THE CHALLENGE : Modern Sweets V Stone Age Sweets (Wild Fruit, duh)

There’s a reason why children are like heat seeking missiles when it comes to sweets. Those tangy, acid-sweet flavours that are so destructive to their dental array are only mimicking the natural flavours of fresh wild fruits, stuffed with vitamins and minerals to help them grow strong, (and once that happens you can make them mow your lawn). Cut out the middleman and try these seasonal summer delights.

Packet of Haribo V CHERRY PLUM (Prunus cerasifera)

This sweet natured, short lived tree (also known as Myrobalan or weeping plum) hails from mysterious places like the mountains of Iran and West Asia, migrating North to Europe and Poland and subtly invading Britain with its lovely tangy yellow, red or purple fruits. These little nuggets are a mere 2.5cm long and smoothly oval, with a fairly large pit. The fruits are high in iron, calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphate and Vitamins B and C. They are said to be lower in sugar than most fruits. I have been munching on them for several days now and I feel damn brilliant. Try making them into a tart with some ginger. You can buy the fantastically named Polish variety ‘Zloty Oblok’ (say it, with a full mouth without spitting, come on).

VERDICT: Landslide victory to Cherry Plum!

TOXIC WASTE Super Sours V CRAB APPLE (Malus sylvestris)

Our stalwart British wild apple is sour as all hell, but has a charm all its own when added to a large volume of sugar. Since when does a Super Sour change colour from apple juice/wee amber to a stunning pink? To witness this fairylike transformation, watch the bubbling pot as you make Crab Apple Jelly. Then spread said pink and luscious jelly on Melba toast squares with cream cheese. Just don’t tell the kids that it contains 10% of your daily Vitamin C per 110g. Although admittedly not much else except carbs. Plus, erm, a lot of sugar. They are also great baked, which makes them sweeter.

VERDICT – we’ll call this one a draw.

LIQUORICE ALLSORTS V ELDERBERRIES

That smoky, musky, dark and slightly dangerous taste of aniseed, and of elderberries…is liquorice REALLY made of rats tails as Roald Dahl told us? About as much as elderberries will transport one to the gates of the Underworld to be met by Persephone. In short, no. Things aren’t quite so clear cut here, with natural liquorice from a high end health food shop being antispasmodic, soothing to the digestion and antibacterial/antiviral. But let’s face it, liquorice allsorts are not the same as a root fresh from a liquorice plant.

Meanwhile Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are antiviral, often made into a syrup to prevent colds and flu. They punch above their weight, with 87% of your RDA of Vitamin C per 145g, 41% of your fibre, 17% of your Vitamins B6 and A, and 13% of your iron and potassium.

VERDICT: Elderberries win! Except with raw liquorice.

FRUIT GUMS V BLACKBERRIES

What can possibly rival the delicate Squidge of a ripe bramble fruit, or the thrill of negotiating the evil thorns that can snare your hair, making you helpless as a sheep stuck in a fence no matter what your age? It very much depends on how good your local bushes are. The one in the council estate next to our boat was sadly cut down last winter. It was in full sun and produced blackberries that made you cry with joy at their juicy awesomeness. It was bypassed by local children until myself and my son flagged it up to them. Maybe the council cut it down after hearing one too many orgasmic cries of delight. Other berries from other bushes can be wizened, sour, wormy reprobates. Keep trying ’em.

Nutritionally, 145g (a cup) of blackberries contain 47 % of your daily manganese, 36% of your Vitamin K, 31% of your Fibre, 50% of your Vitamin C and 12% of your copper. Plus, obviously, fruit sugars. Fruit Gums contain 2% of your protein and a heck of a lot of carbs. And if you ate a whole cup of fruit gums, you deserve to be sick…

VERDICT: Erm, blackberries, anyone?

There are so many more berries out there I could list, but I’m running out of time now to pick my son from summer camp, so those will have to wait until later. It’s not like I’m going to be typing much when he’s around.

See you all later folks. xx

THE CHALLENGE : Modern Sweets V Stone Age Sweets (Wild Fruit, duh)

That Heavenly Perfume Anise…Common Hogweed as a Condiment

The name ‘Common Hogweed’ conjures up visions of ‘Me mate Dave down the pub’ but this bristly woodland margin plant is anything but. Yes, it is a cousin of the phytotoxic Giant Hogweed – you know, the one with ginormous leaves 1m long with skin-blistering sap once said skin is exposed to sunlight?! However, this diminutive relative is safe to eat for most people. (Some unlucky folks, particularly those with skin conditions such as eczema, may still react to the sap of Common Hogweed.) If in doubt, try a small amount out on your skin before eating any. Take a really good look at the leaves – do they look like large, baggy, single hawthorn leaves? If so, a good sign it is hogweed. if you haven’t already, please familiarise yourself with what Poison Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort leaves look like. They are very lacy and look very different. Also, the stem of Hogweed is bristly and has ridges running down it. Hemlock stems are smooth and have purple blotches. To be honest you are more likely to confuse Hogweed with Hemlock Water-Dropwort, as this has ridged stems too, but they are hairless and shiny. The leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort are very different too.

