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Archive for the ‘Spring’ Category

Bugle the Brittany, a shotgun and some fresh Southern Highlands bunnies (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Bugle the Brittany, a shotgun and some fresh Southern Highlands bunnies (Oryctolagus cuniculus).

I love my hunting dog and I love hunting rabbits with a shotgun. On the one hand, it sounds like a heart-felt line from a country song almost too red of neck for Texas; but on the other hand, hunting small game with a shotgun and a gundog is a pursuit that the moneyed types romanticise as well. I can see why; whether the neck is red or bordered by tweed, there is a sophistication and workmanship that needs to be put into it before it can really pay off, especially (a lot of training) for the dog.

It is very early days for Bugle and me. This is not a post about the hunters that we are, but the hunters we want to be.

The gun itself (a cheap second-hand 12 gauge Akkar Churchill) is fairly new to me and I haven’t often hunted with any shotgun before, so I don’t yet do as well with it as I might with a well-sighted .22. But there is a delightful adaptable opportunism to it. The bunny can be still or on the run and it is easier to line up at night in a spotlight beam than it is with a rifle scope. Getting a little more complicated, using variations in shell (the size and number of the pellets) and choke (little collars at the front of the barrel that affect the spread of the pellets) in the two barrels, you can gear yourself up for a couple of different distance options and choose the appropriate barrel as required (if the gun has selectable barrels). You can also carry shells with different shot sizes and take on anything from a little rabbit to a goat (or bigger if you hunt it), depending on what you come across. Funnily enough, with all that provision for different hunting options, it all also provides very well for the option of barely hunting at all. If there is no particular drive to harvest as much as possible, you can head off for a walk with a shotgun (and a trained pointing dog), think more about the stroll than the hunt and still know that, should one of those rare opportune moments arise, you can take it. It is sod’s law of hunting – when you are driven by the hunt there may be nothing to be found, but then the game has a way of showing up on a sightseeing outing in the same place (we did better scouting rabbit warrens during the day on this trip than we did when we returned with the spotlight at night as an example).

Taking a shotgun stroll

Taking a shotgun stroll.

Ahead and to the left of the dog there is a rabbit that it looks like she is onto. Maybe she is, but doesn't yet know that it is something more important to us than seeing a dove in the garden. But she's learning (with the help of a long training line that can be trodden on if she decides to chase instead of point).

Ahead and to the left of the dog there is a rabbit that it looks like she is onto. Maybe she is, but doesn’t yet know that it is something more important to us than seeing a dove in the garden. But she’s learning (with the help of a long training line that can be trodden on if she decides to chase instead of point).

That’s not a dog in mid-stride, it’s a naïve young Brittany working on the miraculous breed instinct of pointing

That’s not a dog in mid-stride, it’s a naïve young Brittany working on the miraculous breed instinct of pointing

The dog, a six-month old Brittany named Bugle, was more of a hindrance than a help on her first trip. But that was to be expected while she got the opportunity to work out what the whole thing is all about. You can see that she has instincts welling up inside her, scouting out, alert to sight and scent, striking a pointing pose for reasons unknown (to me at least, because it was almost certainly a response to scent rather than sight), but she still has little way of knowing what she should be finding and what she should be pointing for. Shown her first shot rabbit, she is clearly excited, but she is initially keen to do little more than sniff and nudge it with her nose (the scent thing again). Then a little lick. Then finally she picks it up. But then drops it uncertainly and leaves it for a sniff around. Time for an intervention (not against scenting, but to reinforce the fact that the rabbit is what we are interested in and that at this stage we want it retrieved). For the last three months I’ve been teaching her to wait until commanded to fetch a tennis ball. So I reach for the tennis ball, play a couple of fetch games and replace it with the smallest rabbit of the haul. She retrieves the rabbit – and oh the pride! Handfuls of treats and deluges of praise follow as she repeats the task again and again. Then it gets hidden a few times and the game becomes search and fetch and a hunting dog gets closer to being born.

Learning to retrieve game. It is a testament to the softness of a born retriever’s mouth that the rabbit was barely roughed up after a few dozen goes – this one was then mostly cut up for her to eat, a reminder that good things come to dogs who work.

