Treading the Primrose Path of Dalliance

The Captain and I have been boating very slowly along the Llangollen Canal taking in the Montgomery Canal en route.  I like the Montgomery Canal.  It’s very picture skew.  The Captain made the 18 year old and I go on a walk.  I am still officially convalescing which is a tediously slow business but I am vastly improved.  However, the Captain is keen to get me back to fully functional.  So he decided a short walk was in order.  “Don’t worry,” quoth he, “tis but a gentle stroll!”

About four hours and nearly ten miles later we staggered from the end of the abandoned canal section we had been walking with the promise of a pub lunch dangled in front of us the only the thing keeping us upright.  On reaching the pub we discovered it was closed.  This was bad.  But it did not detract from the delightful scenery we had walked through.  There were swathes of primroses, carpets of celandine and more than a smattering of dandelions.  All was yellow with the promise of green.

Earlier in the week I had adapted a cake recipe to take advantage of the copious quantities of primroses we were encountering.  They are such a pretty flower and so synonymous of Spring, but did you know they were edible?  They taste slightly of honey but should only be picked where they are plentiful and even then care should be taken to ensure plenty are left behind.  I had made some primrose syrup by following the recipe for Wild Flower Syrup after a weekend in Norfolk.  I crystallised some fresh ones by painting egg white onto individual flowers with a child’s paint brush and then dusting them with caster sugar.  Apparently they will keep like this for up to 8 weeks but mine only lasted 2 days.  Though that might be because we ate them!

The cake was delicious and very pretty.  It is an infitely adaptable recipe.  I have made it with wild flower syrup, elderflower cordial and I have plans for another using violets 🙂

Primrose Crunch Cake

175g softened butter

175g caster sugar

3 eggs

140g self raising flour

85g ground almonds

1/2 tsp baking powder

100ml milk

Handful of fresh primrose petals

For the Primrose Drizzle:

4 tbsp Primrose Syrup

4 tbsp granulated sugar

Crystalised primroses to decorate

Heat the oven to 160c/gas 3.  Grease & line a 2lb loaf tin.  Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, flour, almonds, baking powder and milk until smooth.  Fold in primrose petals.  Pour into tin and bake for 45-50 mins until golden, risen and a skewer comes out cleanly when poked into the centre.  As soon as out of oven, poke skewer all over pricking holes into the cake.  Mix together the syrup and sugar and pour over cake, allowing it to soak in.  Leave to cool in tin.  Once completely cool, lift out carefully, decorate with crystalised flowers and slice to serve.


Easter Tidings & Business Update

I know I’m late.  But I have not had the internet connections that would have allowed more timely greetings.  The Llangollen and Montgomery Canals have been utterly delightful but lacking in this regard.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Remote can be good.

This trip has marked the first time we have been out on Wand’ring Bark since my decision to officially go into the preserve making business.  In the run up to going away, I have been awash with legislation, registration and administration.  And I’m not entirely sure I’m sorted yet.  Actually, let me correct that.  I am entirely sure that I am NOT sorted yet!  You would not believe the complexity involved in selling a jar of jam.  However, all this red tape is designed to protect us and I really do not want to poison anyone so it’s all fine.  No really it is.  As well as tedious stuff, there has also been lot’s of exciting things – coming up with a name, ordering jars, planning a website, discussing logo design, booking fairs etc.

However, it really has been delightful to get away and get on with the actual making.  After all, that is kind of what I really want to do.  It’s been delightful to see the hedgerows waking up after winter and finally being able to dust off my maslin pan to make the most of their harvest.  Within days I had used up all the jars I brought with me so bought a dozen more.  These too are now full so I am hanging up my kit until we’re home when I have some boozy sloes that will need taking care of.  My boat cupboard is now full of Primrose Preserve, Dandelion Jelly, Primrose & Dandelion Jelly, Spiced Wild Garlic & Carrot Chutney and Wild Garlic & Apple Jelly.

