Fictional Foraging

Do you know your Saxifrage from your Stitchwort, your Harebells from your Bluebells? No, me neither. Each May the hedgerows of North Wales, and more specifically the Conwy Valley where I live, are bursting with wild flowers, herbs and grasses, so prolific they are impossible to ignore. Each year I vow to learn to identify some of them.

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As with most aspects of the Welsh countryside there are strong connections to history. The 15th and 16th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values of certain plants.

Bluebells and stitchwort

 The ancient woodlands and green lanes  here in the Conwy Valley nurture anything that likes a good  bog, but then the land climbs towards Tal  Y Fan and I find sub species – I think –  which have perhaps adapted to a drier  soil. It was only when I came to identify  the plants on the web that I realised just how vast the subject is, and why this post is mostly pictorial. I know the Latin names are considerably more accurate but I’d never get to grips with that, nor would it evoke much interest if one of my characters were to say Aquilegia spp instead of Granny’s Bonnet.

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Time spent gathering this kind of information is never wasted, especially since my fiction is set in this part of the world. Researching is all part of the day job for a writer and, oh … how much richer the story becomes when these snippets are threaded into the narrative. I’m not talking about blocks of description better suited to a Flora and Fauna encyclopedia, it’s the subtle details which underpin that suspension of belief, the transportation into another, possibly alien location for the reader, and hopefully without them realising how you’ve done it.

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The absorption of any scene or landscape is not restricted to what we can see, either; smell, touch and sound are also powerful mediums in fiction. Take Wild Garlic. Incredibly pungent and pretty prolific in this area. When the leaves are crushed the perfume wafts a considerable distance and the leaves are indeed edible, but they also happen to look exactly like the poisonous leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley so perhaps edible foraging is best left to the experts. There are in fact many deadly, innocent looking flowers out there which could form the basis of a dastardly plot … so although these pretty hedgerows might be considered pure romance fodder, there’s no love lost when it comes to ingesting some of them.

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But I did discover a rather fine recipe for Elderflower champagne.

My character Anna Williams (Wild Water and Dark Water) tells me this is the foolproof recipe she always follows, so I think this is possibly a good place to halt my inspection of the hedgerows and start boiling some water. I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, cheers!

elderflower-champagne

25- 30 full Elderflower Heads in full bloom
2 kg Sugar
2 lt Water
4 Lemons, juice and pared zest
1-2 tbsp White Wine Vinegar
Dried Yeast, pinch
Method
Boil the water and pour onto the sugar in a large previously sterilised container.
Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add cold water up to 6 litres.
Add the lemon juice and zest, the vinegar and the flower heads and stir gently.
Cover and leave to ferment in a cool, airy place for a couple of days. At this point, check and if it has not started to ferment (a few bubbles) add a pinch of yeast.
Leave the mixture to ferment, covered for a further four days.
Strain the liquid through a muslin lined sieve into sterilised champagne glass bottles. Seal and leave to ferment in the bottles for a further eight days before serving, chilled.
– See more at: http://www.thewi.org.uk/what-we-do/recipes/drinks/elderflower-champagne#sthash.nXB68uxr.dpuf

Words & photography by Jan Ruth.

A wander on the wild side …

Mystery flower! Tiny stars embedded in the grass, almost like an alpine.
Mystery flower! Tiny stars embedded in the grass, almost like an alpine.
Bluebells and Stitchwort
Bluebells and Stitchwort
Fumitory
Fumitory
Wild Garlic
Wild Garlic
Red Campion and Cow Parsley
Red Campion and Cow Parsley
Columbine or Granny's Bonett.
Columbine or Granny’s Bonett.
Speedwell
Speedwell
Cuckoo flower (a very pale version) also called Milkmaids.
Cuckoo flower (a very pale version) also called Milkmaids.
Vetch
Vetch
Pink Campion
Pink Campion
Welsh poppy
Welsh poppy
Red Valerian
Red Valerian
Cat's Claw or Birdsfoot trefoil (yellow)
Cat’s Claw or Birdsfoot trefoil (yellow)
Green Alkanet
Green Alkanet
Herb Robert
Herb Robert
Primrose
Primrose
Celandine
Celandine
Cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower

 

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2 thoughts on “Fictional Foraging

  1. What an interesting post! I love the recipe for Elderflower Champagne – might have to try that :). Would love to be able to identify some of the plants around here in Somerset, and you’ve inspired me to give it a go (in a very careful, cautious way, of course!)

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    1. Thank you Fay, I think there is a knack to making the fizz. I’ve read reports that it can taste like old socks! My sister-in-law made a good batch once. It’s more like spritzer than champagne, if truth be told but the flavour is wonderful.

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