If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, then you know I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the idea of “living off the land.” One of the best places I’ve found to forage for free food is in the hedgerows, particularly those lining the fields behind our cottage.
My American friends might be wondering – what the eff is a hedgerow? A hedge or hedgerow is a line of closely spaced shrubs and tree species, planted in such a way as to form a barrier or to mark the boundary of an area. According to Wikipedia, many English hedgerows are estimated to have been in existence for more than seven hundred years, originating in the medieval period.
As it turns out, many of the shrubs, trees and bushes used to create hedgerows bear edible fruit. For example, our nearby hedges have offered blackberries, nettles, rosehips, hawthorn berries, crab apples and sloes. And I’ve heard rumors of sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, damson plums, gooseberries and wild garlic lurking in hedges I haven’t yet discovered.
Let’s be honest: I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to actually buy sloes and crab apples, but since they’re available, I feel compelled to use of them. Sloe berries are similar to small plums, but are a too tart and astringent for eating. Crab apples are also not exactly munching food. But boil the two together with a bunch of sugar and leave to mature for a couple weeks and something quite magical happens. The sloes’ astringency subsides and their plummy flavor really comes through. The seeds in the crab apple act as a natural pectin, which gels the mixture into a nice, deep purple jelly that goes particularly well with blue cheese, as well as almond butter and (I’m guessing) regular butter, too.
I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s template for hedgerow jelly, which can also be made with rowan berries, rosehips, haws or a mixture. Making hedgerow jelly isn’t a quick process. It takes time to pick the sloes and the crab apples, and anyone who’s made jam or jelly knows that it’s a slightly delicate affair involving things like jelly bags and sterile jars. But it’s all time well spent, and rewarding too: collecting food from nature and turning it into something extremely delicious, experiencing the whole process of food creation from start to finish.
Sloe and Crab Apple Hedgerow Jelly
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s crab apple and rowan jelly.
Around 1kg crab apples
At least 1.5kg granulated sugar
Jelly bag (or a clean cotton cloth and a big sieve)
Wash the sloes and crab apples. Cut the crab apples in half, but leave in the cores – they contribute lots of pectin, which helps set the jelly.
Put all the fruit into a large, heavy pan, along with enough water (at least 500ml) to come about halfway up the fruit. Bring to the boil and simmer, stirring occasionally and crushing the fruit against the side of the pan, until the whole mass is soft and pulpy. Tip the mixture into a jelly bag (or a large sieve lined with a cotton cloth) suspended over a bowl, and leave to drain. If you want a clear jelly, just let the liquid drip through, but if you want to get the maximum yield and don’t mind if your jelly is a little cloudy, squeeze the pulp to extract every last drop of juice.
Measure the juice, then transfer it to a clean pan and add 750g sugar for every litre of juice. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then boil rapidly, skimming off any scum that might rise to the surface, until you reach setting point – you can measure this with a sugar thermometer: it’s 106C. Alternatively, after about 10 minutes of hard boiling, take the pan off the heat and drop a teaspoon of the jelly on to a cold saucer, put this in the fridge for a couple of minutes, then push your finger through the jelly. If the surface wrinkles, your jelly is ready. If not, boil for five minutes longer, then repeat the test.
As soon as setting point is reached, remove the pan from the heat and pour the jelly into warm, sterilised jars. Cover with a disc of waxed paper, then a lid. Leave for a few weeks to mature before eating. The jelly should keep for up to a year.