It is Spring and the gorgeous white blossoms of Blackthorn have appeared. These early Spring flowers are a welcomed sight and appear before the leaves.
As the saying goes; you can eat anything once! Here I explore the edibility of blackthorn flowers (Prunus spinosa), their flavour and potential benefits, plus a step-by-step recipe.
I was once asked what this flower was by a woman who'd been eating them and enjoying their almond flavour. My reply: They are blackthorn flowers, and that flavour will be the cyanide.
Knowing the plant family, and recognising this as a relative to the plum tree is not enough to assert its edibility. Nor is the fact that the berries (sloes) can be used as food and to flavour drinks later in the year. In fact, the seeds, leaves and bark of sloes and black cherries also contain a compound that can be converted by the human body into cyanide when digested.
Blackthorn flowers have been used as an edible, sugar-coated cake decoration and I've been known to nibble one on a walk. My wild foodie colleague Mark Williams uses them to flavour his Sloe Gin, creating a a double-layered sloe gin cocktail.
Degrees of toxicity
There are many plants and foods we eat regularly that potentially contain toxins. For example; rice (arsenic), potatoes (solanine) and sorrel (oxalic acid).
What matters here is the amount. You'd need to eat more that 25 apple cores (with the seeds) in one sitting to be of risk of cyanide poisoning, apparently. And some say as many as 5000 seeds to be fatal. You know the saying; an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Keeping things in moderation is good.
Why eat blackthorn flowers?
Because of the cyanide content, blackthorn flowers have a lovely almondy scent which intensifies when infused. This can be used in small amounts as a flavouring. Below is a recipe for blackthorn flower syrup that I would only consider using as a wild alternative to shop-bought almond essence. Yes, literally no more than a teaspoon as flavouring (see recipe below). The flowers have been used as a laxative and the fruits are nutrient-rich food, including vitamin C and magnesium
It is not advised to eat blackthorn fruits (sloes) or flowers if pregnant or if living with a specific health condition. Always consult a medical herbalist or healthcare adviser first.
Blackthorn Flower Syrup Recipe
This recipe creates an intense almond-scented syrup, with a bitter after-taste. I quite like the combination of sweet and bitter. It is to be used as a concentrate, you could make a diluted version instead, if you prefer.
- 30 g blackthorn flowers
- 120 ml (8 tbsp) boiling water
- 100 g unrefined caster sugar
Place the flowers in a mug or heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water over and leave to steep for at least 2-4 hours. Strain through a tea strainer and place the liquid in a small saucepan with the sugar. Stir over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved (do not boil) and store in a sterilised bottle or jar. Use sparingly to flavour desserts or drinks.
I love sloes. I love their flavour, colour and goodness. I love that they're so common and easy to find. I'm not so keen on their thorns. Sloes are the fruits of the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and have been used for thousands of years by humans as food. But what did they do with them?
We know about the traditions of sloe jelly and sloe gin, though I very much doubt that our ancestors just used these fruits to flavour drinks. Piles of sloe stones at archaeological sites imply more of a foodie use. One of the things I love about having a full-time business revolving around wild food, is that I can put lots of time aside for foraging. Time to read (about foraging) and experiment with processes, recipes, seasons and picking sites. Over the years I've acquired over ten sloe fruit recipes from friends, colleagues, books and my own experimentation.
Exploring Sloes for Food and Drink
In my first book Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly I share a couple of classic recipes with sloes - sloe gin and sloe gin chocolates. A couple of winters ago I shared my proud, new creation for a Sloe Treacle Tart, you can find the recipe here. I've even written a song about sloes which I share on the Singing Foraging Experience. Here's a taster of it - the Sloes Song.
I've used sloes for sweet and savour dishes. Lapping up their vitamin C and antioxidants as if winter's going to last for months (which it often feels like it does if you live in rural areas). So what are these ten or more recipes? Well, I save these recipes, tips for participants on my foraging courses. On a course there's plenty of time to share, including wild tasters. And each course is followed up for an email of recipes and useful links. Meanwhile here's a few tasty shots from my exploratory time in my kitchen with sloes. You can find out more about my foraging courses here.
Coo-ee, here's a little insight into one of the songs I'll be sharing in The Singing Forager Experience - where we'll be learning about the seasonal plants through songs, facts, stories, touch, sight and taste. Not that I recommend tasting sloes raw, though that could be the words for another song...
As autumn has begun to take hold, I found myself writing words about Sloes/Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and finding a basic tune to hum it to. Sharing this with the infamous, though highly talented Hazel Thompson (performer, singer-songwriter and choir leader) the song developed. As we sang and sang it, joined by friends and colleagues, the harmonies and rhythm both morphed and solidified. We're rather proud of the result.