At least I now have some products to sell!  Hopefully, my website will be live soon and details of how to buy will be available there.  Exciting times 🙂

Cider Revisited

Rember the homemade cider press?  It’s turned out to be a triumph!  They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating in which case the proof of the cider must be in the drinking and oh my this is definitely very drinkable.  And must be a very high percentage proof.  Either that or someone has moved all the letters around on this keyboard …

The Captain and I are away with the 18 year old  on a two week jaunt heading to Llangollen.  We’re currently moored on the Shroppie somewhere between Audlem and Nantwich.  We’ve had a fantastic day of sunshine and piercingly blue skies with chill winds – quite perfect for foraging dandelions and primroses.  I have several jellies on the go, some of which are a tad experimental so I have no idea how they’ll turn out.  I shall let you know.  I am hoping they’ll form part of the product line for my new business.  Wild Side will up and running very soon and I’ll have a link to the new website as soon as it’s live.

But for now, I think I may have to give up.  It’s really way too challenging trying to negotiate this newly arranged keyboard.  But the cider is amazing!  Will definitely be doing that again.


Shameless Plugging – Vote for Andy Tidy!

It is the Canal and Rivers Trust elections very soon.  If you do not yet know, my husband, Andy Tidy, aka Captain Ahab, is standing.  You need a British Waterways licence to vote but if you have one, do vote, and do vote for him.  I realise I am biased, but he would do an excellent job.  His manifesto explains why he is standing and just the briefest of glances at his blog will give you an understanding of his passion for our waterways.

Polling opens on the 8th of February and continues until the 9th March.


Foraging Course – Edible Eastside

On Saturday, the Captain, my Mother and I set off for a foraging adventure.  I was excited.  Very excited.  More excited than was seemly.  Have we established that it does not take much to excite me?  I think we have.  My excitement was magnified, however, because this was the first foraging course that I had both booked and actually managed to attend.  I had booked to go on a course with my Mother ages ago and one of lovely friends had booked a mushroom day for my birthday.  I wrote about them here.  Unfortunately, both of these were on top of my operation so I had to cancel.  Disappointed does not begin to cover it.

So, discovering via Twitter that Edible Eastside were running their first foraging walk as part of Birmingham Food Fest 2011 AND the walk was to take place along the towpath could not have been more perfect.  This course may very well have been written with the Captain and me in mind.  I first lost him before we even entered Edible Eastside’s yard situated in Birmingham’s Eastside and housed among a superabundance of canal heritage.  The yard itself was part of the nineteenth century Fellows Morton Clayton buildings and the Digbeth Branch Canal was just a hop, skip and a jump away.

The Captain rejoined us as Jayne Bradley described her vision of an ecologically sustained initiative to promote urban gardening and food production.  We then set off with Pam Smith, the project’s horticulturist and gardening advisor.

Her knowledge of plants, folklore and history were impressive and her enthusiasm was second to none.  She was a great believer in only eating things that were worth the picking, and frequently commented that such and such a plant was edible, but it tasted like hay.  Paraphrasing Terry Pratchett, she reminded us that all plants are edible, it’s just that some are only edible once.  We learnt things like the more brown patches there are on a silver birch, the more ghosts inhabit it.

That cleavers can be boiled and used to make antiperspirant as well as eaten.  That nettles make excellent string.  That Woodruff can enhance the flavour of alcoholic drinks.  That I have forgotten so much more than I thought would even though I knew I would forget just about everything.In all, we only wandered from Typhoo Basin through the Curzon Tunnel and up the first couple of locks in the Ashton Flight but in that short stretch alone, it was hard to see how you would starve, if push came to shove.  As well as the nettles, woodruff, cleavers and silver birch, we also found:

Oregon Hollygrapes (Mahonia Aquifolium); Elder;

Chinese Bramble (Rubus Tricolor); Mugwort; Chickweed; Plantain; and so much more.  Much of it may taste like hay, but you would have lovely nettle string bags and there would be no evidence of perspiration thanks to your Cleaver splash-on.  And there would always be the silver birch ghosts for company.

This wonderful afternoon was rounded off with a nip of Pam’s Sloe Gin and the opportunity to taste Jayne’s delicious smelling cooking.  Sadly, I had completely run out of energy so having fortified myself with sloe gin (could you really see me passing up on that?!), we took our leave.  A great day and I look forward to the next.

For the Captain’s take, check out his blog from the 28th October, when his post should be live.

