Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree

As you will have gathered from our cider making foray at the weekend, I am recovering well from my latest operation.  It is a frustratingly slow old business, but given that I have had four operations, numerous infections and almost continuous courses of antibiotics I suppose it is not surprise that it is taking me a while to get back to what passes for normal.  I am particularly irritated as I cannot keep up with my head which is gallivanting around all over the place.  Apart from when I have exhausted myself.  Which is quite frequently now I come to think about it.

Anyway.  I have been very keen to be out enjoying the beautiful weather we have been having.  It has been Autumn at her very best.  All golden light from the ‘maturing sun’ and ‘fruit with ripeness to the core’.  Forgive me, but did you really expect me to write about Autumn and NOT quote John Keats?  I am not to be trusted out alone at present.  Some may say this should be a permanent thing.  However, the current excuse is my vision.  My double vision is sufficiently bad that I really do need to have someone with me.  Just in case.  On Sunday I persuaded the Captain to take me for a walk.  Today I pressed the incredibly soon to be eighteen year old into service.  This may have been a mistake.  Having realised he had no option, he stood in the hall, while I had gone to fetch my bag, and yelled, “Walkies!”

Still, on both occasions we had a lovely time.  My aim was to gather chestnuts.  I do not know if it is just where we live, but there are a great many Sweet Chestnut trees in my locality.

This pleases me a great deal.  My local Tesco sells them for £6.99 per kilo but my local park literally is carpeted in them.

On each of my walks I have come back with a bag groaning with nuts.

Apparently the traditional way to get to the nuts is to tread on the spiky cases and make them pop out but I have not been able to master this technique.  I suspect it is because the chestnut trees are part of a coppice of several other trees including pine and oak so the ground is soft and mulchy.

When I went with the Captain I forgot the first rule of foraging: always take gloves.  And so scratched my hands to pieces because I could not have left the chestnuts on the ground.  Obviously.  Today I was better equipped.  But I was banned from taking my basket.  Birthday boy drew the line at that insisting that his street cred could barely cope with taking his mother for a walk.  It would not recover from being seen with her carrying a basket.  Apparently.  Whether his legs will recover from being spiked by the chestnut shells that poked through the bag remains to be seen.  But at least he carried it.

I shelled Sunday’s gatherings and spread them on my laundry airer as it hangs out of the way.  It’s perfect for drying things and I suspect will be used far more for drying flowers and nuts than ever it was for clothes.  I read somewhere that once dried for a couple of days, the nuts kept well until ready for using. I do not actually intend to dry the nuts, partly because I have since failed to find this piece of advice, but mainly because I think I will be making flour with my harvest tomorrow.  I shall let you know how I get on.

D-Day

That would be Decision Day.

Today I saw my consultant again.  As I walked into his room, he proved that he is still at the top of his game by noting, ‘You’re still ill, aren’t you?’  So shrewd.  It was a forgone conclusion that I would be needing more surgery, but he still felt the need to list all the reasons why he did not really want to do it.  Apparently my eyeball may sink into my skull; my vision may deteriorate; my scar will be more evident; my nerve damage could worsen; my issues with post-operative swelling will cause problems; the list went on.  I could not decide whether to glaze over with boredom or freak out in terror.  One snippet that snapped me out of my quandary was, ‘I’ve never actually had to do this before.  I have no idea how easy your orbital floor plate will be to remove.’  Oh goody.  When did the NHS decide that we were all equal partners in deciding our care?  I do not want to hear my consultant’s misgivings, dilemmas and doubts.  I want to hear that he has it all under control, that he knows what he is doing and that his professional opinion is both valid and correct.  I do know that I am in safe hands and I do trust him.  I just wish he had not chosen to share some of that information with me.  Then again, would I still trust him had he not been so open with me over the previous months?  I do not know the answer.  Perhaps it is just a crappy situation that has no right way of being handled.

