Wild Blackberry Wine

Many older foraging books, and my childhood memories of the 1980’s, insist that blackberries are an autumnal fruit rarely seen before the end of August. These days if you wait until autumn to pick blackberries you will be disappointed. The changing climate now means an early August harvest.

Wild blackberry wine

Blackberry wine photography Roy Hunt

For most, the blackberry is the first (and often only) food that will be foraged. It is my hope that it will become as popular to ferment as it is to turn into a crumble, as Blackberry wine is one of the best homemade wines.

Blackberry wine has a robust, fruity flavour and bouquet, while slipping down a little too easily. And start one now and it will be more than ready for Christmas.

Brambles can be found on wasteground, parks, and in hedges. Picking the fruit is not without its hazards, and the thorns make plastic bags a no-go – one snag of your bag and a day’s pickings are lost to the hedgerow. Indeed, it is the thorns that give blackberries one of their country names, “lawyers”; once they trap you in it is very difficult to get loose.

Andy Hamilton picking blackberries

Andy Hamilton picking blackberries taken by Roy Hunt

Blackberries (or brambles) tend to take over wasteground if left unchecked. They can also be found on the edges of parks, in wooded thickets, by railway lines and cycle paths, at field edges and as undergrowth in forests.

2kg blackberries
Half cup of strong black tea
1.5kg sugar
4 litres water
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp pectolase
Red wine yeast
1 tsp yeast nutrient

To extract more juice from the fruit it helps if you keep the berries in the freezer overnight, then allow them to thaw before using. Ensure they are clean and place into a fermentation bin. Crush with your clean hands or a sterilized stainless steel/plastic potato masher. Pour over 1 litre of boiling water and the sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the further 2.5 litres of cold water then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Cover, and leave to stand in a warm place for 3 days.

Strain into a demijohn and attach the air lock. Rack after a month and allow to ferment out. Enjoy your blackberry wine with a blue cheesecake.

What is Craft Beer?

What is Craft beer?

Andy Hamilton "cheers"

Andy Hamilton “cheers”

A wise wag once told me that real ale is made with four ingredients and craft beer is made with six. Real ale is made with water, hops, malt and yeast and craft beer has two extra ingredients twitter and facebook. It’s a neat little joke as it helps to illustrate that sometimes there is little discernible difference between them, other than perhaps their approaches to marketing. It’s no wonder so many of us are scratching our heads and wondering, just what is craft beer and where did it come from?

What is craft beer? – Is this the first reference?

The first reference I have found for, “craft beer”, dates back to 1995 where the New York magazine refers to it as, “a rarefied name for beer that has no cruddy adjuncts”. (although please do prove me wrong by posting in the comments below if you know any better).

Since then it has become such an institution in the States that, courtesy of the Brewers Association and the IRS, it now has a legal definition. Craft beer has to come from a small brewery with an, “Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less”, these “small” breweries also have be independent, with no more than 25% of the brewery controlled by larger non craft breweries or drinks concerns.

These craft breweries started to appear across the country during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, often referred to as microbreweries. They were set up by homebrewers so fed up with the bland mass produced beer that seemed to be the only stuff available. These homebrewers often turned to UK ales for influence and they grew in number. By the 90’s almost every American was within drinking distance to a decent brewery.

What is craft beer? Vince from Ashley Down Brewery and Michael from Wiper and True

What is craft beer? The stuff on the left or right?

One of the major strengths of these craft brewers is their inclusion and openness. Unlike the bigger breweries they freely share information and brewing techniques. This is a win win as it means brewers get good very quickly and punters can rely on good beer.

American craft brewers will take influence from historic beers just as they might from international brewing techniques. This pushes the boundaries of beer making to its limits. A great example of a craft beer style that helps typify this innovation and boundary pushing is a black Imperial Saison. A Saison is normally a cloudy pale beer, but here the black colour is an influence of the Black IPA‘s which have been popularised by craft brewers for a few years now, the Imperial means it’s strong in alcohol, its influence from the drinks that were once brewed for the Russian Imperial court in the 19th century and the Saison is a Belgium farmhouse style characterised by the peppery almost cider fruit flavour derived from its yeast. As you can imagine craft beers could certainly never be called bland!