The Last of the Damsons

The day before we returned from our trip up the Caldon Canal, the Captain and I discovered yet another tree groaning with yet more damsons.  I utterly failed in walking on by.  Or even boating on by.

I have done many things with damsons so far.  Gin, chutney, jams, pies.  I kept thinking they were rare.  Every time I saw them my heart was thrilled.  It has taken me till now to realise that at least around here, they are two a penny.  Common as muck.  All over the place.  That does not make them any less wonderful.  There really is something very special about seeing the blue-black fruits dripping from the branches.

Having studied the photo below, which came to me via twitter but I can not remember from whom so apologies for not attributing, the damsons I am finding are Shropshire Prunes:

They are tart, juicy and delicious.  And no one seems to pick them!  Bizarre.

The tree that called to the Captain and I was just south of Stone on the Trent and Mersey.  We had just come down through Aston lock and moored temporarily while we spent ten minutes picking.  In that time we filled a carrier bag and ended up with three kilos.  I washed, sorted and then froze them on our return home as I did not have time to deal with them initially.

It was not until this weekend that I finally got around to making the following damson jam.  It is unusual because it contains balsamic vinegar, remains sweet and yet has less sugar than most jams.  And you do not have to bother with all the boiling until setting point malarkey.  Bit of a winner in my book.

Balsamic Damson Preserve

3kg ripe damsons, frozen

500g soft brown sugar

250ml balsamic vinegar

1tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

grated zest of 1 lemon

80g dried apricots, finely chopped

Place all ingredients in preserving pan and leave for several hours while damsons defrost.  When thoroughly thawed, stir well and heat slowly stirring until sugar dissolved.  Simmer uncovered over low heat, stirring occasionally for 5-6 hours.  It needs to be thick enough to leave expose the base of the pan when a spoon is drawn across it for a few seconds.  At some point during the process, while the mixture is still very liquid, remove the damson stones, either with a slotted spoon or simply sieve it.  Once the desired consistency is reached, pour into sterilised jars and seal.

Homeward Bound

Tootling back along the Staffs and Worcester today to our marina, we passed by a row of John Downie Crab Apple Tree lining the towpath.

They are quite distinctive because of the rosy oblong fruit which is much sweeter than many crab apple varieties.  The row between Gailey and Hatherton must have been planted at some point as they are generally ornamental trees confined to gardens but these are definitely freely available.

They are the same variety as the thirteen kilos my lovely friend picked from her neighbour and delivered to me shortly before we went away.  My favourite recipe is definitely the Sweet Pickled Crab Apples from that batch, but the Apple Butter has to be a close second.  I made it at the same time as the Crab Apple Cheese, taking half the contents of the stewed apple as a starting off point.  I have never made a fruit cheese before and fancied giving it a go.  I think I may need to do a little bit of experimenting to get it exactly right for my tastes as this recipe seems a bit sweet for me.  However, so far, I have only tried it on its own.  I suspect with a good sharp cheddar or a lovely piece of ham the apple cheese could blossom into its own.  The apple butter is divine though.  It is a little bit like curling up on a winter’s day in front of a roaring fire with a favourite book.  Bliss.

Crab Apple Cheese

2kg Crab Apples, rinsed

300ml water



food grade wax for sealing

Place apples in preserving pan with water and simmer gently until soft.  Mash until pulpy.  Push through sieve and weigh.  For every 450g of pulp add 350g sugar to a separate bowl.  Place pulp back into clean pan and warm gently until think and no liquid visible.  Add sugar and stir till dissolved.  Take off about half of the mixture if making Crab Apple Butter.  Simmer mixture very slowly, for about an hour, until thick enough to see the base of the pan for a couple of seconds when spoon scraped through middle.  Use small dishes (I used ramekins) brushed with glycerine and spoon mixture in.  Seal with melted wax and leave to cool.  Allow to mature for 4-6 weeks before using.  Use within 12 months.

Spiced Crab Apple Butter

1/2 quantity of apple cheese mix

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1tsp cinnamon

Add the spices to the apple mix and stir.  Heat gently until simmering.  Boil rapidly for 10-15 mins until thick and creamy.  Remove from heat and pour immediately into warm sterilised jars.  Seal.  Use within 12 months.

