Autumn has arrived, and at Wild Life HQ, we find that our daily walks take longer and longer as we scoff our way along hedgerows laden with a veritable bounty of delicious, juicy berries. ‘Eat me!’ they seem to call, and we take great pleasure in fulfilling their wishes. And, of course, as we have discussed before, foraging may be the ultimate human exercise.
We are all at it.
Birds, insects, hedgehogs, foxes and badgers. Everyone wants a fill of nature’s ‘pick n mix’. In fact, if you happen to pay attention to animal poo (come on, I know it’s not just me) whilst out and about, you will have noticed many a scat or dropping with a deep red or purple hue thanks to all the berries the animal has munched on.
And whilst we are on the subject, did you know that hedgehog poo is sometimes purple and sparkly? No, really, it’s true and the reason I know is because I kept a small hedgehog poo in a plastic cup for a worryingly long time to impress other people’s children with my knowledge on what hedgehogs eat to make their poo sparkle.
My own children, were less impressed especially after the 5th,6th…15th time. “Do you know why?” I would enquire excitedly. Of course none of them knew, and to be fair, they probably weren’t that bothered, and probably a bit weirded out by their friend’s mum waving a poo in their face, but I wouldn’t let that perturb me.
I wanted everyone to know and share my joy in this tiny, perfectly formed glitter-ball (sausage). So, do you know why? All will be revealed at the end of the blog. There’s no better way to keep you reading to the end than keeping you on the edge of a poo-related cliff hanger.
Ok, back to berries. Those beautiful, bulbous, bouncy gems hanging it all out to entice us in. There are of course loads of nuts too but we will leave that for another day.
As we enter the dark cycle of the year, I feel that drop in energy, the slowing down, the letting go and the deep sense to care for and nourish myself.
I am like a whippet on caffeine in the summer. Full o’ beans, going on mini-breaks and working outdoors long into the evening, all fired up on sunshine and ice cream.
In the Autumn, I exist on a different kind of energy. A warming energy fuelled by sunrise, spice, and fire. Instinctively, I know what my body needs and as my feathered and furry kin frantically fill up their stores before the winter arrives, we too gather and harvest to prepare ourselves for the months ahead.
I have already squirrelled away (into the freezer) bags of blackcurrants, redcurrants and blackberries from the garden. It seems that as I age, I find it increasingly difficult to pass by a bush or tree bowing heavily whilst its jewels dance provocatively before me. Click here for our wild berry fruit leather recipe.
Taking the time to collect and freeze the berries in the summer months gives us a winter supply of fruit for shakes, crumbles and tonics.
One particular tree that I must, however, wait patiently on is the Elder. We live fairly high above sea level and the elderberries often take a wee bit longer to emerge.
Having said that, the berries always seem to arrive just when I need them, when the first sniffles are threatening to turn into their slightly more hardcore counterparts.
Elderberries and their precursor, elderflowers, have long been celebrated for their health giving properties. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, elderberries appear to offer anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.
Some studies have even suggested that elderberries may help in the fight against cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol and depression.
Perhaps the most common use of elderberry is in the fight against colds and flu.
In one study, people with flu-like symptoms who were given 15ml of elderberry syrup four times a day found that their symptoms improved 4 days before the participants given a placebo.
In another study, people with flu-like symptoms took lozenges containing 175 milligrams (mg) of elderberry extract four times a day for 2 days. After 24 hours, they reported an improvement in symptoms, such as muscle aches, headaches, nasal congestion and fever.
Many of the other berries around at this time of year, especially the dark coloured ones, share many of the benefits of elderberry too.
A word of caution though. Although most of the other autumn berries are delicious and perfectly safe to eat off the plant, you need to be a little bit more careful with elderberries.
There are a number of toxins in raw elderberries that, if ingested in quantity, can cause an upset stomach leading to vomiting and diarrhoea.
But fear not, the simple action of heating the berries is enough to remove this issue. And this time of year, one of our favourite ways of consuming elderberries is in the form of a syrup.
Autumn Berry Syrup
Elderberries alone are not particularly sweet and emit a strong smell when heated that is not to the liking of many people (including my children). Adding other berries helps to reduce the potency of the smell and also adds a natural sweetness to the syrup.
Another point to note is that we use raw honey in this recipe but you can use sugar. Many recipes advise you to measure the syrup at the end of the process and add an equal amount of sugar or honey. By adding this amount, you are extending the shelf life of your syrup from weeks to months. The measurement of honey given below is based on our preference for sweetness, not necessarily shelf life. You can add more or less depending on your own preference. If you are using honey, stir it into the syrup and warm very gently to avoid reducing the nutritional value with heat.
However you store your syrup, check it regularly for signs of mould or any bad smells and discard if you are in any way unsure.
Autumn Berry Syrup
- 400 g elderberries / blackberries / blackcurrants / redcurrants / rosehips (remove seeds and ends of rosehips before cooking)
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 cloves
- 2 unwaxed oranges
- 3 cm fresh ginger sliced
- 300 g raw honey
- Remove stalks and stems from the berries and wash in a bowl of cold water.
- Add the berries, ginger and cloves to a large pan along with 500ml water.
- Remove a few strips of orange peel and add to the pan.
- Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer, uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Ensure you have a thoroughly clean bowl ready for the liquid.
- Strain the liquid through a mesh sieve or a piece of muslin into the bowl and give the berries a good press or squeeze to get the remaining liquid.
- Add the liquid back to a clean pan. Add your preferred sweetener – honey or sugar (see the note before the recipe) and heat gently whilst stirring until it has dissolved.
- Squeeze in the juice from the oranges.
- Taste and add more sweetener if required.
- Pour the syrup into sterilised bottles with a tight lid and label them.
- Store in the fridge for 3-4 weeks or in suitable containers in the freezer for a winter supply.
Hopefully by now, your kitchen is filled with the heady aroma of berries, and spice, and all things nice. However tempting it may be to guzzle down a glass of the syrup, remember that although good for you, it’s still very sweet. Just a spoonful or two a day taken in the style of Mary Poppins should help keeps bugs at bay or mix with hot water on a wintery day. If you are partial to a hot toddy, a wee drop of the syrup certainly gives it a fruity kick.
Any finally, for those of you desperately speed reading to the end to find out why a hedgehogs poo sparkles, here is the answer.
It’s because hedgehogs love to have a good crunch on a beetle for their supper and lo, the shiny beetle shell gives the glitter effect. You are very welcome.
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