What is Craft Beer? – The American Influence on the UK

The GBBF at Olymipia

CAMRA’s biggest beer festival the GBBF at Olympia

Over the last few years craft beer has travelled from America and it’s influence can be felt across the beer drinking world. Here in the UK this has been a bit of problem for some traditionalist due to one issue, the keg. In the States the cask is rarely used and instead they favour (or should that be favor), the keg. Cask beers use a natural carbonation and keg beers forced, being pumped into the beer from a canister when being served. When CAMRA first set up all the mass produced, pasteurised, bland beer they were fighting against was being served from a keg. This distinction made it very easy to champion cask beers and vilify the keg.

With advent of craft beer in a keg in the UK there is much debate due to this issue and CARMA stand against the keg even when its full of amazing beer. Personally, I’ve found CAMRA’s stance here odd especially as they will happily champion cider which last time I checked wasn’t made with hops or malt, in fact don’t they use apples! At least craft beer, however it is served, is actually beer. In CAMRA’s defence, and to stop a lynching next time I’m at a beer festival or CAMRA meeting, cask beer is something that is considered to be very British and it would indeed be shame if this method disappeared for the sake of a trend.

Petty arguments aside, craft beer in the UK pretty much mirrors American craft beer. The people brewing it are enthusiastic brewers who are generally former home brewers and work out of small barrel plants. They are make highly innovative, interesting beers with care and attention. If your local brewer matches this description, then you a have a craft brewer.

What is Craft Beer? Does it have a future?

However, craft beer is under attack or rather the term is in the UK as many of the huge breweries are getting in on the act and creating new styles that they are calling, “craft beers”. This muddies the water somewhat especially as, at unlike the U.S. the U.K. has no real legal definition for craft beer. If this trend continues I imagine that the term will have to evolve to match. Already drinkers are just referring to, “really good beer”, and there is even an organisation called CAMRGB (Let’s campaign for real good beer) to reflect this emerging trend.

Perhaps the term will change as, like a bad beer, it continues to be watered down. But for now most will agree what craft beer is a style of beer typified innovative styles and great brewing practices, something that came over from America and yet was influenced by the UK. If you haven’t tried a pint then I’d urge you to seek out your local craft ale pub as its the best thing to happen to beer since Enki (the god that first created beer).

This article was first published in the 2015 Good Pub Guide.

Andy Hamilton’s fireweed, bramble tip and Himalayan balsam wine

fireweed, brambletip and hymalyan balsam wineI love working with other home winemakers to come up with new wines and so would like to hear from you!  This month I have teamed up with Mike Griffiths from Nottinghamshire who has been making wine since before I was born. By combining a variety of edible flowers into Mike’s bramble tip wine it helps transform it from a white wine into more of a rosé. I’ve chosen to use Himalayan balsam flowers and fireweed both readily available at this time of year and both often to be found growing along riverbanks or in waste ground. Luckily this is also often the habitat for brambles (blackberry vines).

The great joy of using Himalayan balsam flowers is not only that they impart a lovely reddish-pink tinge to any wine, cordial or jam you are making, but by using them you’re also helping biodiversity. Himalayan balsam, an invasive interloper introduced by the Victorians, can produce up to 700 seeds per plant. It also fires these seeds up to 7 metres away from the plant. It grows tall enough to smother native flower species while being irresistible to bees – a double blow to biodiversity.

1 carrier-bagful of bramble tips dropped into the bucket and not particularly pressed down (The tip is the 4 or 5 inches on the end of a young bramble)
Juice of one medium sized lemon
1 cup of Himalayan balsam flowers
1 cup fireweed flowers
500g sultanas
1 kg sugar
1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
1 teaspoon general purpose wine yeast

Chop or mince the sultanas add them to a big pan with the bramble tips. Add seven pints of water and bring to the boil, cover and simmer for an hour. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then replace the cover and allow to cool. Strain into a fermentation bin over the flowers, stir in lemon juice, yeast nutrient and yeast.

Cover the bucket loosely and leave to ferment in a warm place until any foaming has died down. Syphon into a demijohn, top up with cold water, put under an airlock, sit back and wait.

After about three months the fermentation will have finished and the wine will be clear. Rack off into a clean demijohn (there’ll probably be a decent deposit from the sultanas), top up again and transfer to the coolest place you have in the house. After another three months bottle the wine and leave it to stand for a further six months.

Andy Hamiton’s delicious alcoholic elderflower champagne

The fizz that characterises elderflower champagne is a result of bottling before the fermentation process has finished, normally this process is started by capturing wild yeast. This can cause problems: namely, lack of alcohol, exploding bottles and disappointing results.