Sloe journey to Froghall

The protracted hunt for the illusive sloe is at an end.  I am victorious.  I was sure we would come across some on this trip but I must confess that as we entered the latter half of our week my confidence was shaking.  Not because they are not fairly prolific hedgerow plants, but because they are pretty difficult to spot from a moving boat.

However, despite my visually compromised state, travelling up the Caldon Canal on Sunday I did finally see some.  I think I only caught a glimpse of the tiny blue fruit because there were several bushes, some of which were old and sparsely leaved.  I squealed my delight.  The Captain came to an abrupt halt and we both leapt overboard and began picking in earnest.  Once again, the trusty boat hook came into its own as most of the lower branches of these bushes had been stripped, probably by other foragers.  The upper reaches were still heavily laden so we were happy to relieve them of their burden.

Just as we were about done, we were joined by another couple of foragers, keen to make sloe gin.  Matt and Em had just been on a foraging walk and had lots of local knowledge which they were kind enough to share with us.  We returned the favour with a short ride on Wand’ring Bark and a cuppa.  It was the least we could do having pretty much nicked all the sloes …!

Once we dropped them off, we continued along the Caldon heading towards Froghall.  The Captain was very keen for me to experience the Froghall tunnel and the wharf beyond, having managed to squeeze the boat through last October when out with the Seventeen year old.  In fact, as we approached the tunnel, he turned into something of testosterone fuelled exhibitionist out to impress his first date.  Doing the equivalent of a wheelie he launched at the tunnel with cavalier abandon.  Given both the tunnel’s reputation and the sight in front of us, I was not entirely convinced this was a good idea:

Sure enough, fairly early on in our journey, there was a loud crash and the sound of splitting timber.  The Captain slowed down.  At a slower speed we had no trouble getting through and the while a chunk of the door has fallen off, it is easily fixed and getting to the other side was well worth it.  Froghall Wharf is quite simply beautiful.

We had the place to ourselves until the next morning when we were joined for the day by a friend who I have not seen since we were seventeen.  That is a very long time ago!

We spent a happy day tripping down memory lane and pricking sloes for the gin.  They are now all soaking happily and I am done with stocking up on cheap supermarket booze for hedgerow liquor.  I did have a quandary about recipes as I have several variations to choose from.  I tried a couple which I give you now:

Sloe Gin

450g sloes, frozen overnight / pricked

600mls gins

450g / 225g sugar

Few drops almond essence (optional)

Put all ingredients into a large glass / ceramic container and shake daily until sugar dissolved.  Then shake weekly for about three months.  Pour into sterilized bottles and store for 18 months if possible.

Taking a Leek and plugging Forager’s Friend

Bad joke, I know, but when you travel up the Leek arm of the Caldon Canal and it rains as soon as you pull in to moor, there are only bad jokes to crack.

We’ve made some distance since Tixall Wide and have left both the Staffs & Worcester and the Trent & Mersey way behind.  The number of heavily laden crab apple trees we have seen has been immense.  It is quite beyond me to tackle them at the moment.  Besides which, a lovely friend of mine raided her neighbour’s John Downie crab apple tree and brought me round thirteen kilos just the other week, so I am a bit sated with the whole crab apple experience.  I made jelly, cheese, butter and experimented with a batch of John Downie Brandy.

The proof of that will be in the drinking many months from now.  In the meantime, the best and perhaps most surprising success, to my mind at least, was the whole pickled crab apples.  Absolutely amazing!  I had a few that I could not quite squeeze into a jar so we had them for tea with sausages, mashed potato and a good onion gravy.  Yum.  I shall post the recipe at the end of this post.

I have been keeping my eyes peeled for sloes this trip.  For while I have a sneaking suspicion that I prefer Damson Gin to Sloe Gin, I feel further extensive research is required.  However, I am finding them somewhat illusive.  I can find damsons a plenty.  But if I buy any more cheap supermarket gin someone is going to alert the authorities and my photo will be circulated to all stores nationwide.  I have enough in stock for some sloe gin but I.  Must.  Not.  Buy.  Any.  More.

