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Foraging for gifts

Every year at this time the hedgerows are groaning with juicy blackberries, sloes and crabapples and Katie heads to the woods to go foraging. I'm always a little in awe of her ability to turn foraged freebies into delicious treats for the cupboard or gifts for Christmas, and so I thought it would be nice to follow her on one of her wilderness walks and then back to her kitchen to discover the secrets for myself...

We headed to Ashridge forest in Hertfordshire, our local beauty spot, and I uttered the immortal phrase 'I know these woods like the back of my hand' (having explored them regularly since I was a child). I dragged her away from the beaten path and as we wandered through pine stands and black oak copses, heather-filled meadows and shoulder-high bracken, she pointed out all of the edible treasures, reminding me to 'leave some for the birds'. We only got seriously lost once... ok twice...

Here's what's coming up:

  • Find out when to go and where to look for the best berries

  • Discover Katie's secret Blackberry & Crabapple Jelly recipe

  • And her Sloe Gin Recipe

When to go

Mid September is the best time to head out. Remember to take a plastic bag and a few plastic tubs with lids (takeaway containers work well), and look for areas in full sunlight for the biggest, juiciest fruits. Blackberries and sloes grow in climbing brambles tangled within hedgerows. Wander along footpaths, fields and playgrounds, country lanes or canal towpaths and you will soon find all you need in abundance. Crabapple trees can be found in town parks and village greens, keep an eye out for small, bright ruby pink apples growing in huge clusters.

Picking tips:

  • Look for the blackest, plumpest blackberries, they should come away easily. If they fall to mush in your fingers then they are past it, advises Katie. While the harder berries will be all pip and no flesh.

  • When you see a crabapple tree, take a look below - if they are littering the ground beneath, they're perfect to pick. You can pick them up off the ground if they've recently fallen and aren't too bruised.

  • When picking sloes, look for the beautiful dusky blue berries. Wait until the berries give a little bit when you squeeze them and watch out for the huge thorns! Traditionally, you're meant to pick sloes after the first frost as this helps the skins split. But, Katie says, you can get around this in a warm September by picking them and popping them in the freezer overnight.

Quantity: You want around 1kg of blackberries and 1 kg of apples for the jelly. You can easily substitute crabapples for brambly (baking) apples if you want. You need about 450 g of sloe berries.

Katies' Top Tip: Two takeaway tubs is roughly the right amount of blackberries and one tub is about right for the sloes. Make the jelly within 24 hours of picking or freeze to make it later.

Blackberry & Crabapple Jelly

You will also need:

  • A muslin cloth, (Katie uses a piece of muslin curtain) or, if you want to be really professional, a 'scalded jelly bag'.

  • Jam Sugar 1kg – this is really easy to find in supermarkets especially at this time of year.

  • A lemon or lime for extra added pectin!

  • Empty jam jars

Preparing the fruit:

Soak the berries in lightly salted water for half an hour to remove any bugs. They will float to the top and rinse away when you wash the berries in a colander.

Wash and chop up your apples. Leave the cores, pips and skins on as these contain pectin. Pectin is what makes the jelly set. Then simmer all of the fruit together in a pan with 1.2 litres of water until the fruit is soft.

Allow it to cool thoroughly.

Draining the fruit:

Drape the muslin cloth over a large heavy-based saucepan and turn the cooled fruit into it.

Hang the bag over the pan and leave it to drip. You might need to be creative here. Use a kitchen cupboard handle perhaps, but make sure no one needs to get in that cupboard or you'll have a mess on your hands!

Katies' Top Tip: Be patient! Don't squeeze the muslin or your jelly will be cloudy.

Leave it to drain, preferably overnight.

Remove the muslin bag and dispose of the fruit.

Place a small plate in the freezer. (Weird, I know, but it comes in handy in a minute.).

Meanwhile, sterilise your jars by running them through a hot cycle in the dishwasher or submerge in boiling water for 10 minutes.

Place the pan on the hob and bring the juice to the boil. Add the sugar and stir gently until it dissolves, just as the mixture comes to a boil. Then stop stirring and boil for around 10 minutes, which is when it is time to test the setting point.

This is where that frosted plate comes in – to test, take a teaspoon of the jelly and place it on the plate. Allow to cool for a moment and then push it with your finger - if it wrinkles it is ready and has reached setting point. If it’s still too juicy, then boil the mixture a little longer and test setting point again.

As soon as it is ready, ladle the hot liquid into a clean, hot jar and seal immediately. Allow the jelly to cool and set before using.


Sloe Gin

You will also need:

  • A large kilner jar

  • Granulated sugar - 450g

  • Plain, straight-up, nothing-fancy gin - 700ml (70cl)

Pick your sloe berries and remove any twigs or leaves and give them a wash. Then tip them into the jar and cover them with the granulated sugar.

Pour over the gin, close the jar and leave to stew for as long as you can. Usually about 8-10 weeks. Making it now means it will be ready for Christmas. Place the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight. It looks quite pretty on a shelf in the kitchen.

Katie's Top Tip: There's no need to stir or shake it over the next few weeks, just enjoy watching the gorgeous pink bloom develop in the jar.

When you can't wait any longer you can decant the gin into clean bottles.

Katies' Top Tip: There may be a little harmless sediment at the bottom of the jar. If you want to keep your gin sediment-free you can pour it through a coffee filter paper before bottling.

Discard the berries or, if you are feeling adventurous, you can use the berries to make a rather alcoholic sloe berry pie!

These home made preserves make wonderful gifts and the bulk of the ingredients were found growing in the wild, which is a win-win if you ask me. Some pretty hand-written labels add a personalised touch and that's two more names you can tick off the Christmas list this year!

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