Learning to retrieve game. It is a testament to the softness of a born retriever’s mouth that the rabbit was barely roughed up after a few dozen goes – this one was then mostly cut up for her to eat, a reminder that good things come to dogs who work.

After this first outing, Bugle still didn’t get to search out and find a shot rabbit in the field and I missed a good few shot opportunities and the shots themselves with the shotgun, but we are on the way. You never know, we may even get to the job her breed excels at – pointing, holding still while the game is shot and then doing the retrieving just as an added bonus.

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Fairly early on in the dive, I looked out into the blackness above the surface to see where the other three lights were shining below and thought to myself, ‘these guys are f’ing crazy’. But then I thought ‘what the hell’ and followed. Later on, looking out for them again, I realised that I was bobbing in the ocean off a place named after sharks in the middle of the night and only then did it dawn on me: Given that they had a lot more idea of what they doing than I did, if anyone was f’ing crazy, it was me. I talked myself down from the start of freaking out and pissed in my wetsuit. Again. Mostly, but not entirely, because when it’s your wetsuit and you’re cold, you’re allowed to.

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

With just a relatively few sheltered-water night snorkels and night scubas behind me, this was pushing outside of my comfort zone. These other fellas, on the other hand, were serious spearfishermen; it wasn’t their first rodeo as they say, and in their 5mm diving wetsuits and long diving fins they were rugged up and warm and cruising along. Meanwhile, in a cheap old poorly fitting 3mm suit and bodysurfing fins, I was freezing and flapping by comparison.

Night snorkelling (pic from another post)

Night snorkeling from above (pic from another post)

We were there to hunt crays (eastern rock lobster, Jasus verreauxi), and that means ferreting down among the cracks and overhangs after them. Diving gloves on and experience at their disposal for the others, gardening gloves and what turned out to be some nice beginner’s luck for me. Seeing three crays lurking in a crack, I notice that one is a little small; the next part is a bit of a blur insofar as all I recall is lunging in to grab something other than the small one. And then I surfaced with one of the bigger crayfish in my hand. There are specific bags that one carries for putting these things in. I don’t have one. One of the others kindly carries my catch, and we head off for more. Even more kindly, when I had become so cold as to start having trouble getting about properly, he heads in with me. He had his bag limit of two and I had exceeded the expectations that I started with by having anything at all and getting back in one piece. By the time the other lads were in, I was well on my way into warming up in long underwear, three jumpers and a bottle of wine.

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

Once comfortable, I was able to slowly start putting the pieces of the memory of all it all back together. How I hadn’t lost my weight belt after all, but had simply left it off while nervously messing with my gear at the start, as if somehow it might become something other than shoddy and old if I toyed with it enough. How much more sinuous and slinky the most spectacular of the night fish are; the wonderful emerald and caramel coloured green moray eels (Gymnothorax prasinus), the beardies (Lotella rhacina), the blindsharks (Brachaelurus waddi) and Port Jackson sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni). Then how the inky black alien sensory overload of it all was such that other nastier sharks hadn’t gotten around to really being a concern of mine. And how a big yellow gibbous moon rose up out of the sea and I told myself to marvel at a mental picture of it later because my mind didn’t have the time to enjoy it right then.

Cray_gear

The cray is in the fridge, I’m going over for mum’s birthday tonight and I’ll get dad to turn the barbie on. I’m not sure which story I’ll tell, because both of them are true in their way; whether I went bravely into the night sea to hunt a crayfish by hand, or nervously followed three crazy men out there and got lucky.

Barbecued crayfish, with noting more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Barbecued crayfish, with nothing more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Caveat: Of all the foraging I have written about, this is the last thing that I would recommend having a go at. The truth is that it is not entirely safe. Leaving aside the issue of sharks, if something goes wrong out there, there is a real chance that you could end up being flotsam and a news story.

