Suffolk herbs: A hedgerow harvest

PUBLISHED: 16:15 18 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013

Suffolk herbs: A hedgerow harvest

Suffolk herbs: A hedgerow harvest

The branches of our woodland trees and bushes are heavy with ripe fruits at this time of year. Herb expert Ed Berger advises on how to make the most of them

The branches of our woodland trees and bushes are heavy with ripe fruits at this time of year. Herb expert Ed Berger advises on how to make the most of them

At this time of year our fruit-laden hedgerows are a boundless source of food and medicine. We often consider the wellbeing of birds and animals who survive on this winter menu, but for our ancestors too, they meant the difference between health and hunger during the winter months ahead. This year East Anglia has produced a bumper crop of nutritious and health restoring fruits, the branches drooping with ripe berries. Why not go and harvest something for the winter?
Hedgerow fruit is fantastic eaten fresh and prepared in deserts, but for our ancestors the key to success was preservation of fruit through the long winter months. Preserves, syrups and wines retain most of the vitamins, minerals, fibre, sugars and plant chemicals found in fresh fruit and below are some classic recipes to help you make the most of the Autumn wild fruit harvest.
Be sure to harvest the correct species and gather only healthy, unblemished fruit that is free of insect attack and is growing away from sources of pollution such as busy roads. Avoid any fruit growing low down on trees in case animals, specifically dogs have
passed that way

Warming tipples

Alcohol is an ideal preservative for fruits, being bacteriostatic and with its own reviving qualities on a cold winter night. A famous alcohol extraction is sloe gin, made from the fruits of the blackthorn tree (Prunus spinosa). Their dark skins contain high levels of antioxidants with free radical scavenging and immune enhancing properties. They are also rich in vitamin C and B vitamins, as well as tannins that explain their traditional use for treating stomach upsets.
Hawthorn berries (Crataegus oxycanthoides) are the herbalists preferred treatment for cardiovascular problems including hypertension, raised cholesterol and ischemic heart disease. The hedgerows are filled with these bright red berries in autumn and they can be gathered and prepared just like sloes to produce a valuable heart tonic.
In fact, alcohol extractions are one of the most important methods for administering herbal medicines, because they allow for rapid absorption of herbal constituents into the bloodstream. The only difference between a medicinal tincture and the sloe gin is that no sugar is needed in a tincture, which many people actually prefer as the resulting preparation isnt sickly sweet. Any spirit alcohol will do including gin, brandy and vodka.

To make sloe gin:

1 Gather ripe fruit after the first frost or alternatively freeze the sloes overnight.
2 Buy a 1 litre bottle of gin, pour half into another sterilised 1 litre glass bottle.
3 Top up each bottle with fresh sloes and 150g sugar per bottle.
4 Screw on lids tightly and shake weekly for a couple of months.
* The slow gin is now ready, although connoisseurs open the gin after a full year has passed.

To make hawthorn tincture:

1 Place washed and roughly crushed hawthorn berries in a sterilised glass jar.
2 Pour vodka or brandy over the berries to cover completely.
3 Screw on the lid tightly, shake daily for one month.
4 Decant the tincture into a sterilised glass bottle, label and store in a cool dark place.
* For treatment of heart conditions take one teaspoon in a small glass of water three times daily. Always speak to your doctor or a qualified herbalist before using hawthorn if taking prescription medicines

Oven dried fruit

Wild plums, below, and wild damsons (Prunus insititia) are ideal candidates for oven drying. Like sloes these fruits have a dark purple skin which contains powerful antioxidants for fighting free radicals and enhancing immunity against winter bugs. They are also packed with nutrients and eaten daily the fruit fibre is excellent for maintaining digestive regularity.

To dry fruit:

1 Wash, pit and cut the fruit into equal sized pieces so they dry evenly.
2 Place fruit on a sheet of parchment paper on a cooking plate, ensuring that the pieces arent touching.
3 Preheat oven to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit and place fruit in the oven with the door kept slightly ajar so that steam can escape. Depending on the fruit type and size drying takes from 4-12 hours, so test after 4 hours, and return to the oven if still moist for another hour, and so on. The finished fruit should be dry but flexible when cool.
4 Finally place the dried fruit in a large pot in a warm dry room with good ventilation. Stir daily for a couple of weeks then store in an airtight container in a cool dark place.

Robs and syrups

A rob is the traditional name for a concentrated liquid fruit extraction and elderberries have been prepared in this manner for centuries.
The appearance of elderberries, pictured, marks the end of the summer and their timing is excellent, being one of the very best preventatives and treatments for colds, flu and winter bugs, with the support of plenty of scientific evidence.
Try an elderberry rob to support your system throughout the colder months.
Alternatively, you can make a syrup that will be adored by children of all ages, by simmering the elderberry juice on a low heat till half of the water has evaporated, and then adding sugar at a ratio of two parts sugar to one part reduced juice. Again store in a cool dark place and take at the same dosage as above.
If you cant face the mess of making your own syrup , an excellent elderberry product called Sambucol is available from good health food stores.

To make an elderberry rob:

1 Put on some old clothes (this is going to be a rather messy activity!) and collect plenty of elderberries.
2 Wearing rubber gloves, remove the stalks and press out the juice by squeezing the berries through a clean cotton cloth to remove the skins and tiny pips. If you have a fruit press all the better.
3 Once you have collected around a pint of juice, put it into a pan and reduce over a low heat till the juice is thick and has the consistency of molasses. Cool, bottle and store in a cool dark place.
A good dosage of elderberry rob is one teaspoon daily as a preventative or three teaspoons daily as a treatment in colds and flu.

Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine for 12 years and lives near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He is also course director of herbal medicine for the College of Naturopathic Medicine and is a keen plantsman, growing many medicinal herbs in his woodland garden. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine, herb garden design or to arrange a consultation please contact on 07931 797148 or
Suffolk magazine readers can get a 50% discount on an initial consultation (normal price 40).

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