(for more hedgerow drinks don’t forget to help fund my 3rd book – Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails)

elder champagne with elderflowers By using a bit of fermenting know-how you can make a sparking elderflower “champagne” every year that may rival any real champagne (though I am biased since it’s my own recipe).

The first problem to look at is using wild yeast. Some areas can be wild yeast deserts meaning your champagne will never ferment. If you do manage to capture a wild yeast you never know which yeast will get to work on your drinks. Each yeast works differently so you can be in for a lottery of flavours and alcohol strengths. The only way around that is to add your own yeast and champagne yeast is the best option; this has the added bonus of making your elderflower champagne alcoholic.

Elderflower champagne in a glass

Elderflower champagne in a glass courtesy of Roy Hunt

My recipe doesn’t resemble a normal elderflower champagne recipe and it is essentially a recipe for elderflower wine which is then re-fermented. This means more reliable results and if you change your mind halfway through at least you are left with some great white wine.

There was a pleasant country belief that if the flowers were put into ale, and a man and woman drank it together, they would be married within a year. – Lesley Gordon, 1985

ALCOHOLIC ELDERFLOWER CHAMPAGNE Grated rind of one lemon 1 litre/2 pints of elderflowers 3.5 litres/8 pints of boiling water 1.3kg/3 lbs sugar Juice of one lemon Champagne yeast, 1 tsp yeast nutrient.

Put flowers into fermentation bin and mix with lemon rind, lemon juice and sugar. Pour over boiling water and allow very gently stir until fully dissolved. Allow the water to cool to around 18°c – 20°c,  then filter through a muslin cloth and add the yeast and 1 tsp yeast nutrient. Leave in a place with a steady temperature of around 20°c for a 10-14 days or until the majority of fermentation has ceased.

When you are sure all the bubbling has ceased, strain in demijohn and allow to ferment fully. About three months should do the job, keep checking with a hydrometer. When you get consistent readings over 3-4 days your wine will have fully fermented.

Bring 200ml of water to the boil and add 70g of sugar. Allow to cool then strain the wine into a another demijohn leaving the sediment. Add the 200ml of sugar solution and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.

Siphon into champagne bottles seal with champagne corks and secure them in place with metal cages. The wine should be kept at room temp for the first 10 days. After this time it is moved to a cooler place, such as a cellar. They should initially be stored horizontally and over the next three months they should be gradually moved upside down. This can be done by placing the neck into sand. Chill for 24 hours before serving and do not disturb the bottle before opening.

Any problems making alcoholic elderflower champagne?

It’s funny how so many people have the same problems when making elderflower champagne. I’ve noted most of them and hopefully, you’ll find help on my article Elderflower champagne problems from mould, no fizz to exploding bottles.

How to brew by Booze for Free’s Andy Hamilton

I’m convinced that human civilisation was founded on beer and started when we first learned how to brew a beer. A far-fetched claim, perhaps, but there’s evidence to back it up. Around 16,000 years ago, our ancestors first started to cultivate grain and is it too much of a leap to suggest we only did this in order to brew a beer?. As, at the same point in our history, the first beers were starting to appear, probably made from that very grain. These beers were developed by the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq.

Spruce beer with little cones in front

Photograph Courtesy of Roy Hunt

Such beverages were crude compared to modern standards and, served in vast jugs, they were drunk through reed straws as the beer in the jug was still fermenting.By 10,000BC, the first written ‘words’ were appearing on clay tablets – among them a first recipe for a sort of bread that can also be made into a beer. Thus, one of the first recorded writings in human history was for homebrew.

Although the brewing process has become more sophisticated, the enjoyment derived from sharing a batch of homemade beer with friends remains reassuringly the same thousands of years later.

So why brew your own beer? For many homebrewers, it’s the cost. Back in January, the average cost of a pub pint rose above £3 for the first time. I can brew beer for 40p a pint.

Secondly, I’d say flavour. When I was younger I used to drink supermarket lager and I had long-assumed that lager tasted better than ale and it was (and is) incredibly cheap – you pay more for bottled water.

Now, of course, I cannot believe what I was missing. As soon as I was introduced to the world of beers, ales, porters, bitters, stouts, milds and even properly conditioned lagers, I realised that beer had a range of wonderful flavours and subtleties to rival wine. My quest to make the finest beer has become an obsession.

