Any walk through the English countryside during September and October can provide a multitude of treats for the eagle-eyed forager. Forget that, there's no need for eagle-eyes - Autumn's fruits are everywhere! People with apple trees in their gardens have just begun to leave baskets of fruit on their driveways, accompanied by scrawled notices beseeching passers-by to 'Please take some apples!', so of course I have obliged.
However, last weekend there was no need to look for cultivated fruit. A quick cycle-ride along the canal towpath yielded basketfuls of hedgerow treasures which were just perfect for the 'Hedgerow Jelly' recipe I had had my eye on for a while.
We couldn't bear to get rid of these Fruits de l'Ontario baskets!
Fond memories of buying them full of ripe Niagara peaches and grapes...
Rob got carried away with picking blackberries, as you can see.
However, blackberries were not what I was after... I had noticed some crab-apple trees up the towpath, and as the recipe called for half the quantity of fruit to be apples, I thought that these would be more appropriate than the apples I had 'foraged' from people's driveways! I also filled my basket with rosehips and haws (from the hawthorn tree). I knew that rosehips were edible - they were commonly gathered to make a Vitamin C-rich syrup, particularly during wartime last century - but I had never tried using them. However, until recently I was unaware that haws were edible and as there's such a profusion of them this year, it seemed a shame not to try them. Eaten straight from the tree they are uninspiring; slightly mealy and flavourless, but it seems that they have a multitude of potential health benefits, so that seems reason enough to include them in this recipe.
The recipe is, once again, from Pam Corbin's excellent River Cottage Handbook 'Preserves'. This is fast becoming one of my cookery book essentials, and is certainly the book from which I have cooked most recipes over the past few months. Typically, this recipe is gloriously flexible, allowing you to use whatever hedgerow treats you find, but with Pam's own favourite combinations suggested too.
500g crab apples (or apples)
500g mixed hedgerow berries (a combination of 2 or 3 of these is suggested: rosehips, elderberries, haws, bullaces, sloes, damsons, etc)
900g white sugar
Pick over your fruit, removing stalks and leafy bits and rinsing the berries if necessary. Don’t peel or core the apples (they’re an excellent source of pectin), just chop them roughly. Place all the prepared fruit in a saucepan with 1.2 litres of water and simmer until all the fruit is soft and pulpy.
Turn the contents into a bowl lined with a scalded muslin cloth, and leave to drip overnight. I tie mine up by the corners and hang it off a clothes-airer with the bowl underneath, which seems to work very effectively, even if it looks a little odd!
The next day measure the juice – you will probably have about 1.2 litres, though this will depend on the berries used. For every 600ml juice allow 450g sugar. Put the juice into a large pan and slowly bring to the boil. Add the sugar as it just comes to the boil and keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Then boil rapidly, without stirring, for 9-10 minutes until the setting point is reached. Skim the jelly and pot (in sterilised jars) and seal as quickly as possible. Use within 12 months.
This recipe can easily be halved, which was in fact what I did. As you can see, this particular combination of berries produced a gorgeous clear ruby-red jelly, which almost glows as the Autumn sun shines through it.
The jelly can be spread on toast, or crumpets (to be eaten in front of a roaring fire of course!) but is equally at home used as a condiment with a roast dinner. I have a real fondness for fruity jellies eaten in this way, but I think that's something that you either love or hate. Either way, it's a perfect way to enjoy the loveliness of the new season.