BUSHCRAFT FOOD: MAKING HAWTHORN CANDY

Gardening aside, there are also plenty of opportunities to learn about seasonal foraging, something I would like us to expand on. For example, this is the time of year for hawthorn berries, and with them you can make your own candy. I originally learnt about this on the BBC Wild Food series with Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman, but I also found out it is commonly sold in China. The hawthorn’s trident shaped leaves, incidentally, are also edible, but they are best eaten in Spring.

Just a quick word on safety. As children, many of us were warned about red berries in the forest, being told that, as a rule of thumbs, they are poisonous. There are many varieties of red berries that are edible, either straight off the bush (such as redcurrants) or after a particular preparation (such as with rowan berries). But yes, there definitely are some red berries that are poisonous or cause irritation to the digestive tract. So, make sure you positively identify the berries before you pick them. If in doubt, don’t pick them. Also, once positively identified as edible, pick the berries carefully, making sure that branches of a toxic red-berried plant are not intermingled with the edible plant. It might only take one or two toxic berries mistakenly placed in a batch of edible ones to cause harm.

To make hawthorn candy, first pick a good bunch of hawthorn berries, two or three mugs’ worth, place them in a large bowl and squish them with your hand. Before you consider using a potato masher or spoon to squish the berries, I’ve already tried: using hands works best. Hawthorn berries have a stone in the middle, and squishing the berries reveals the stones in the mixture. You will probably need to add water, unless the berries are very juicy. You need the mixture to be slimy, slightly runny, but still thick. If it is too runny it won’t settle properly later on.

Pour or spoon the mixture through a sieve or muslin bag, gently pushing it through with your hand so that a thick orange goo comes out the other side. If it is very thick it may be reluctant to drip off, so you may just need to scrape the goo off the underside of the filter with a spoon. You can place the goo in a small container and let it jellify (which doesn’t take long), but for the purposes of making candy, it is best to let it drip onto some greaseproof paper. As if spreading tomato paste onto a pizza base, spread the goo onto the paper with a spoon, creating a layer roughly 2-3mm thick. Allow the goo base to jellify and dry for a few hours, all the better if you can leave it in the sun or near a heater. When the edges and surface of the goo base appear more rubbery, you can place another sheet of greaseproof paper over it, turn the whole thing over, and gently remove the original sheet of paper in order to expose the underside of the base. This can be made easier by starting to peel the edges off the paper with a knife and then removing the original sheet at a very acute angle, forcing the goo off without breaking it. Once the goo settles and dries enough, you will be able to pick it off the paper completely with your hands like a pancake. At this stage you need to leave it to dry some more, in the sun or near a heater; if the goo base takes too long to dry it will start going moldy after two or three days, so make sure that you have adequate drying conditions. It can help, once the base is solid enough, to cut them into strips and place them on an oven shelf or barbeque grill in order to properly aerate both sides.

Once very dry, you can store them in a jar or plastic bag, making sure that you do so in dry conditions to seal out any moisture. Funnily enough, they will look a lot like strips of red meat, so your vegetarian friends might need convincing before they try it.

Once you get the hang of it you can experiment with flavour, such as by adding sugar or jam either at the squishing stage or putting it into the subsequent goo. Sugar will also help with the drying process if you sprinkle a little bit on the goo base, as it will draw the moisture to the surface in a kind of liquid glaze, preventing the grease-proof paper underneath from going soggy. Doing so, however, will change the texture of the candy slightly.

Finally, I guess I should mention the maggots . . . yes, you heard that right. Hawthorn berries often contain tiny little white maggots, called apple maggot or railroad worm, or Rhagoletis pomonella if you like to flaunt your knowledge to others. You might spot them when you have laid out the goo base, as tiny specks of white in the red surface. They are safe, so you can either pick them out of the wet goo, or else just let the goo dry and forget about them. If anything, they’ll provide some extra protein. Enjoy!

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  1. Trackback: ON A FORAGING TRIP « Common Ground Community Garden

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