Thirdly, homebrew is almost certainly better for you and lower in calories than any mass-produced beer or lager on offer. It doesn’t contain any additives and you know exactly what’s gone into it. I find it odd that we British consumers have become so anxious about what we eat that we want to know what field our Sunday roast was born in and who its grandmother was, yet when it comes to beer we don’t have the same considerations.

Lastly, there is great satisfaction to be had from using home-grown or foraged ingredients. They are natural, local and sustainable. And from an environmental perspective, to reuse a barrel or bottle five or more times is far better for the planet than a new bottle for every beer, even if you only consider the carbon dioxide released through distribution. It’s joy all

Making a beer- How to brew


Hops Hops are the flowers of the hop vine; you can find them in the hedgerows from late August to early September. In the wild, the vine will climb trees, reaching 4m (13ft) or more. Commercially, hops are grown up long, sturdy poles and the whole vine is harvested. Hops add bitterness to the wort and aroma to the final beer, which would otherwise be too sweet-tasting. Using hops originally caught on because they inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Yeast Yeast is a micro-organism that is actually a fungus. It feeds on sugar, so when added to a sugar solution, as with making beer, it will multiply and do so until it has eaten all the available sugar, producing alcohol in the process. It will then die off, leaving a sediment.

Malt Malted grains are grains that have been allowed to germinate before the germination is halted with hot air. This turns the grain’s starches into the sugars needed for the fermentation process.

What you need to brew a beer

Getting your homebrew up and running is where most of the costs come in. But with a bit of foraging, it is possible to bring the cost down to practically nothing. The basic equipment you’ll need includes:

1. A plastic fermentation bucket that holds 40 pints (22l), plus a lid. You can buy these from homebrew outlets or health food shops. Or forage a food-grade bucket from a local restaurant – they are often thrown away. 2. A long-handled plastic spoon for stirring. 3. A 40-pint (22l) barrel or strong beer bottles (you’ll need 40 or so). The barrel can cost up to £25 but brown beer bottles can be foraged for free from recycling boxes – ask the owner first – or by asking your local pub for empties. 4. A 2-3m (6½-10ft) length of clear plastic tube is used to siphon the beer into barrel or bottles once it has fully fermented. 5.  A typical brew kit – this one requires you to add 1kg (2lb 2oz) of sugar. 6. Sterilising powder. You can also used crushed campden tablets. 7. Hydrometer – useful for measuring alcohol content but not essential. 8. Measuring cup. 9. Sachets of yeast – these are usually included with a beer kit, see 5. 10. Bottle capper and caps – a simple lever for crimping bottle tops on to your beer bottles. The bottle tops become airtight, meaning you can keep the beer fresh for months or even years. Beer in a barrel will go off within a couple of weeks after being broached.

Sterilise, sterilise, sterilise

Almost every homebrew disaster can be attributed to poor sterilisation. I scrub all my equipment with soap and a cloth, then sterilise it using a powdered bleach (available from homebrew shops). Put a few teaspoons of powder in the fermentation bin and top up with warm water. Leave for up to two hours and then throw in all the equipment you will be using to ensure it’s all sterilised. Rinse everything thoroughly before use.

3 levels of how to brew your own beer …

EASY – how to brew a beer from a kit

A standard kit includes a large tin of malt extract infused with hops and some yeast, and costs around £10. You will need to add your own sugar. Kits around £20 have slightly more malt extract. The difference between the two is seen in the body of the beer – the more refined sugar you add, the thinner the beer.

It is possible to substitute the sugar in the cheaper kit for dried malt extract, available from most homebrew shops. But this seems largely pointless since you would be paying the same as you would for a better kit. I always plump for the £20 kit, as it means you can often choose a beer you like and get brewing straight away. The most recent kit I bought was a St Peters Brewery India Pale Ale and I was extremely pleased with the results.
Method 1. Set 3.6l (6¼pts) of water to boil – always heat more than the recipe suggests, as the water will reduce as it comes to the boil.

2. Sterilise and rinse the fermentation bin and spoon. Stand the tins of malt extract in a washing-up bowl and top up with very hot water. Try to completely submerge the tins. This helps to loosen the malt extract and makes it easier to pour.

3. Pour the malt extract into the bottom of the fermentation bin. Pour over the boiling water and stir quickly yet methodically with a plastic spoon. You need to ensure that all of the malt extract dissolves. If you’re using a cheaper kit, at this stage you will stir in the sugar.