Anyway, since there is no choice, I will be having an operation to remove my remaining pieces of metalwork.  At some point in the next four weeks, but probably not for the next two, the Captain’s dreams of being married to his very own Seven of Nine are going to lie shattered on the operating theatre floor.

However, there is an upside.  Several, actually.  First, it may mean that I really do start to get better.  Which, all things considered, would be quite nice.  But most importantly, it means that the Captain and I get to spend another week alone aboard Wand’ring Bark and I’ll be able to do some more towpath foraging.  This pleases me greatly.  I plan to make sloe gin at the very least.  Which will go rather nicely alongside the recipe I had published on British Waterways website recently.  Do have a read, I think the plums are mostly gone now but there are so many variations to try you need only be limited by your imagination and the amount of alcohol in your cupboard!

We’re going to be heading up the Staffs & Worcs Canal to the Caldon Canal.  I shall take my basket, my berry picker, my recipes and my imagination.  Oh and LOTS of gin 🙂

Back soon

I have been very absent.  I am sorry.  I have done a lot of home based foraging and cooking and have lots of recipes to share with you.  But I have been a bit overwhelmed with things domestic.  And things related to my face.  It has not been going too well and I am not exactly full of health and vitality.

I return on Tuesday to see my lovely Max Fax guy.  We have decisions to make, he and I.  The summer has established that I do not have sinusitis.  This I knew.  But the ENT bod still shoved a camera up my nose and thought I would enjoy watching the pictures on the telly.  What is it with doctors and cameras?  Can they not understand that if it is covered in skin, hidden behind tissue, cartillidge, muscle, fat or bone it is Not Meant To Be Seen?  At least not by its owner.  I had a similar experience once with my cervix.  I mean, seriously?!

The summer has also established that while six weeks of antibiotics lulled my bugs to sleep, they woke fully refreshed and ready to par-tay once I completed the course.  So I am back to feeling rubbish, hurting and not sleeping; with a red puffy face and slightly squiffy eye.  I have morphed into a weepy moany pathetic drip who I do not recognise and do not much like.

This post is really just to say that I will be back.  I have lovely recipes to share, and lovely foraging trips to talk of.  But for now, I just need to try to get on top of all the things I can do on the off-chance that I have yet more surgery soon.

So, as a fellow metal friend once memorably said: I’ll be back!

Indulgence …

Tonight I am feeling fed up. Is that allowed? I think it is. For tonight at any rate. I will not stay fed up for long. But just now I am having a wee bit of a wallow. Indulge me.

I have not slept for a while. Which is not helping my mood. I am not good at sleeping but even by my not-very-high-standards the last two nights have been dismal. Dawn breaks here at 4:30am, I have discovered.

This is not why I am fed up. It has to be said it does not make me feel bouncy and full of fun, but it is not the reason why. No.

I am fed up with feeling poorly. I had my accident on the 30th day of November, 2010 at approximately 11 o’clock in the morning. I know this because I had been listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 and it had just finished.

I do not look like this anymore. I have come a long, long way. However, since then, I think I have had about five weeks of feeling well. That’s not much, is it? On the up side, at least I know that I can feel well which presumably means I will be well all the time again one day. But I do rather wish that day would hurry up.

Today I went to the hospital. Again. I saw my lovely Maxillo Facial consultant. Again.

‘Hello,’ he said, then with irony, ‘it’s been an age!’

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘you must have missed me.’

‘Oh, I did, I did! That’s why I had to get you back.’

‘It’s because you love me, you can’t function in clinic without me.’

‘Very true. I think I see you more than I see my wife!’

Having dispensed with our banter, he decided that I am ill. Six years to become a dentist, a further five years training to be a doctor and then years working through a surgical program to diagnose that I. Am. Ill. Hope for the NHS yet, then. There are two working theories: a) I have chronic infected sinusitis which is a known but not frequent complication following my type of injury or b) I have an infection at the site of my other metal plates or in the bones themselves. Neither option is good but a) is infinitely preferrable to b). So more antibiotics have been commenced. Nose drops have been added to the mix. Steam inhalations have been ordered. An ENT referral has been made. An ultra sound scan is being organised. I will return to the Max Fax clinic in two weeks. Because he cannot function without me. Obviously.