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The last of the garden kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala ‘Cavolo nero’) clings on and needs harvesting before falling to flowering and a spring onslaught of cabbage moth and aphids; fat hen (Chenopodium album; ‘lamb’s quarters’ or ‘goosefoot’ to some) is coming through all over the place (plenty enough in vegie gardens to weed it from where you can best trust dirt); the self-sown seed amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) that is now essentially a weed in my allotment (and, embarrassingly my fault, some neighbouring ones) is practically leaping out of the ground; the native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) along the coast is flush with tender new growth.

They are thrown in a pot together to boil, then cooled, squeezed out, chopped and frozen in blocks, each one a roundup of the world of people and plants, with the various components in them being: from all around the world; from across the full spectrum from wild to highly selected cultivar grown from carefully tended seed; from different botanical families (if we can sneak the chenopods back out of Amaranthaceae) but all commonly compared to spinach (which ironically went to seed unharvested in the herb garden outside the front door).

And for those reasons alone I post on this otherwise fairly unremarkable harvest of kitchen greens.

Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides): A wild plant from much of the Pacific rim although most associated with Australia and New Zealand; cultivated occasionally there, rarely in Europe and commercially in Brazil; but in my case wild and flourishing in huge stands along Sydney’s coast.

Fat hen (Chenopodium album): While grown commercially in India at least and related to quinoa (whose grain is a South American staple), this is resolutely considered a weed across much of the world.

Grain amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus): Amaranths were a staple crop of pre-Columbian America, popular in India and Greece and include species that range from valued food to despised weed; I grew some of this type as an experiment a few years ago and now just harvest whatever pops up – so it is both crop and weed to me.

Tuscan kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala ‘Cavolo nero’) is about the only cooking green I grow on purpose (thinning out young beetroot excepted); a carefully selected cultivar carefully tended from seed imported from Europe and grown determinedly in rows for the better part of a year.

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Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) gazpacho

Wild watercress (Nasturtium officinale) – sharper and hotter than the cultivated version, to be used sparingly in salads but great for soups

Hugging a clean little trickle of water on the steep side of the Wollondilly Valley between Bullio and Goodmans Ford, there is a lovely little patch of watercress (Nasturtium offininale). I’ve known it was there for a few years, struggling away through the seasons and our rainfall variability; and struggling away was about all that I thought that this patch of watercress did. But it has been a wet year, I have been checking more regularly, and for a fairly brief Spring window between Winter quiescence and flowering, the struggle was over. It was harvest time.

Foraging watercress in the Wollondilly Valey

I am not a stranger to wild watercress, with the same stuff growing well in little pockets of sandstone filtered seeps along Sydney’s coast, but that is the stuff of little snippets taken here and there; more a peppery spice collection than a serious vegetable harvest. This time I gathered bags full.

Bulk harvested greens to me are a thing for blanching, chopping and freezing in friand or muffin trays for later use (most commonly with amaranth, native spinach or mixes including them). Then the obvious watercress recipe to me is a soup; but there is a seasonal problem here – a spring harvest loads my freezer ready with a soup ingredient… just in time for summer. And our summers are rarely soup weather. Enter the idea of watercress gazpacho, one of those ideas that is new when you think of it and feels like your own invention; but the eureka moment quickly gives way to knowing that if it really is such a sensible seasonal idea it is very unlikely to be an original one. A few minutes in the near infinity of internet recipes confirmed it, with enough variations to mix to suit the ingredients available, and there it was – spring watercress gazpacho.

It starts on a base stock of celery, bay, dried sea lettuce and parsley, with zest of 1 lemon added towards the end of a 10 minute simmer.

Once strained, the stock joins the juice of 2 cans of tomatoes through the food mill (passata or bottled tomato juice are also an option).

Frozen blocks of blanched chopped watercress go in along with a few peeled cucumbers (de-seed if you like) and some stale bread (I trimmed the crusty bits into the soup and diced the white parts for croutons to add at the end).

It all gets a blitz with a hand blender, is left to fully cool, and then served with a garnish of croutons, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce and parsley. A nasturtium (Tropolaeum majus) flower, also known as ‘Indian cress’ is an optional fancy touch. The fanciness is a nice ironic twist because it then tastes and looks fantastic while remaining composed entirely of things foraged, cheap and left-over; and it brings back a reminder of peppery cress taste largely lost with the watercress now diluted and made mild with cooking.