4. Top up with cold water to the desired amount. If you require a stronger beer, top up with less than recommended, or more for a weaker beer.

5. If your kit comes with powdered hops, add it along with yeast once the temperature is lukewarm. Move bin to a warm place for 4-7 days.

6. After this period, ensure that fermentation has ceased. A hydrometer is really useful (see below) but if you don’t have a hydrometer, check that your brew is no longer bubbling.

7. You now need to bottle your beer or put it in a barrel (see above).

MEDIUM – How to brew a Malt extract beer

The next step up from making beer from a kit is known as malt extract brewing. Extract brewing can work out much cheaper than making beer from a kit. It also gives you more freedom to experiment with different malts and hops, thereby giving you more options for the flavours of your brews. I’ve thrown beer-tasting parties with beer made this way and it has always gone down well. At its simplest, malt extract brewing can be just as easy as kit brewing, something I’m sure that kit manufacturers won’t thank me for saying. To make beer, all you need is sugar in the form of malt extract, a bittering agent such as hops, and some yeast. That really is it.

Ingredients 13l (23pt) of water 1kg (2lb 2oz) malt extract 55g (2oz) dried hops 750g (1lb 10lb) sugar or pale dried malt extract Ale yeast

Method 1. Bring half of the water to the boil and pour in the malt extract. Boil this mixture for 30 minutes. Then throw in the hops and boil for a further 30 minutes.

2. Strain the liquor into the fermentation bin and add the sugar or dried extract. Stir thoroughly to ensure that the sugar has fully dissolved.

3. Pour in the rest of the cold water and allow to cool. When the temperature is lukewarm (about 18°C), sprinkle on your yeast.

4. Seal the bin and leave it for a week or until it has fermented (when you have a consistent hydrometer reading over a few days).

5. Place half a teaspoon of sugar into each empty bottle and siphon the liquid into the bottles, ensuring that you don’t siphon in any of the sediment.

6. Leave the bottles for at least 10 days. Then they are ready to drink.

EXPERT – How to brew a beer the All-grain method

Don’t let the word ‘expert’ put you off – once I made beer a few times I started to wonder why I thought it was so hard. In some ways, all-grain brewing is like baking a cake or making a loaf of bread – make sure you get the stages correct and you will get good results. The term ‘all-grain’ basically means all of your sugars that will ferment into beer will come directly from the grain, without taking the short cut of using malt extract. To do so, you will need to undertake a process known as mashing; this means keeping the grains at a specific temperature for long enough for the starches to turn to sugars. You will need a very large boiling pan, however.

Ingredients 20l (35pt) of water (hard if possible) 65g (2oz) Goldings hops 2.25kg (5lb) pale malt 225g (½lb) crushed crystal malt Ale yeast

Method 1. Heat half the water to 75°C and pour into a sterilised picnic cool box. Place the grains into the cool box and put the lid on. Check the temperture, it needs to stay at 65°C, if it dips below then top up with boing water. Leave for an hour. You can use a muslin bag to contain the grains.

2. After an hour, strain the water (wort) into a large pan. Heat another 5l (8¾pt) of water to 75°C and pour this over the grains. Strain this into the boiler. Repeat with the final 5l (8¾pt) of water.

3. Place the hops into a square of muslin cloth and tie up the corners to save mess. Dangle this into the boiler and boil for one hour. Stir occasionally. After an hour, strain into a fermentation bin.

4. Cool as quickly as possible, ideally with a wort chiller (costs about £40-£50). Other cooling options include moving the fermentation bin outside, putting it in the coldest room of the house, or putting it in iced water. When the wort has reached around 21°C, add the yeast.

5. Fit the lid and leave to ferment for between four and 14 days, or until your hydrometer gives a stable reading over a few days.

6. Siphon into beer bottles with half a teaspoon of sugar in them or a beer barrel with four tablespoons of sugar. Leave to condition for at least a week before drinking, preferably 3 weeks.

The Urban forager by Andy Hamilton

Sloes by RoyIt often surprises people when they realise that urban environments can supply a more diverse range of foods than rural areas can. This mass delusion of the bio diverse countryside manifests itself when you see hoards of people flocking to country parks or pulling up on B road lay-bys at the mere mention of wild food on BBC’s Countryfile or Autumnwatch.

