been making of things, and pointed out that it would be ten times easier with a washing up glove. Not what you want to hear at the time, but sound advice. If you plan on harvesting the berries as late as we did (January), you’ll need a woolen glove inside the rubber one for warmth.

After harvesting, the pulp has to be separated from the seed and the spines and other bits that will have collected in the bucket too. This can be done by hand although immediately after harvesting the pulp will no doubt be freezing cold. Once the spines and other bits have been removed, pass the pulp through a sieve, and you should be left with a thick, pleasantly sand-coloured juice, slightly speckled in a similar way to the berries themselves (this colour is greatly altered on cooking).

Pure sea buckthorn juice

The taste of fresh sea buckthorn is truly wild – even bottled organic sea buckthorn drinks are often mellowed with honey and sugar, making it impossible to ready yourself for the genuine article. Being orange you might have guessed at the high tannin content, but this is laced with a battery-acid citrus tang reminiscent of the super-sour sweets we would buy as kids. Though a bit of an assault on the taste buds at first, you get to thinking of that jolt of flavour as an indicator of pure goodness, the kick that told indigenous peoples that what they’d found (in this case enormous quantities of vitamin C) was highly nutritious.

Half of the sea buckthorn was cooked with apples and made into jam, a process which unfortunately requires quite a bit of jam sugar. One way of tackling this would be to cook the sea buckthorn with quince, which would have the pectin boost needed to get the jam to set. If you were going to do this with completely wild foraged ingredients, it would be better to harvest the berries earlier to coincide with the quince season. Bear in mind that the commercial quince is Cydonia oblonga, as the smaller ornamental quince used in low hedging is Chaenomeles japonica. It is edible, though inferior in taste, and there’s little information about its pectin content in comparison with that of Cydonia oblonga. The jam is less suited to breakfast toast, but works well as a side to cheeses, and I’d imagine it would work well with game or other rich meat, though I’ll have to ask a meat eater’s opinion.

The other 1.5l was experimented with in the following way: commercial sea buckthorn berries are supposedly first frozen, both to make separation from the cut branches easier, but also to round off the flavour a little. Thinking about this, I allowed the remaining juice to freeze out on the balcony for two months, to be tried when it thawed, which it promptly did last week. Pure, there seems to be no difference in the intensity of the flavour, but used like cordial I could almost not be imagining that some of the astringency has been removed. As it’s almost too thick to drink pure, it makes sense to dilute with water, though even if it were naturally thinner, it is perhaps a little too dominant to be drunk neat.

The second bit of substantial winter foraging comes from another shrub that carries its fruit over the ‘barren’ seasons, the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), and more importantly its fruit, the sloe or sloe-berry. Having heard about a stand of blackthorn outside the Martin Gropius gallery a few months ago, I imagined it’d be far too late in March for it to be worth taking a look, until riding past a few days ago and remembering the mention of the blackthorns, I went to take a look. Almost half of the fruit were still glossy and plump, with a dusky blueness on the skins. The thorns are brutal, and as I’d left it so late, it was necessary to push through the stands to bushes with still-ripe fruit, impaled on all sides while gathering the fruit. No real special technique needed here – just slide the sloes gently from the thorn-like stalk; done too quickly the inner fruit sticks to the stalk, and you pull away an empty skin.

Sloes

The late late sloes are now steeping in alcohol – one bottle of good gin, one of vodka. Even in March it was still possible to collect a kilo of fruit in about an hour. A little sugar is all that’s needed – some recipes state the addition of almond extract, but I’m confident that adding the stones as well as the pulp will handle the almondy flavours well enough, and the less additives, the better. This has to steep for at least three months, though the disciplined will then bottle the stuff back up after a quick taste to check for impurities, waiting a further three months. By these strict calculations, my sloe gin and vodka will be ready in September, a harrowing thought, as theoretically it’ll almost be time by then to go out and, well, start picking sloes again.

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