The weather has confused my garden this year. My tomatoes are still flowering, my strawberries shot out countless runners but never fruited and the coriander was too wind battered to last more than a week or so. The sage is soldiering on but there has not been much to eat from the garden so far this year.
However, the hedgerows are starting to fruit. Blackberries, elderberries, apples, hazelnuts, plums and pears are just a few of the things to look for. If you don’t have a blackberry bush or fruit trees nearby, check with friends – many an overgrown garden has produce to spare.
Now is the time to start saving jars, and buy sugar, pickling vinegar and any spices you are short of. Adding a vanilla pod to plum jam makes it extra luxurious and scents the kitchen beautifully; and mulled damson jam is a festive treat.
I take a loose approach to making preserves. I’ll occasionally use a recipe – I’m planning to look one up to make plum sauce this year – but chutney often ends up being a case of ‘chop up all the veg that needs using up, add vinegar and sugar/honey/spices then taste and simmer until it seems about right to put into a sterilised jar.’
Jam is a little harder due to pectin levels varying between fruit but I cheat by stewing up plum or apple with sugar to give a pectin-rich base, then adding other fruit to give flavour. Some favourites from previous years include: rhubarb, apple and ginger jam; apple, pear and honey jam; and blackberry and damson jam. If jam doesn’t set, it’s still tasty as a fruit syrup to drizzle over yogurt or toasted oats and sugar for a ‘cheat’s crumble’.
It’s worth following jam recipes until you have an idea of what the various stages of jam look like, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated affair with thermometers and sugar burns. Gently stirring jam as as it bubbles, on a rainy afternoon, is one of life’s joys.
Look around and you may be surprised by the amount of free food on offer from trees and hegerows. Stick to public areas, not stranger’s gardens, and check whether you have any community allotments nearby, or local maps for foragers. If you live in Loughborough, the university has Fruit Routes maps, as campus has been planted with an orchard and more for the community to share.
Foraging is a great way to get some exercise and free food at the same time. Just remember to leave enough for other foragers, and wildlife. The blackberries seem particularly abundant this year so there should be plenty for everyone.