Urban foraging vs Countryside

I am not denying that you will get some food from the countryside, when looking for soles or hawthorns for instance the countryside should be your first point of call. Also, it can be simply a good day out with the family if you go foraging together.  What I am suggesting is that, before you do jump in your car or hop on a bus, consider a much more carbon friendly approach to foraging and wild food. That is to nip down to the local park, look on walls down your street and even ask the neighbours if you can help weeding.

Andy Hamilton the Urban forager up an elder tree, foraging by Roy Hunt

Andy Hamilton, the urban forager

Indeed I just have to poke my head out of my living room window on this (the day of writing) a morning in March to see ground ivy which used to be used in brewing in place of hops and can be used in a salad. Ivy leafed toad flax which is a great grazing food as it sets root in on walls and can be eaten as you wander down a street. Some thyme growing in the cracks in my pavement, a window box left over from the previous season giving home to some dandelions, sage, chickweed which can be used in a salad, goosegrass which makes a great detox drink, ribwort plantain that can be used in place of spinach. Finally there is hairy bitter cress which has a great peppery taste and can really jazz up a ham sandwich. Compare these crops to a conventional farmer’s field and you are likely to see just one crop, or if it has just been ploughed perhaps nothing growing at all!

Things are improving with the governments bio-diversity subsidies but the fact still remains that farmland in this country generally consists of huge swathes of mono-crops. Stand up on a vantage point in any county and you are likely to see fields and fields of just one crop such as rape, corn, maize or sugar beet. Even the grass grown for grazing on livestock farms is likely to be planted and therefore only around 3 or 4 varieties will be grown.  Also take into consideration the sheer size of the fields taken up by just one crop.

Urban foraging

Now compare this to the areas plants grow within a city. Cities are not made up of a few fields marked for a few uses they are as diverse as the people who live within them. We have gardens, parks, allotments, golf courses, football pitches and industrial sites all within our city walls.  If you walk around an allotment site or even peer out of your bedroom window to see what everyone is growing you are sure to see a whole host of plants.  This is because thankfully we are all different and so the whole range of tastes are catered for with each garden. When the green thumbs of our isle get into action it is possible to grow plants from all over the world and many gardeners do just that.

Yes, I am oversimplifying things and not mentioning woodlands, country parks, nature reserves, organic farms or even hedgerows around farms. What I am suggesting is that to really learn about wild plants you don’t have to go out and look in the countryside.

In fact a friend of mine who offers paid for forages also and lives on the south east cost, came to Bristol and we walked through an area surrounded by gardens, allotments, a couple of small holdings and a city farm. He was amazed at the number of plants on just two streets. Sure enough the diversity of human activity around this area has a direct correlation with the amount of plants on offer.

This, I think is why I am angered to see gardens being turned into off street parking place, new housing estates appearing on parkland and in place of allotments. Or people selling off parts of their gardens in order to squeeze in a few more houses into areas that already resemble a rabbit warren.  If the government insists that it is helping bio diversity should they not be looking into giving gardeners and allotment owners subsidies as well as to farmers? This could be a step towards preserving some of the plants that could otherwise leave our shores.

Andy Hamilton foraging for urban wild food blackberries

A spot of Urban blackberry foraging

Both the countryside and urban forager too must take a great responsibility to the plants that are around him (or her). Many people that first get bitten by the foraging bug will immediately run out and start tearing up the countryside in the hunger for new tastes. I too was once guilty of this when I found a patch of wild rocket growing by a river not far from my house and I then massacring the whole plant in order to make rocket pesto. It was not until the next year when I saw some wild rocket growing in a place further down river that I remembered this previous patch, I had not allowed any of the plant to go to seed and had deprived it from its sole and rightful purpose in this world, to reproduce. This mistake not only cost the plant’s children their future but it also forced me to walk further for my pesto ingredients than I needed to. This anecdote hopefully illustrates a far greater point, that of conservation.

It is possible to carry on eating wild plants without devastating your local stock. The foragers code suggests that you should leave the plant looking like it did when you first saw it. This means don’t strip all of it’s leaves off, eat all of the flowers pick the whole plant up by the root. In fact it is illegal to dig up the roots of any plant without the land owner’s permission and some rare plants should be left alone totally in order to preserve them.

You must also be very aware that there are some poisonous plants out there, plants that will paralyse you if digested, plants that will cause a slow lingering death and plants that will just make you ill. The old saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, rings true when it comes to foraging and you must always be 110% certain before you eat something that you find.

