Red-stained Hands

What will these hands ne’re be cleane?

Macbeth V, 1

The carnal fruits of summer are close to ripening, and, surveying my mental foraging map of the city, I suddenly felt a little over-faced with the amount of stuff that would soon be past its very best. A consistently warm spring has rushed things on a bit, and, being away between the second and third weeks of the month, it was necessary to be in many places at once, or almost at once, when going out on a city forage.

With my now-completely-mobile basket, I planned a route which would enable me to visit four or five sites before dark. I didn’t manage to get to all of them in time (which in itself turned out to be a great help), mainly due to one small oversight – with no cover to the basket, the bike has to be ridden slowly and with the least shock manageable. Nonetheless, I saw that this would be the optimal way to get around the problem of foraging for things often sparse and spread out across the city. The first task was to visit a chain of serviceberry trees dotted all over my local district.

Ripe serviceberries

Picking serviceberries is a very manual job, as only the ripest of the ripe berries agree to come away readily from the stalk. You develop a kind of twist method after an hour or so of experimentation. Smaller shrubs have a poor yield, but the network of bushes I had become familiar with meant a few hundred grams of fruit could be had before riding on a minute or so to the next bush. Mature trees are far more productive, their spindly stems often drooping the fruit to around head height in broad ‘sheets’. Fruit from this height of the tree I found to be more plentiful than when climbing up to further branches. I also tried spreading a sheet under the branches and climbing up to shake the fruit down, a procedure which had little to almost no effect whatsoever:

No joy in shaking the trees either

So, without berry-whacker or sophisticated comb, I picked the fruit for a good few hours with the dark sky threatening thunderstorms, and the usual funny looks from passers-by. This second oversight ate so much into my ‘schedule’ that it was night before I arrived in the cherry tree-lined street full of embassy and ministry buildings. Outside the residential office of Lower Saxony in Berlin, I first tried my luck. A black cultivated cherry with a light bitter tang. A the drivers of a few ultra-modern rickshaw taxis looked on. The best method seemed to be to prop my bike against the tree, grip the trunk, stand with one foot on the seat, then hoist myself into the tree. This had two advantages: the small trees were easy to climb up into, where the fruit was riper, and there was no need to risk pulling down branches from the ground; the operation seemed relatively unassuming at street level, the bike seemingly being chained to the tree, and no sign of its owner immediately in sight.

Foraging where the guards carry guns: an upcoming trend?

Not that I was all that worried about reprisals from the authorities, but I thought perhaps the security guards of foreign ministries might take a disliking to people nestling in the trees outside their buildings. At one point the desk attendant of the Rheinish Palatinate bureau gave me a wave as I loaded the basket with plump red cherries outside his window. A few minutes later, two blacked-out VW Passats with blue signal lights on the roofs pulled onto the forecourt. The driver got out, saw the bike, then saw me. I had about two kilos of cherries at the time, and around a kilo of serviceberries to boot. He asked me if the cherries were ripe yet. I answered that many of them were. A moment later he was back in the car, pulling off of the drive, followed by car number two. I felt quite embarrassed to have expected anything more, and I think the driver knew it too. All the same, the Ministry of Stolen Fruit had let me off this time.

A dingy, conspiratorial photo of the evening’s bounty

So the ingredients for my summer cherry wine were gathered not without the usual strangeness of inner-city hunter-gathering. Though there had been no trouble or difficult questions from security, I sped home through the night as fast as the modified bike would let me, my hands stained with juice, thinking myself very dastardly and bold. I had around four kilos of fruit, which is now (hopefully) fermenting as I write. The bike-basket idea had been a huge pay-off, and I will definitely be using the same method when the time comes to follow my trails of walnut and hazel through the city in a few months’ time. Then the next morning, there came another reason for the red-stained hands:

I was initially quite surprised to see plenty of rabbits bounding all over the road outside my street, until I realized that the place was in fact a tiny nature reserve in the middle of the city. For the two years I have been living here, the cat has been gearing up for taking down the odd lagomorph. Evidently, he is finally up to speed, delivering with checkered regularity a warm, unblemished bunny in the early hours of the morning. For two years I’ve considered myself a vegetarian, having problems reconciling the concept of mass-produced meat. On being faced with fresh, wild, dead animal, I decided that my vegetarianism simply on the basis of the wasteful nature of meat production would be a cop-out, were I not able to do something to avoid wasting meat through blind dogmatism.