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Mulberry (Morus nigra) wine; made in Spring as a perfect light Summer red

There is surprisingly little out there on making mulberry (Morus spp.) wine given their abundance and that I think it makes a very passable light red. Perhaps it is because they aren’t as common in the fruit wine heartlands of the northern hemisphere like England and America (English language ones at least).

Hank Shaw (blogger and author of Hunt, Gather, Cook) takes his foraged winemaking pretty seriously and has a couple of recipes that could work for mulberries if you add some extra acidity (perhaps a meld of his elderberry and raisin wine recipes here would work. Jack Keller, of the American country winemaking online bible, has some mulberry wine recipes but doesn’t rave about it (see here).  Don’t be put off though, because for one thing he is talking about the American red mulberry (Morus rubra), which I suspect doesn’t carry as much body as the black mulberry (Morus nigra).

Frederick Beech’s book Homemade Wines, Syrups and Cordials suggests using blackberry wine recipes, but I think this will still leave the low acidity unaddressed. Gloria Oxford’s Australian Make Your Own Wine has a recipe that is fairly standard (which for her includes adding some tannic and citric acid at the start), with the exception of also adding some red grape juice concentrate to increase the body. In my view if you are going to do this (unless you wake up in Prohibition-era America when it was at the heart of home winemaking), you might as well skip it at the fermenting stage and blend with a shop-bought red wine if you still feel it lacks oomph at the end – don’t knock until you’ve tried it; I think that you can often blend a homemade country wine with a bought grape wine and do better than either on their own.

Accepting that there is a low acidity issue to address, but still knowing from past years that a black mulberry wine can be great, I have had success with two different starting blends. One is to save up frozen mulberries until autumn and then blend with the sometimes excessive body of an elderberry wine (and last year, the meager handful of foraged blackberries I came up with). For now though, with my last big mulberry harvest possibly behind me for the year, it is time for the Spring wine: Mulberries given some added acidity and flavour by the other Spring favourites of rhubarb, strawberries and lemon.

Even the simplest country wines are blends in their own way, even if just by a few additions of lemon for citric acid, a cup of black tea for tannin or a handful of sultanas for yeast support (these are genuinely orthodox ingredients). Complexity is a sought after thing in wine; blending is how you get it and very much at the heart of the art and experimental adventure of it in country wine. If you want the ingredient and winemaking in pure form, eat mulberries and buy a Pinot Noir.

Equipment

2 demijohns (4.5 litres each) with airlock fitted corks, and 1 extra demijohn for racking (you can use other options with big jars, big bottles, buckets covered with cloth, or adjusted volumes in other brewing vessels, but a demijohn or three from a brewing shop (or second hand) are worth getting); a really big pot or two; a funnel (I’m still on plastic but stainless steel would be better for sterilising); bottles and lids for 9 litres (swing tops, beer bottles if you have a crown sealer, wine bottles if you have corks and a corker or want to try sterilising used screw caps).

Sterilising

You can get powders to add to water for sterilizing but I have come around to thinking that everything can, and should, be done with boiling water – any contrary view is just in the absence of a big enough pot or the presence of too much plastic.

Ingredients

The amounts partly come down to a feeling for what will make a good mix and the amounts that the Spring yielded. Below is not a recipe in the normal sense because you would inevitably have different ingredients. This was for 2 demijohns to ferment at the same time, so 1 batch would be half quantities

  • 2.5kg  mulberries, which comprised:
  • 1100g fresh mulberries;
  • 750g frozen mulberries;
  • 650g mulberry skins (a by-product of making the cordial, sharab el toot)
  • 400g rhubarb, sliced;
  • 200g strawberries;
  • Zest and juice of 3 lemons;
  • 6 litres of preservative free apple juice (you can just use water with extra sugar, but I have taken to basing all my berry fruit wines on apple juice these days)
  • 1kg white sugar (this the simplest, rawest stuff for yeast to work on)
  • 400 g honey (honey is a mix of glucose, fructose and sucrose and is harder to work easily as the sole sugar source for the yeast to make alcohol from, hence blending with the other sugars; honey also tends to make the wine need more aging for some reason);
  • 200g palm sugar (because it was there and I have successfully used it in higher proportions before);
  • Good wine yeast (not ale yeast, lager yeast, baker’s yeast or anything other than a wine yeast; you can mail-order it online)