Having indulged me in my moaning, I would like to share another, nicer, indulgence with you. Before I went to the hospital, I pottered up the garden in search of chillies, would you believe. I got side tracked. The redcurrant bushes that I had given up on were weighed down with fruit! I was beside myself with happiness. It does not take much. I picked over 600g and set about making Currant Shrub which should be ready in time for Christmas. My gift to you for making it through this dismal post is the recipe. Enjoy.

Currant Shrub

Makes about 1 litre

300ml strained redcurrant juice (1kg redcurrants simmered for 45mins in 400ml water should yield at least this)

600ml rum or brandy

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1tsp grated nutmeg

300g granulated sugar

Mix the redcurrant juice, rum or brandy, orange zest and nutmeg together in a large wide-necked jar. Don’t worry if the mixture becomes a gel, it will liquify once the sugar is added later. Seal the jar and leave for 7-10 days in a cool, dark place.

Transfer the currant and alcohol mixture to a pan, add the sugar and heat gently to about 60c. When the sugar has dissolved, strain the liqueur through a jelly bag or muslin. Decant the strained liquid into a sterilised bottle and seal with a cap.

Store for several months in a cool dark place so the shrub can fully mature. Use within 2 years.

Wild Food in Suburbia – Dandelion Marmalade

Flushed with success over the Beech Leaf Noyau, I was very keen to try out something else.  Foraging by definition has to be seasonal and it was still April and I was no longer aboard Wand’ring Bark at this point so I expected my options to be a little limited.  However, when I consulted John Wright’s Hedgerow book it told me that besides beech, I could expect to find broom, chickweed, mallow, sorrel, corn salad, dandelion, ground elder, hairy bittercress, hogweed, hop, wall rocket, pignut, silver birch, nettle and wild garlic all within walking distance of my suburban home.  This startled me.  I know very little about plants and even less about gardening.  You begin to see why the Captain is worried about this new venture, don’t you?

I am very keen to learn.  But I am not stupid.  Well that may be a moot point.  But my stupidity is confined to other matters and generally is not the sort that is keen to kill people through mis-adventure.  Dandelions struck me as a safe bet.  I know what they are.  Everyone knows what dandelions are.  Remember being taunted as a child for picking them?  Or was that just me?  I love the brilliant blooms and used to enjoy picking bunches of them to take home but each night I would lie rigid in bed with ‘Picking dandelions/Break the head/Picking dandelions/wet the bed!’ ringing in my ears.  As it happens, dandelions and bedwetting are linked, though you’d have to do considerably more than just break the heads from the stems.  You do not get a common name like piss-a-bed for no reason, you know.  It has diuretic properties if enough is consumed so perhaps dandelion tea may not be the best thing as a night-time drink.

But dandelion marmalade, well now that must surely be another thing?  I lost my marmalade virginity earlier this year when the Seville oranges were in season.  I found the chopping of the oranges to be strangely therapeutic.  Wielding sharp knives in my visually compromised state made everyone around me a tad nervous but no limbs, digits or even blood ended up in the final product.  Therefore I decided dandelion marmalade was the way to go.

The recipe called for 80g of dandelion petals.  That is really quite a lot.  More than was available in my back garden, certainly.  I wasn’t up to yomping through the countryside as one of my facial plates had become chronically infected and at this point I was waiting for surgery to have it removed.  So I did a bit of scouting out my local area in my car and the best crop of flowers was on a patch of open greenery at the bottom of my road.  John Wright’s book assured me that in these days of lead free fuel, traffic fumes really do not travel far from the road so I decided they would do.  Besides, by this time while I was a woman possessed, I was also a woman extremely knackered.  I drove to the bottom of the road, staggered out of the car clutching a Tescos bag and a pair of scissors, then proceeded kneel in the middle of this area and snip away for about an hour.  I drew a lot of strange looks.  But what care I of that?!  The resulting marmalade is superlative.  If everything I make from wild food turns out to be this good then foraging is going to take up more and more of my time!