Anyone who has ever had cats will know there’s little I can do about the new deposits of fresh meat turning up on my doorstep at the moment. Perhaps he’s even testing my moral judgment by bringing me the bunnies. I decided to go along with it, and set my face to learning the butcher’s craft. The first rabbit was by far the worst, having never really had much to do with innards and decapitation personally. I was particularly upset about having torn and ruined the fur, as the bunny was so lean and skinny as to have more of this than actual meat. It took only a little more care and practice and familiarity with the way a rabbit is put together and taken apart; now I’m both puzzled and pleased to have had the chance to render meat, so to speak. The last bit of rabbit-quartering I did was pleasant, concentrated, and highly-rewarding, the last rabbit-eating was at least thought-provoking.

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Wild Cherries, for those who’ve got the Glands

Alright, so wild cherries. I think my first ever proper foraging experience was undertaken at the late age of about seventeen, when a group of us happened upon some hedgerow cherries in heavy fruit, and went about a totally impromptu raid, using t-shirts and jumpers to carry the bounty back home. Looking back, they were almost certainly not in any way truly wild, running as they did parallel to a meadow towpath. Nevertheless, the experience stays with me as a not-quite-domesticated memory, an experience of something a little more vital and unusual. I estimate that, at seventeen, no baking at all would have been on the cards without a haul of hand-gathered, semi-wild cherries.

The main point is that a lot of people understand a lot of different things by the name ‘wild cherry’. From one point of view, a wild cherry is a cherry tree standing in a semi-wild state, outside the bounds of gardens and specifically cultivated land. A hedgerow, a forgotten garden, even an intended ornamental tree growing in a city setting. Many of these would nonetheless be cultivated varieties, which is of course exciting, meaning the possibility of a forage forming a bridge – at least for me – over the span of ten years may well be in sight. From a foraging viewpoint, however, a wild cherry is something a little more specific.

Wild cherry (Prunus avium)

Personally, I encounter no end of trouble reminding myself not to assume the obvious when identifying the ‘genuine wild cherry’ (Prunus avium), to quote the gentle foraging giant Fergus Drennan. The Latin name for another type of cherry, the bird cherry, is Prunus padus, and the avium of the wild cherry name trips me up without fail, meaning I often confuse the distinguishing features of the two. As with the general intention of all the information of this blog, here is my attempt to distinguish the difference between the two, simply for my own good:

Genuine wild cherry (Prunus avium) has a few things about it that set it at a difference to both cultivated varieties, and also with the bird cherry (Prunus padus). The genuine wild cherry flowers, at least here, in May, and after flowering shows erect green fruits with long fruiting stems ordered radially, and not, as with bird cherry or ‘black cherry’ (Prunus serotina) in panicles, or drooping, pendulous stems. It flowers generally earlier than these two, and has a second trick up its sleeve. The true wild cherry (avium, think avium!) has two glands on either side of the beginning of the leaf petiole or stalk, which are quite visible to the naked eye. These release a nectar that apparently attracts ants, which benefit the tree in that they prey on harmful pests. These two features, long fruiting stems and two glands on the petioles, and the time of year, should tell me that I’ve found the genuine article.

Petiole with two glands, and fruit on a long stem identify Prunus avium

Now it’s just a case of visiting the tree every two or three days to ensure that the birds – with complete disregard for botanical Latin’s existing assignment of their own bloody tree – haven’t yet set about hungrily stripping the cherries from the branches. I’m not that worried about the birds finding nothing at all to eat besides the wild cherry – there are cherry plums (Prunus cerasiferia) and even mirabelles (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) in the very same neglected park, so I’m going to hold my ground without entertaining too much hand-wringing for them. Having never found a wild cherry before I’m at a loss to know at what ripeness the birds will start to pick the fruit (in all likelihood much earlier than my own idea of ripeness), so it will most likely be a twitchy kind of showdown when the time draws near.