Rhubarb and strawberries stockpiled frozen, lemons for zest and juice, and a lot of mulberries

Preservative free apple juice as a base

Everything goes in a pot, along with the sugar and honey, to be heated just enough to sterilise it

Directions

My winemaking heats the juice; some might frown, but I am happy with the results and am unhappy with the common alternatives of adding chemicals or the risk of spoiled wine. The trick is to not boil it, it just needs to get over 70-80 degrees for 5 minutes or so; if it does it hit the boil, turn it off and the total time at bacteria-killing temperature should be alright.

Put everything in the pot and bring to something just under a boil and turn off with the lid left on – it is a balance between getting sterility and trying to lose as few complex flavours and aromatics that may boil off as possible. Put the lid on while it cools down. When it dips below 30 Celsius (in the absence of a thermometer just get something closer to room temperature than body temperature), add the wine yeast. Put it somewhere with the lid still on at a stable temperature of around a steady 20 degrees C (the low teens will be too cold for the yeast and up towards 30 too hot). Hopefully within a day you are able to lift the lid a crack and hear the tiny hiss of the yeast’s respired CO2 bubbles (the by-product of sugars becoming alcohol; the same puff that makes bread rise).

A good wine yeast is sprinkled over the cooled down must

After two or three days with the solids in the must you should have a raging yeast population amid which the chance of rival fungus or bacteria getting in is low. Now you can strain it. Ideally get a wine bag inside another big clean pot, otherwise some kind of muslin / cheesecloth arrangement and pour the must into it. Let it drip through, give the last of it a bit of a squeeze. Let the yeast rebuild their strength open fermenting again with the lid on until it seems vibrant again in maybe a day.

All going well, the yeast will get so busy in a day or two to give an audible fizzling sound as it respires CO2

Now it’s time to put it in the proper fermenting vessels. This wants to have an airlock and be sterilised. It may ferment away for a month in here, depending on how much sugar you started with, the temperature, the yeast, the amount of other nutrients that yeast like, and a good few more variables. The recipe above was done for me in two weeks, but this seemed strangely quick. It is a good idea to rack it at least once before the end. This involves pouring it into a new vessel, slowly and carefully so as to leave the sludge on the bottom (you can siphon it to do this using a tube with the intake just above the sludge and get even better separation). In the current case, I confess to not racking at all other than bottling carefully and discarding sludge – I was away and it was fully done when I got back and I don’t like to risk racking full fermented musts as they can spoil unless boosted with more sugar into renewed fermenting vigour.

Once in the demijohn, you continue to keep an eye on fermentation by the bubbles through the airlock on the lid and fizzing up the side of the glass

Leave to ferment somewhere with a stable temperature and out of the light – this is only on the window sill for the photo

When you are sure that fermentation has stopped, bottle it. You can give it a taste at this stage and if it tastes fully dry you know that the sugars are all used up and it is safe to bottle. If it is still sweet, either the fermentation is still going or it has become ‘stuck’; this could be because you started with too much sugar and the alcohol level has gotten up to yeast killing levels or because it has failed for another reason (rather than try to cover all contingencies here, I’d suggest you look online under ‘stuck fermentation’). You may actually want a sweet wine, but don’t let yourself be fooled that a stuck fermentation is the sweetness you wanted. If it is still fermenting when it goes in the bottles the pressure from the CO2 buildup could blow them up (unless you are lucky and instead it gives you a sparkling wine). Anything intentionally sweetish I would recommend putting in the fridge for a few weeks after bottling to knock any yeast down (hopefully that is – they may wake up again later). You can also use something sweet (intentionally or otherwise) as the base of a fortified wine and add a clean white spirit like vodka (pisco is great for this too) – this will stop fermentation as well as using extra sweetness as a mask of the final potency.