Dandelion Jelly Marmalade by John Wright

Makes about 5 jars

1 litre good-quality sharp, fresh apple juice (not from concentrate)

80g Dandelion petals

100ml

Freshly squeezed lemon juice (2-3 lemons)

750g jam sugar (with added pectin)

Pour the apple juice into a pan and stir in 60g of the dandelion petals.  Bring to simmering point and remove from heat.  Cover and leave to infuse overnight.

Next day, strain the juice through a sieve to remove the petals (they will have discoloured slightly).  Return the juice to the pan, add the lemon juice and heat slowly to boiling point.  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then add the remaining dandelion petals.  Increase the heat and boil rapidly for 6-7 mins or until setting point is reached.

Remove from the heat and skim the surface with a slotted spoon to remove any scum.  Pour into warm sterilised jam jars, cover and seal.  If you find the dandelion petals are floating to the surface, leave until the jelly is at room temperature and then give the jar a sharp shake.

Foraging Firsts – Beech Leaf Noyau on the Trent & Mersey Canal

Yesterday I mentioned that I need to fill my time.  This is never more true than when on our narrowboat.   I used to do a lot of reading. And I mean A LOT of reading. However, my date with the snow and the railway sleeper back in November has curtailed that somewhat.  Among other things I managed to crush my right eye socket which has required two lots of surgery to repair.  I did ask for bionic laser death rays to be inserted (a whole new dimension could have been added to my hard stares) but the medical profession did not oblige.  Perhaps they feared for the repercussions knowing just how many hard stares I am wont to give.  Things are much improved but as I now juggle 3 pairs of glasses, none of which are sunglasses, resuming my reading position at the pointy end has not yet happened. Consequently, on our recent trip around the Leicester Ring, I was in need of distraction.

Drifting gently along the waterways seems to provide an ideal opportunity to gather all manner of wild food and this trip was the first opportunity to put that theory to the test.  Spring was definitely springing and all manner of wildlife was in evidence.


I didn’t aim big. Although it could be argued it was expensive but I’d prefer to say classy. However, that was the Captain’s fault, not mine. The plan was to make Beech Leaf Noyau from Pam Corbin’s excellent Preserves, No.2 in the River Cottage Handbook series. In preparation I had bought a litre of cheap gin and was eagerly anticipating spotting the ‘young, silken leaves of our native beech tree’ that Corbin waxes lyrical about. However, the Captain was adamant that mid April was far too early for beech to be in leaf and what with him being a country boy and all, I listened and left the cheap gin behind. Consequently, when on our very first day of cruising we found ample supplies of leaves, I simply had to use the Gordon’s. I mean, what’s a girl to do? I did spend the rest of the week listening to mutters of ‘Waste of perfectly good gin …’ but I am confident he’ll change his tune come the crisp November evenings when we curl up in front of a roaring fire and sip my delicious liqueur which I am confident will taste of bottled Spring. Possibly. The drips I licked from my fingers boded well.

Beech Leaf Noyau
Makes 1 litre
1 loosely packed carrier bagful of soft young beech leaves
500ml gin
300g granulated sugar
Brandy

Pack the beech leaves into a glass jar until 9/10s full. Pour gin over leaves, making sure they are well covered. Leave to steep for 7-10 days so the leaves can release their striking green pigment. Strain the infused gin through muslin or a jelly bag.
Put the sugar and 250ml water into a pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Allow to cool completely before adding to the infused gin. Add a couple of capfuls of brandy.
Put a couple of fresh beech leaves into sterilised screw-top or stopper bottles, add the noyau and seal.
Wait until winter before drinking. Use within 2 years.