The Capt perfecting the boat hook technique

So, today we had damson pie.  Actually it was damson and cherry plum pie.  I am amazed these weeny plums are still fruiting.  I first picked these when we were on the Droitwich Canal at the beginning of July, and yet here we are in the middle of September and still the bright yellow and shiny red ones are around.  They are deliciously sweet and offset the tartness of the damsons perfectly.  I have no photo of our pie.  It was an aesthetic disaster.  I am not good with pastry.  Hot hands.  Plus, I had to roll it out with an empty gin bottle as I have no rolling-pin.  Which probably did not help.  Still, it tasted good.

Damsons & Cherry Plums before they were subjected to my pastry

This trip has been undoubtedly enhanced by discovering the little button on my Forager’s Friend iPhone app that pin points exactly where I am.  Marvellous.  It has always been there.  Only I am too much of a numpty to have noticed it.  Now, when I make a discovery, I can enter it immediately.  I love this app so much, but the website is excellent too.  The makers contacted me on Twitter and asked if I had any suggestions for enhancements.  I put in a request for more canal/towpath information to make it more user-friendly for those of us on the waterways.  But even without canal names and lock numbers, it is still a fabulous resource for any forager, with or without an iPhone.

Anyway, enough.  Time for a recipe:

Sweet Pickled Crab Apples

1kg crab apples

300ml cider vinegar

400g granulated sugar

25g root ginger, bruised

1tsp allspice berries

5cm piece cinnamon

1tsp cloves

Prick the crab apples all over with a needle or skewer to prevent the skins bursting.  Put the vinegar, sugar, ginger, allspice and cinnamon in a pan and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.  Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer.  Add the apples and cloves.  Simmer gently until apples soft but not mushy.  Remove with a slotted spoon and pack into warm, sterilised jars.  Bring vinegar syrup to the boil and boil for 5 mins.  Strain over apples.  Cover with vinegar proof lids.  Leave for 1 month before eating.  Use within one year.

Tixall Wide

We were not meant to stop here.  I cannot remember why now.  It is usually very busy but last night we ran out of day light and so far this morning I have not stuck my head out of the hatch to see how many neighbours we have.

Light beginning to fade before we arrived at Tixall Wide

That said, I do like Tixall Wide.  I like the way it has pretensions.  It is astonishing to think that when it was built the landowners insisted that it was ‘improved’ to make the view from the house more pleasing.  They did not want an industrial eye sore spoiling their breakfast.  Consequently, it looks more like a lake than a canal.  But the navvies that had their workload more than doubled and sweated to build this by hand, had the last laugh.  Nothing remains of the house but the gatehouse.  The working man’s toil has outlasted the aristocrat’s place of ease.  Some justice in that, I think.

Photo of Tixall Wide from April last year

Thanks to the will-I-won’t-I-be-going-into-hospital dilemma, this week away has been very badly planned with the decision to go only being taken on Wednesday.  In some ways, it is easier to be less than 100% here than at home.  I remain on ‘light duties’ when it comes to locking with the Captain gallantly single handing several yesterday.  He has even taken on the foraging which really is above and beyond the call!  As we were waiting to go through the very pretty lock at Gailey, he brought me a handful of damsons and asked for a bag.

Gailey Roundhouse, delightful canal shop here

I then stood at the foot of the heavily laden tree while he scrambled up and shook its branches.  The very ripe fruit positively leapt off with squeals of delight at being discovered.  We ended up with 1.35kg in less than ten minutes.  The tree is just by the BW rubbish point at the lock landings.  I am not sure what I will be doing with them so for now, they are in the freezer compartment of the fridge.  I did not bring my preserving pan with me.  Shocking, I know, but I do not have the energy for jamming.  I am tempted to make more damson gin but I do not want to use up all my gin supplies as I am hoping for an abundance of sloes on this trip.  Perhaps a damson pie is in order?

It breaks my heart to see so much fruit just going to waste.  There are schemes popping up to try to rectify that.  In Birmingham, there is Urban Harvest and Fruitshare is a nationwide scheme.  I am sure there are others.  I find it difficult to leave fruit when I can see it is just going to rot, but there is only so much one person can do!

No recipes in this post, at least not directly.  But I will tell you about the delicious  Mary Berry Lemon Drizzle Cake I made.  It is a special cake. It is a cake that can change the world.

The recipe is here and you can read how my lovely friend Joy used its delicious lemony power.  I, on the other hand, just ate it 🙂