As a guide, you want about 1 kg of sugar to a 4.5 litre demijohn batch – my quantities above (for 2 demijohns) do something like this between the cane sugar (1kg), honey (400g), palm sugar (200g), sugars in the apple juice (600g; apple juice being typically about 10% sugar) and sugars in the fruit (negligible in the whole scheme of things, but maybe 100g); allowing that I will lose some liquid at straining. This a complete guess, educated by experience but not any sums, that I will end up with a wine of 11-13% alcohol with just a little residual sweetness.

Once bottles, it wants 3-6 months aging (but both patience and impatience have their own rewards)

You then want to store the bottles for 3-6 months. Some wines want different aging and some winemakers (me for one) are more impatient than others. When I did once store a couple of bottles of almost everything we made when I was first getting into country winemaking in England (stockpiling for the farewell party), I was generally disappointed by many that were a year or more old.

The wine above came out very drinkable right at bottling, which tells me that it will be great in 3 months and a treat if I am able to keep any lids on for six months. As a red, it is light, more coloured red than of the long-aging body one associates with grape reds – after a year I would be making sure to get it off the shelf and into a glass in case it started to head downhill from its peak.

This wine drank well enough out of the fermenter to know that at least a couple of bottles won’t see it past Christmas

Original mulberry post here

Mulberry jam post here

Mulberry cordial (sharab el toot) post here

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Feral celery (Apium graveolens)

Feral celery (Apium graveolens) is something that I didn’t really expect to find while foraging, but there it was in the same patch of damp bush as the asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) that I didn’t expect to find either. In contrast to the meagre asparagus harvest, the celery is there in huge quantities.

The spot is a reserve in Quakers Hill, in the damp soil where water backs up in a swampy spread, queuing to get through a single culvert under the railway. Decent clean bush this, unlike a nearby celery source at Seven Hills that I’m told surrounds a wetland created to hold back heavy metal laden sediment – and yet the story goes that a local restaurant harvests there regularly. Goes to show that you want to know the history of where you are foraging (and perhaps dining in Seven Hills). The convenient thing with the recent spot at least is that I was there for an archaeological assessment that I had preceded with research on land use history. I trust this dirt.

Feral celery seems to prefer what Australians would nearly call a swamp; in wetter parts of the world they probably just call it soil.

The challenges when faced with more of something than you know what to do with are twofold: First to think of new ways of using or preserving it; and secondly, to resist the temptation to take more than you need (or, as is too often the case, can find the time to process). Perhaps I could have been more imaginative, but with a good bay tree (Laurus nobilis) closer to home also pushing out wonderful fresh growth, stock seemed easiest. With this wiry strong flavoured wild celery (almost like lovage (Levisticum officinale)), and in the absence of the sweetening buffer of carrots or onions, it is an almost bitter kind of stock carrying a strong herbiness.

A simple stock of celery and bay (Laurus nobilis)

And here is the twist – with the stock portioned out for freezing, I opened the chest freezer to find a meltdown. The freezer switch is at ground level and has a light, normally covered and hidden, but not when the 3 year old Boy appears to have found it some days previously and so not when I found it in the off position. With a lot of mass in there, everything was still half frozen, but some of it too long in there already for me to want to risk re-freezing. One roo tail and one roo leg to be precise; the fruit will be fine; 2 fish were consigned to bait; the last of Autumn’s dried  mushrooms (slippery jack (Suillus luteus) and saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus)) could have stayed in but came out to join the stew.

Stew for which a rich herby stock, conveniently enough, was ready and waiting. And for which everything but the passata was foraged.

Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) leg and tail meat (or possibly red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus))

Kangaroo and forest mushroom stew in celery and bay stock and passata

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Mulberry cordial – my take on the Lebanese delicacy, sharab el toot

Mulberry (Morus nigra) – another haul from the foraging ‘mother lode’

Before I started fishing around for mulberry preserving recipes beyond jam (post here) and wine (post here), I’d never heard of mulberry cordial, or sharab el toot, but then I’m not Lebanese. But I am a Sydneysider and so are a lot of mulberry trees and so are a lot of Lebanese; and so let the fusion begin.