It is not that difficult to find a forager in your area to get some basic knowledge to get you started, just look out on notice boards, in health food shops and on the internet.  I taught myself using books and the internet.  The wild food section of our book, The Selfsufficientish Bible published by Hodder and Stoughton is set out with the novice in mind giving a brief description of various foods, information on where to look and a few recipes. My othe book Booze for freeOther books that have helped me are the classic Food for free, by Richard Mabey. I would try and source an older version of his book as it is a much better read and goes into more detail than later editions. By far the best Mushrooms guides are by Roger Phillips which have detailed descriptions, edibility advice and great photographs. I seem to collect wild flower guides too which can be found in good secondhand book shops and charity shops ensure that it has the latin names of each plant as many common names can vary.

I found that the more plants I learnt about the easier it became to identify them. I learnt by identifying the plants on my doorstep. I took out my digital camera took a snap and through a process of elimination worked out which each plant was. Over a few years you will be amazed at how many plants you can identify using this method and it can be quite a buzz knowing that you can identify most of the plants in a mile radius from your house.  Happy foraging


Andy Hamilton’s delicous knotweed vodka

At this time of year Japanese knotweed Fallopia japonica is growing very quickly – 20cm a day. The top 20cm is the most tender and flavoursome so it’s best to catch it early, before it gets woody. It can still be used at a later stage but you have to peel it.

Glass of Knotweed vodka

Knotweed vodka by Roy Hunt

Knotweed can be found along riverbanks, waste grounds and, frankly, anywhere it chooses. To remove it organically you would have to dig 5m down and burn all the soil. The area I forage for it is huge,about half the size of a football field. It was most likely spread from builders’ waste, as is often the case. Before you know it, a 6ft maze makes it impossible for all around to grow, like a supermarket moving into a small town.

Andy Hamilton with KnotweedGrowing at 20cm a day in April

Knotweed is a controlled substance, so take care when transporting cuttings, and be sure to burn any leftovers to avoid breaking the law.

Knotweed Vodka Ingredients 450g knotweed 750ml vodka 225g sugar Gather knotweed shoots and chop into 3cm pieces, then put into a 1 litre jar. Add the sugar and vodka and seal. Shake well and leave for at least 3 – 4 weeks. Strain back into bottle through muslin/cheesecloth and place in a cool dark place for 3 months.

The discarded knotweed can be eaten and, as it tastes remarkably like rhubarb, works well in a crumble – simply follow the recipe for a rhubarb crumble replacing knotweed for rhubarb, weight for weight.

This article was first published in 2011 on the Observer organic allotment blog

Birch Sap Wine and how to tap a birch

Birch sap being collected

Birch Sap being collected

One of the first signs that spring has sprung is when small, neatly wrapped parcels of leaves start to appear on the trees. These buds indicate not only the start of spring but that the sap is rising, and the sap  from the birch can be tapped and drunk. The ambrosial birch sap need not be just a taste of early spring as it can be preserved as a wine. Any birch tree can be tapped, but ensure you tap an older tree of at least 25–30cm in diameter: any smaller and you risk damaging the tree before it has had a chance to grow. Drill a hole into the tree at a 30-degree angle facing downwards. The hole should just penetrate the bark and should be as thick as the piece of tube you will need to insert into the tree. Push the tubing right into the tree and put the other end in a bottle or demijohn. Leave for a day or two, returning twice daily to check on progress. If the sap that comes out smells and looks a bit like dog pee then the tree has been infected with a fungus and the sap should be discarded.

It can be difficult to tap a birch tree if you live in a town or city. My friend and fellow forager Fergus Drennan suggests that you climb the tree and tape or tie the demijohn to a higher branch before tapping up there. The sap rises right up the tree so you should still get a good amount.

When you have finished tapping the tree, make sure you plug up the hole. There are several ways to do this, including shoving a piece of cork into the hole and covering it with wax so you can come back on alternate years, pick the wax off, pull out the cork and tap again. Personally, when I plug a birch I find a small twig or branch underneath the tree, cut that to shape with a penknife then hammer it home with a stone. If you don’t plug a tree you leave it open to infection, which could kill it.

Birch sap does not keep very well and should be put into use as soon as possible. If refrigerated it will last for only a few days, but it can be frozen until needed.