While that’s pending, there’s of course masses of perennial wall rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) to be harvested:

Perennial wall rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia)

This is hugely abundant at the moment, cropping up seemingly on every piece of disturbed ground available, its scanty yellow flowers making it easy to spot at bike-riding speed. The leaves are more dense and more aromatic than the regular rocket available in the supermarket (or market, even), and as the established plants are as bushy as you could wish for, it doesn’t take a lot of work to get useful quantities without stripping them to the taproot. On the way home from work I tried an experiment; exactly how much perennial wall rocket can be harvested on the canal path,  a ten minute ride, only harvesting plants that fall hopelessly into view. The result was almost exactly 400g of fresh leaves.

The commuter’s salad (note the green walnuts in background)

There’s little to dislike about perennial wall rocket as a foraged green: it has flavour, it’s crisp, it’s super-abundant, and though not as mild, it’s the ever-local hunter-gatherer replacement for heavily-packaged, cling-film wrapped, shipped-in supermarket rucola (which belongs to a totally different genus, being Eruca sativa). All the same, I did make a classic balls-up on my first bit of culinary experimentation with the plant. Bored of oily pesto-like creations, I decided to try to fashion a traditional Frühlingssuppe out of my greens. The almost exclusive ingredient was, of course, perennial wall rocket, mortar-and-pestled with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, then cooked hurriedly into a stock of shallots, white wine, the resulting liquid being then doused with cream.

Perennial wall rocket growing on Potsdamer Platz, marking the place where a different wall once stood

The result was far too acidic, far too pregnant with the mustard oils of the leaves, and as there was nothing to bind the ingredients apart from the shallots, it turned out un-blended and wishy-washy in texture, in places watery and in others just glutinous. Not to mention that I over-salted it to attempt to correct these errors, which was predictably but unavoidably futile. Nonetheless, in order not to waste a good lesson on the account of self-deprecation, I realized that the kick of a wild edible plant coming into season shouldn’t blind me to the fact that it’s an ingredient: drinking malt vinegar isn’t much fun, but there are a lot of uses for it in the kitchen. Therefore, I’ll have to start again with the idea for a wild rocket soup (after a round of talks with Pierre, the smallholding’s cook).

Then there are many, many heads of elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) to be gathered for the highly-awaited elderflower champagne season:

Elderflowers

An activity which has paved a winding way of learning and frustration, and is by no means yet coming to an end. Having chosen to let the tools do the teaching and not to rely on wine-making manuals (which seems to be more fitting to the foraged ingredients for the wine itself), the challenge of establishing a healthy, continuously bubbling batch of elderflower champagne is beset with doubt and inaccuracy. The first batch ceased to ferment after a healthy start, the day the temperature dropped from the weekend’s continual warmth. Without experience, my conjecture that temperature took the fight out of my yeast is as good as saying that ghosts from the cold winds stole the yeast’s spirit – pure conjecture, however you put it. Perhaps the abortive fermentation was due to prior mistakes: insufficient sterilization of equipment (though I doubt it)? Deficiencies in my mail order-bought wine yeast? Improper starting and/or feeding of the yeast itself? I have no idea. What I do know is that about six thousand years ago in a cave in Armenia, people were doing this confidently enough without industrially produced yeast, campden tablets and hydrometers. Still, I press my ear to the side of my fermentation bucket – until just yesterday so merrily fizzing away – and now I hear absolutely nothing.

But if May was full of failure and doubt, it also had its share of minor successes. Perhaps June will reward patience in the same manner as the following instance. Since winter I’d been watching the tangles of suckering vines underneath the overhead tracks of the U1 underground, not wanting to leap to a decision on what they could be, though I was pretty sure no nightshade grows similarly in such conditions. On closer inspection, at the right time of year, the bowed stems turned out, after that instinctive suspicion, to really be those of the Duke of Argyll’s tea plant, known severally as the matrimony vine, wolfberry, Goji berry, and boxthorn (Lycium barbarum). All that was necessary for a final identification was the shy but distinctive nightshade flower:

Finally, the flower of the Duke of Argyll’s tea plant

Take your time, get it right. Take your time, get it right. Take…