As the last days of Summer peter out and early Autumn beckons I realise it is my busiest time of year and I need to get a wriggle on.
As I’ve mentioned before, Autumn is my favourite season where free fruit is abundant and there’s a narrow window of opportunity to bottle jam and pickle my way into the winter months. Although I never have time to cram in all the things I planned, I manage to squeeze in enough produce to last til Spring with some surplus left over for gifts. It might sound penny-pinching but I do what I can to home-make as many Christmas presents as possible. Not through stinginess but rather a distinct lack of funds. Realising that many people are in the same boat I have decided to share three of my favourites which are inexpensive and always seem to go down well.
Though clearly not foraged, pickled onions always find favour and are a good gift for men who are difficult to buy for. This is the right season to find freshly-harvested onions which are firm and excellent for pickling. I was lucky this year and found netted bags of small organic onions for just 79p; I only needed three bags to make seven jars. I have gluten intolerance and many of my recipients have diabetes so the ingredients reflect those requirements. This is such a quick and easy recipe that the only difficulty is peeling the onions. This gets me every time and invariably my partner comes home to an Alice Cooper-lookalike in the kitchen.
2 litres of cider vinegar
200ml of balsamic vinegar
Bay leaves (fresh if possible)
2-3 kilos of small onions
For crunchy onions pop the peeled onions into a large bowl and add salt so that each onion is lightly coated. Cover the bowl and leave for around 24 hours. Then rinse the salt off the onions and pat dry with a cloth ready for pickling.
Set your sterilised jar out and pop a few onions into each one. Pour the vinegar into a pan and heat to boiling. Then pour enough into each jar to cover the base of onions. Add a couple of peppercorns into each jar, one clove and a washed and dried bay leaf. Fill each jar to the top with onions and pour the remaining vinegar over, ensuring they are completely covered. Once cooled screw on the lids and label. They will be ready to eat in three to four months.
If you prefer sweeter pickled onions you can dissolve a large spoonful of honey or brown sugar as the vinegar is heating.
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Another favourite is Elderberry & Crab Apple cordial which is nutritious, delicious and also unique; you are unlikely to pick up a bottle at your local supermarket. When decanted into beautiful bottles it can make a lovely present. Elderberries are easy to source wherever you live but Crab Apples may be hard to forage in the urban jungle. Don’t worry, Bramley apples will do just as well in this recipe.
Elderberry & Crab Apple Cordial
Around 1 kilo of freshly picked and washed elderberries
250g of crabapples
2 ½ to 3 pints of water
Optional – The juice of 1 orange and you can add cloves, cinnamon sticks and nutmeg if you want a festive flavour
Fill the pan with the 2–3 pints of water and pick the elderberries off each stalk with a fork. Chop each tiny crab apple in half and try to remove all the pips, pop the apples, still with their peel on, into the pan. The peel contains pectin which will help the cordial keep longer. Add the spices and if you like the juice of the orange.
Begin to heat the contents and allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes. Use a potato masher to mush up the berries releasing their juice. Once you can see the berries and the apples have broken down, remove from the heat and strain through a sieve with a piece of muslin in it.
Leave the contents of the sieve to drip through for a few hours – I usually leave it for about 12 hours. Then you can even squeeze the muslin to release the very last drops of the liquid. But bear in mind the juice can stain. Measure the liquid and pour into a pan, add 400g of sugar for each pint of liquid and begin to simmer. Once the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has thickened very slightly, remove from heat and decant into sterilised bottles. Once cooled label and store in a cool dark cupboard or the fridge.
Stick a lovely label on and a nice ribbon round the neck and voila – a fairly inexpensive cordial which can be drunk hot on those cold winter nights or even added to a hot toddy to give a festive hue.
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Rowan is another tree which is just as likely to be in the city centre as it is on a country lane. It’s also another berry which is good for you and has a distinctive flavour which you are unlikely to find in any shop. I make Rowan & Crab Apple jelly every year, partly because my other half loves it. Rowan and Crab Apple jelly is traditionally eaten with cheeses and cold meats but I like to add a spoonful to winter casseroles to add flavour as well as a good dollop of vitamins and minerals. The berries are very high in vitamins C, D, and E while Crab Apples contain vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, C plus calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, omega 3, omega 6, phosphorus and potassium. Who needs multi-vitamins with a spoonful of that on your butties?
Rowan berries contain an acid which can cause a stomach upset. However, freezing the berries and then cooking them completely eliminates this toxicity.
Rowan Berry & Crab Apple Jelly
1 kg of freshly picked and washed Rowan berries (you can pre freeze them if you wish)
300 – 500g of Crab apples (Windfall apples or even Bramleys will do if you can’t source Crab apples)
1 – 3 cloves depending on personal preference
400g of sugar to every pint of sieved liquid
Remove the Rowan berries from their stalks, cut all the apples into 4 and try to remove as many pips as possible. Put all the fruit, cloves and 2 ½ pints of water into the pan and begin to boil. Once boiling turn the heat down and simmer slowly for at least 20 minutes, mash the fruit with a potato masher to release as much juice as possible.
When the fruit has broken down sieve the pan contents through a muslin cloth and a colander. This will take up to 24 hours to completely drip through, so it is best to leave it covered overnight. The following day you can squeeze the contents of the muslin to get the last juice out. Measure the liquid and then reheat it, once boiling add 400g of sugar to every pint of liquid you measured. Once you have reached the setting point pour into sterilised jars, seal, label and store in a cool dark cupboard. This is ready to eat straight away but will last at least 8 months in storage.
Collecting the ingredients and making these gifts may take a bit of hard work and some patience but it is definitely worth it. Having a cupboard full of potential prezzies as early as September for the price of a few pounds is a good feeling and takes a little of the pressure off as Christmas approaches.
- Never eat raw Elderberries
- Never eat raw Rowan berries
- Crab apple seeds contain small traces of cyanide so do not eat the fruit raw without removing the pips – bearing in mind that massive quantities of pips would have to be ingested before they created a danger.
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate. In the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the fruits mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.