This week’s post was going to be about E.F. Schumacher and the concepts he wrote about in relation to getting back to a ‘human sized’ economic system. But fate intervened and things did not go according to plan …
If you read my post last week you may also recall that I said I was going to share a recipe for blackberry mead. Now that the autumnal equinox has passed (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), meaning the nights are drawing in and the balance between darkness and light has tipped in favour of the former, thoughts turn to the winter ahead and what needs to be done in advance of the cold months. It’s a naturally reflective time of year, and a personal favourite season of mine. What’s more, I love going out and gathering some of the bounty nature has been busy growing over the summer. And what could be more autumnal than the humble blackberry?
It’s been a pretty good year for blackberries here in west Cornwall, and there are some very juicy specimens adorning the hedgerows. Astrologically minded people might tell you the reason for this is that the bramble is a plant ruled by Mars, which also signals blood and destruction. Mars is pretty powerful right now and can be seen moving backwards in the sky at present, causing all sorts of havoc here on Earth until mid-November, so they say. But personally, I think the berries might be so big just because of the long hot summer we’ve had. Anyway, bearing in mind my promise to make blackberry mead, I set out foraging for the necessary ingredients one late afternoon.
I found a promising bank of overgrown brambles and blackthorn down near the beach and was happily picking away when I spotted a cluster of absolutely huge specimens. When I say huge, I mean they were yuge – like glittering plump gems shimmering in the mellow light of the sunset! The only trouble was they were towards the centre of the bushes and slightly out of reach. No trouble, I thought, and boldly blundered into said bush. I should probably add at this point that it was a hot day and I was wearing shorts. As I reached for the juicy prize there was a sharp pain on my shin, just below my right knee, and when I’d extracted myself from the bush I took a look at it. It was nothing to worry about, just a minor scratch, and with very little blood.
About half an hour later and I decided to take an impromptu dip in the sea; after all, I knew that saltwater was good for scratches and small wounds. I forgot all about the scratch until later that night, when it began to sting. At this point I rubbed it with disinfectant and went to bed. By the morning it had begun to feel painful and had become red and inflamed. It seemed like the ‘little scratch’ was going to cause trouble …
You can probably guess the rest of the story, which saw me confined to bed, hardly able to walk, and ended with a visit to the Urgent Care unit at my local hospital a couple of days ago where they cleaned out what had become a festering open wound and put me on antibiotics. I’m sitting here writing this with my throbbing swollen leg up on the desk, vowing never again to allow even the tiniest blackthorn to scratch my skin.
I’m lucky to have antibiotics to treat my infected limb. While the various poultices of yarrow and plantain I’ve previously used successfully on other injuries are useful treatments, I’m happy that these are not the only choices available to me. This would have been very different in the past. As recently as the seventeenth century in Britain, most people lived in rural locations and had to rely on the immediate services offered by their ecosystems in order to be able to survive. This all changed with the enclosures acts, which forced the majority of folks off the land to seek work in the cities. Deprived of their land, people who for centuries had lived modest lives in the countryside now found themselves crammed into slums and forced to work in often appalling factory conditions.
Disease and exploitation was rife, but it was the psychic break with the land that has possibly had a longer lasting and more profound effect. Nowadays, it’s only the upper middle classes and higher who can afford to live in splendid rural isolation, and even a basic smallholding is out of the reach of most people due to the cost. Rural land itself is still reasonably affordable, but strict planning laws make it almost impossible for people of average means to actually live on the land they own. Furthermore, the mindset of the enclosures is still firmly entrenched in the national psyche, it seems, and planning reform moves at a glacial pace.
Nevertheless, the land is still there, and we remain occupiers of it, however modest our footprint. Look at a satellite image of the British Isles, for instance, and it would still look pretty much the same as it did a thousand years ago. The mountains are still there, just as the main river arteries, beaches and watersheds are. Mankind may have rearranged things at ground level to his own advantage, but the wider planetary functions and natural impetuses remain. Whatever the planners, civil engineers, agriculturalists and construction industry have managed to disrupt, nature is ceaselessly working to undo again. Flowers still grow on wasteland, trees sprout up in disused parking lots, streams still seek rivers, the sea still nibbles at the land and the Sun and Moon still look down in the same way they always have done. The land is still full of marvellous creatures – and one of them is you!
But how rooted to the land are you? These days it is common to move from one part of the country to another following a career change or to study. Modern life has made us rootless, and we are all rolling stones gathering no moss, as the saying goes. But this rootless way of life comes at a cost and it is difficult for us to truly be a part of the environment that we live in. For a start, we simply don’t spend enough time in one place experiencing the seasons and getting to know the different species of plants and animals that thrive there. Yet the land around us – however degraded it looks – still offers us plenty in the way of sustenance if only we knew where to look for it. Luckily, there’s the beginnings of a solution to that and it can be boiled down to one command: observe.
Here’s a challenge: get a map of your local area and use a pair of compasses to mark out a circle in a one- or two-mile radius from your dwelling. Make it your business to try and walk every street, road, back alley or public footpath in the zone you have demarcated. There’s no hurry – in fact, the longer you take over this the better because all you need to do is observe. You can take a camera and a notebook with you whenever you go for a wander in order to make notes. If there’s a common plant you see growing everywhere and you’ve no idea what it is, look it up when you get home. Somehow, when you can put a name to a plant it becomes more relatable in your mind.