Birch sap wine is certainly a delicacy of the woods, so much so that it is available commercially in many countries. By altering the amount of sugar used in the fermentation process you can determine how sweet or dry your wine turns out to be. This recipe will make a slightly dry wine.


4.5 litres birch sap
250ml white grape concentrate
1kg sugar
2 tsp citric acid
half tsp tannin
Hock wine yeast

Bring the sap, concentrate and sugar to the boil, remove from the heat and add the citric acid, then stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature then stir in the tannin and sprinkle the yeast on. Cover loosely and leave for ten days.

Siphon into a demijohn and rack after about four weeks. Allow to ferment out before bottling and age for at least three months.

First published on the Observer Organic Allotment blog


Bristol Cathedral Garden

Of all the articles I wrote for the Bristol Magazine this was my favourite. It was just a lovely way to spend a bit of time, meeting Ali Tremlet and then being shown around the Cathedral Garden.

The Bristol Cathedral Garden

Cathedral Garden BristolSo far I have written about some of the places in Bristol that I treasure. I was starting to think I was running out of places to visit when I got an email from Ali Tremlet the head (and only) gardener at the Bristol Cathedral Garden. She suggested that I come and see their garden. Being as I always want to explore new bits of Bristol I jumped at the chance.

I met Ali outside the Cathedral (bottom of Park Street), where she works. There was an assembly going on so we snuck in across a car park and in through the side door. Normally, access is available through the main Cathedral, following the signs for gardens (and toilets).  I was glad we took this way in as when I walked through the cloister I was immediately hit by a serenity that only old religious buildings seem to resonate. Entering into the garden itself I discovered that this serenity was obviously not confined to the bricks and mortar of the Cathedral as the garden, despite being in a  Christian setting and full of plants, had a peaceful Zen like quality to it.

“It used to be a graveyard”, explained Ali. A second look and more focused look revealed the gravestones of old Cannons, Bishops and Deans of the Cathedral. Which may sound rather morbid but in fact I found it rather comforting. I felt as if these men of the cloth would appreciate having some kind of life in their resting place. As I am certain they saw enough life during their living years!

Despite it being winter when I visited the garden still felt full of life. The winter flowers of the witch hazel were in bloom, crocuses were poking out of the ground just weeks away from flowering and the sleeping herbaceous perennials offered that glimpse of colour that forever stains our winter into spring.  I cannot wait to see this garden in the spring, taking a cup of tea from the café in its corner, sitting on a bench beneath one of the massive Planes that lie on its edge. I am very thankful that Ali got in touch as this little garden is a true gem. Part of me wishes I had not written this so that I can keep it all to myself!

Independent Bristol

This is the second article in my on going series of articles I’ve previously published. Again this is from The Bristol Magazine and was first published in February 2010.

Independent Bristol

Go to almost any town or city centre in the Europe and you will see many of the same shops. Our bland shopping habits have changed the independent face of our cities leaving us with an homogenised, boring façade of choice. Luckily, the fringes of city centres still hold rare gems holding in there against all odds. These shops not only compete against city centre chain stores, but massive supermarket chains. Without our independent shops Bristol would be much worse off.

This time of year is the worst for the retail sector and as we are still supposedly in the worst recession ever so my place to visit this month is all of our independent shops; we need them to keep our Bristol from becoming homogenised and bland.

It is to the fringes of our great city that we have to travel to really see some of my favourite shops. Shops that are run by people who have a passion for what they sell and not for how much money they are making.  As a writer I feel I must fly the flag firstly for Durdham Down books, especially as its the only independent bookshop left in the whole of Bristol. Family run and by bibliophiles  and situated on North View. It is exactly what you want from a bookshop!

This is a bit of step away from my favourite shopping area which has to be the bottom of Cotham Hill. Here we can find an off licence that sells only the best booze from around the world, an antique shop run by two wonderful eccentrics who love dolls houses and Earthbound a health food shop that beat off Fresh and Wild and where the owners seem to know everyone by name. I have noted a few shops closing down round here so do shop in all of these and your favourite shops, especially at this time of year.

Of course there just isn’t the space to mention all of my favourite shops in Bristol, albeit to mention just my favourite new shop – The Urban Fringe Dispensary a herbalist ran by the inspirational Max Drake this place is nestled in area rich in independent shops just by the Christmas Steps.

Now rip up those club cards, burn your nectar points and shop till you drop!