These above show Common Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylum, which rarely grows more than 2m high, with flower heads up to 20cm across. Giant Hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, grows to 4m, with enormous flowerheads 50cm across. The stem of the poisonous Giant Hogweed also has purple blotches on it, a common sign the plant is telling you to step off a bit! You most often find Giant Hogweed as an ornamental near ponds in large gardens. Though I remember finding some on the roadside on the way to a NYE warehouse party on the outskirts of London, and picking one of the huge sputnik-like flower heads to turn myself into a Wood Nymph at said party. At the time I had no idea of the toxicity of this plant, being much younger and really rather merry by then. Thankfully none of us came to any harm, and I had a banging time at the party!

Giant Hogweed in flower…it’s big!! Photo courtesy of  NYS Department of Environmental Conservationis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Hemlock Water-Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)is below. The leaves are much more pinnate (divided), shiny, and hairless. It is normally found near water. It smells of bleach when crushed or cut. (Yup, it’s trying to tell you something.)

The deadly Hemlock Water Dropwort. Courtesy of  nz_willowherb.

So scary stuff out the way, what can you do with Common Hogweed? Loads. This plant is awesome, and provides through several seasons.

First, use the fresh growth of Spring to make Hogweed Lacto-fermented Kimchi. If you don’t know what a lacto-ferment is, it is when you sink your plant material in salty water to create an anaerobic environment for those friendly bacteria you get in yoghurt. This enhances the taste of the plant and preserves it, also making it more digestible. Once you have this, you can make Hogweed Borscht, a delicious Russian recipe made with the juice and leaves of fermented Hogweed, lots of beetroot and a dollop of sour cream. Add blinis and shots of good vodka for a proper Russian dinner!

Next, look out for the immature, furled green flower heads that are still within a sort of ‘bag’. Pick one from each plant (this means the plants will all be able to reproduce). You can tempura them in batter, or steam them for a few minutes if you are on a diet! They are filling and taste amazing, with a crunchy texture.

If you have missed the boat and all the flower heads have unfurled, never mind. There is more to come! Soon you will find bunches of green, flattish seeds with two darker stripes down the middle. These are what has been used in days of yore as a condiment for milk puddings! It’s a shame they aren’t used so much nowadays, as they really do impart a stunning flavour similar to star anise, and there is ruddy loads of them everywhere you look.

Hogweed seeds ready to be used!

To prepare, pick a couple of whole green seed heads and shuck off the seeds into a pestle and mortar. Crush them slightly – no need to obliterate them – you just want the flavour to infuse whatever they are put in. Make Hogweed Vodka by steeping the seeds in a jar full to the brim with vodka – a sure fire party pleaser! My enduring memory of this drink is of my friend Joe, a boxer and fellow boater, swapping half a bottle of this with me in exchange for some beer (as I didn’t want to get completely pie-eyed). The next morning I saw him slumped in a chair outside his boat, in a semi comatose state, with his girlfriend scolding him, having necked the lot. So be warned – a little bit goes a long way! Add a shot to a cocktail with some cream…mmmm.

Milk puddings go so well with this herb! Try my Hogweed Seed Pannacotta, which I developed on my full day cookery courses with the Parks Trust.

HOGWEED SEED PANNACOTTA

You need:

Half a cup of green hogweed seeds

1/2 pint soya milk/normal milk

1 sachet Vegi Gel

2 tbsp honey

Seasonal berries (for sauce & garnish)

Oatmeal biscuits

1 tbsp butter/margarine

  1. Slightly crush the hogweed seeds in a pestle and mortar.
  2. reserve 200ml of the plant milk in a cup.
  3. Pour the rest of the soya milk into a pan and add the hogweed seeds. Simmer for 5 minutes until you can smell the aroma of anise.
  4. Strain out the seeds.
  5. Put the infused milk back in the pan. Add the honey and stir til dissolved.
  6. Mix the Veg Gel with the cold milk in the cup, then quickly add to the infused milk.
  7. Bring to the boil, then just as quickly pour into moulds (I use empty china cups).
  8. Crush the oatmeal biscuits and mix with the melted butter in a bowl.
  9. Once the milk is firm enough, add the biscuit as a layer on top of the cup. this will be the bottom of your pudding!
  10. Leave until solidified (several hours in fridge, or 6 hours if no fridge).
  11. Run a knife around the edge of the pannacotta and tip onto plate. Bang the top (but not too hard!)
  12. The pannacotta jelly should come out onto the plate.
  13. Boil some soft seasonal berries n just enough water to cover, and pour once cooled over the pannacottas. garnish with a sprinkle of Hogweed seeds…voila!
Hogweed Pannacotta (I got lazy and ate the biscuits separately instead)

They’re out now..so go get ’em tiger…or, um, plant eating beast of some sort.

That Heavenly Perfume Anise…Common Hogweed as a Condiment