If you are new to the area it may take a year or two just to get to know what grows there. I have lived in my town for about seven years now, and my ecological knowledge of it grows every time I step outside. I know where to find wild garlic in the spring, where the nearest source of fresh water is from my front door, how the salt winds from the sea cause the berries on certain bushes to grow smaller than others, where abandoned apple trees shed unwanted fruit free for the picking, where the pollock like to linger over reefs in the, and many other things beside.
Deepening your knowledge of the area you live in has other benefits. Buy any popular foraging book and you’ll learn what food you can get for free. It’s surprising how much is just there for the picking, and yet it remains invisible to nearly all. In April, at the height of the (seemingly first) coronavirus panic, I went to the supermarket only to find most of the shelves stripped bare. In the salad aisle there was not a single piece of lettuce or kale to be had. People looked annoyed and frustrated that the products they took for granted had suddenly stopped appearing on the shelves.
On my way out I glanced across the parking lot at the adjacent field. Right across the field there was masses of frothy green foliage appearing. Alexanders! Wild and aromatic, this is one of the tastiest spring greens you can find, especially when steamed and sprinkled with butter and salt. The plant was introduced by the Romans, who went wild for its subtle flavour, and here it was, probably enough for a thousand people right there next to the supermarket, and free for the picking.
I went over and picked a couple of bags before heading home.
Blackberry mead, Cornish style
Mead is a honey wine with an ancient pedigree. It has been brewed right across Europe, Asia and Africa, although it’s perhaps best known as the favourite tipple of the Vikings. The brewing process uses honey rather than sugar, although you can substitute with the latter if you can’t get hold of decent honey or want to keep the cost down. It’s important that you use decent wildflower honey rather than the cheap sugary mass-produced stuff you find in supermarkets. The reason for this is that industrially produced honey has very few of the properties and complex organics of wild harvested honey. So, if you can, use only clear honey produced by small batch local beekeepers – the more natural they keep their bees the better.
In Norse mythology the mead served in the great feasting halls of Valhalla flows freely from the udders of the cosmic goat Heidrun, who grazes eternally on the leaves of the sacred tree Laeraor, but for rest of us we’ll need the following equipment and ingredients:
4.5 lb (2kg) fresh blackberries
4.5 lb (2kg) wildflower honey
A small handful of juniper berries
Juice of ¼ lemon
1 tsp/packet Yeast
1tsp pectolase powder
A handful of wild rose leaves or oak bark (see below)
1 very large saucepan – not aluminium (stainless steel is fine)
1-gallon (5L) fermentation bucket with airlock
1 long plastic or stainless steel spoon
1-gallon (5L) demijohn (aka carboy) with airlock
1 muslin cloth or similar for straining
Sterilise all your brewing equipment before you get started using tablets or a few drops of dilute bleach. You can also just stick it in a dishwasher cycle.
Put the washed berries and rose leaves/oak bark in a large pan with 2L of filtered water and bring to the boil. Some traditional recipes call for a few juniper berries to be added for botanical flavour, but I’m using sloes because I can’t find any juniper growing around here. The rose leaves or oak bark are to add tannin, which is a natural compound that binds the flavour and adds body.
Partially cover and simmer for about half an hour, occasionally stirring, then take off the heat and allow to cool to around 160 Fahrenheit (70 Celsius). This should take around an hour, and if you don’t have a thermometer you can gauge the temperature by putting your hand on the pot: if you can keep it there for a few seconds then it has cooled enough. Add the honey, lemon juice and the black tea (if you are using it) and stir it up until the honey has dissolved.
Many recipes say you should boil the honey, but if you do that, you’ll lose its unique curative and preservative properties, as well as its delicate volatile oils. Decent honey needs to be treated with care, which is why I never boil it.
Next, wait for it to cool to room temperature and carefully pour it into your fermentation bucket. I use a plastic ladle for this purpose so that it doesn’t splash everywhere. Then add the yeast and the pectolase (this enzyme ensures you get the best yield out of the fruit, but it isn’t 100% essential).
Traditionally, wild yeasts would be used by simply leaving the brew out in the open for a few hours. You can try this, but it can be a bit hit and miss, so I recommend adding manufactured yeast. I use white wine yeast, but you could just use standard baker’s yeast and get pretty much the same result.
Activate the yeast by letting it sit on the surface for around 10 minutes before mixing it in. Top up the bucket with room temperature filtered water, if it needs it, but not so high that it will interfere with the airlock when it is fermenting, so leave at least an inch to allow for bubbling. Put the lid on the bucket, fit the airlock and put it somewhere out of the way. Fermentation should start within 24 hours.
A week later, strain the fermenting mixture through a piece of muslin and pour it into a sterilised 1-gallon demijohn. Fit an airlock and wait for fermentation to complete – which could be a week or three. When all fermentation has finished, rack off the mead into sterilised bottles and store them somewhere away from heat and light. I often pilfer fancy spirit bottles from local recycling bins and then soak off the labels – the fancier the better.
The mead will be ready to drink as soon as all fermentation has ceased but will improve with age. Perhaps the ideal intermediate date to aim for would be around winter solstice, by which time it should be a thick, sweet botanical mead that will warm the cockles of your heart.
For this recipe the strength should be around 14 percent alcohol, or 28 proof. Whether you drink it from a horn or from the skulls of your vanquished enemies is purely optional. Skål!