When you search online recipes for mulberry cordial, the preponderance of Lebanese ones for sharab el toot almost demands that it be given a go (my favoured are from Lebanese Sydneysider Fouad Kassab and the UK-based Bethany Khehdy whom he cites). Why Lebanese, you may ask. Well, apparently mulberries were grown in large numbers in Lebanon for leaves feeding silk worms and thence a silk trade to France. The silk trade may have faded, but not the love of the second crop – the berries themselves, and the syrup that they adore from it.

The recipe is fairly simple – juice mulberries one way or another, heat with rather a lot of sugar, and bottle – the greatest variation being in the proportions of the two ingredients. Knowing that my tooth is nowhere near as sweet as a Middle Eastern one, and that honey is a faithful Middle Eastern alternative to sugar (as the once-revered product that sugar rather mundanely replaced), I have omitted the sugar altogether in place of my own honey. I also added lemon juice and a pinch of tartaric acid; perhaps this means that it isn’t even sharab el toot anymore; but I can assure you that it is nonetheless wonderful.

A mulberry foraging tip: As you pass by a mulberry tree you often see mostly unripe fruit and think that it is not ready, but it is probably is; the ripe black fruit are usually hidden up under leaves and out of view. By the time you think that they must be ready, you may well find that the season is over.

Ingredients

  • 2kg Mulberries (becomes about 1kg, or 1 litre, of juice). On an average scrumpable tree, this may be not be achievable in one picking, so you can scale it as needed or freeze batches until the season is over.
  • 800g honey
  • 3 or 4 lemons, juiced

Instructions

I have come across two ways of juicing, one with a food mill and the other with a fine mesh bag (which would be a ‘wine bag’ in my kitchen). I went with a food mill. I clipped the green stems so that I could retain the skins for turning some unknown future white fruit wine (probably apple) into a red; but otherwise you could spare yourself the hassle and just chuck the soft mulberries through in batches of about 400g, depending on the size of your food mill. With a food mill, the stuff out the other end then wants a final filter through a fine sieve. In the end I found that I got pretty much half the weight of juice as the original weight of fruit – bearing in mind that I didn’t try too hard to squeeze the most out as I am using the by-product anyway.

Ripe mulberries go through a food mill in batches

After the food mill, a further fine sieve filtering is needed

The by-product from food mill and sieving seems perfect for freezing and later use in fruit winemaking (yet to be tested)

A proper Arab sweet tooth sharab el toot is then made simply with the addition of twice that weight again in white sugar, brought to a boil and bottled. For mine, it was just a little under the same weight in honey, plus the juice of three big lemons. Traditional recipes boil this to thicken a little, but I boil only as much as I need to properly sterilise for long storage in a bottle (surely there are some vitamins and the like in here that would diminish with long heat). Which is the next step, swing top bottles boiled to sterilise, filled, back in for a little final steam bath for extra hygiene, and onto the shelf. Refrigerate after opening.

It is no secret, it is canner’s lore (law even) that you can’t do too much sterilising with boiling water – when glass is emptied, when it is washed and when it is filled. Too much work and hope goes into a foraged product like this to be giving it away to bacteria or yeast.

The first thing that I did with my new delicacy was to mix it with some gin and soda and experience a wonderful cross-cultural revelation. The thing in the glass before me, I decided, was Sydney’s answer to sloe gin – a drink that during my few years in England was a forager’s Christmas ambrosia (because that is about when it is ready after an autumn harvest after first frost). Here, where sloes (Prunus spinosa) are rare or absent and would in any case be 6 months different, but where mulberries flourish before the silly season and where British and Lebanese cultures meet (albeit with the latter not nearly as fond of a tipple as the former), that warming traditional drink can now be reborn for me.

And for the Boy, the recently frequently purple mouthed mulberry munching boy, there is a syrup to mix through yoghurt and ice cream. Seriously, I like this stuff, this sharab el toot, this drink not yet dear to Sydneysider’s hearts, but that one day should be.

Sharab el toot as a long drink with soda, or a short with gin (with or without a dash of soda)

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