The Singing Forager Experience is for anyone who enjoys listening to songs, tapping their feet or singing. Offered as an extra layer to a 'normal' foraging course, it seems to quicken the learning process about the plants, with a bit of fun thrown in. I'm neither a professional singer, nor a musician, though I do enjoy singing together and that is basically what this experience is about.
Feel uplifted by songs
As the light fades and the cold seeps in, we'll be singing to keep our spirits strong, to lift our hearts, to smile more, make mistakes, forget the words, maybe create new words and come together. Each singing forager experience will introduce 6-8 songs about the seasonal plants available in the area we'll be walking through. The autumn experience will also culminate around a warming fire; a perfect and traditional way of sharing songs.
How these songs came about
Sometimes when I'm in nature I sing. It just happens. Other times I concentrate on the plants and inquire into their qualities; picking them with care, questions and interest. Over the years I have got to know a wide (and wild) range of plants through their colour, shape, texture, smell and taste. I have read about them, picked them and watched them through the seasons and different landscapes. I have carried them to my kitchen and explored through freezing, chopping, cooking and infusing, - this hands on part of my research is my favourite.
Initially I started a collaboration with singer songwriter Kelsey Michael, and was inspired to write songs about the plants I knew. Creating songs about plants seemed to make sense; after all, songs were one of the ways we shared knowledge, anecdotes and cultural traditions in the past. Somehow the sloes song has an old, melodic feel to it, yet I've only just created it in 2019! Here's to bringing together old and new traditions and celebrating plants through songs.
Finally, having already credited Hazel for her input, it's worth mentioning that we were both attending a song writing course with Stephen Taberner where we met and created this tune. Inspired by Stephen, each other and the natural environment of Cae Mabon in North Wales where we all met - I offer you the Sloes Song.
Follow #singingforager to hear or find out more.
I was brought up in a family where puddings were the norm, well at least on Sundays anyway. My mum would pride herself in baking beauitful, sweet desserts, that as children, somehow we'd make room for them, in our already, full bellies. It's true isn't it -there's a different stomach for the sweet stuff.
As an adult, this young training has ensured that I have an in-built sweet tooth, though my craving isn't necessarily for the sickly sweetness of refined sugars. Instead, as a young adult I explored alternatives to the white stuff, and experimented with; malt sugars, fermented sugars, fruit sugars and treacle. What I was looking for was a satisfying sweet that would nourish me, and not just fill me with nutrition lacking calories (white sugar has all the good nutrients refined out of them).
As my interests widened to include wild food, this precedent of enjoying desserts continued, alongside my experimenting, and this winter has been no exception. Inspired by Swedish and German friends of mine making sloe syrup, I broke my October tradition of making sloe gin, and simmered the fruits for syrup instead. Of course, I altered the recipe a little, and used dark muscavado sugar and created a thick, rich tasting syrup that reminded me of something... Treacle tart.
Defrosting sloes and dark sugar
Traditionally, treacle tart is made with golden syrup (refined sugar), so I thought I'd try something different. With a bottle of freshly made sloe syrup, I got started, combining oats, fresh bread crumbs (from lovely local bread) and the sloe syrup. The result - wow. It was delicious, like a fruity version of a syrup tart, though more wholesome, just as satisfying, and perfect for afternoon cake-hour, and very fitting for more substantial wintery desserts. Here's the recipe, though you first have to make the sloe syrup;
Sloes cooking for sloe syrup
Thick syrup, reminiscent of tart plums, mixed with the strong flavour of dark sugar.
Ingredients (Makes about 450 ml)
500 g sloes
250 ml water
400 g dark sugar
Put all the ingredients in a medium pan, bring to the boil, and lower the heat until just lightly bubbling and leave to cook for 45 minutes, with the pan lid off. Strain and lightly mash through a sieve and pour into a sterilised bottle. Sloe syrup can also be diluted for drinks or is scrumptious poured over hot porridge.
Sloe Treacle Tart
A rich and filling tart, and the fruity treacle flavours are not over sweet. The oats and wholemeal flour make it a wholesome and pleasantly textured, ideal as a pudding in the colder months.
Ingredients (Serves 12)
90 g plain flour
85 g wholemeal flour
60 g oatmeal
115 g salted butter
1 dsp ice-cold water
75 g fresh breadcrumbs
75 g oats
300 ml sloe syrup
100 ml golden syrup
2 fresh range eggs
In a large bowl mix the flours and oatmeal, and cut the butter into cubes before tossing into the bowl. Rub the flours, oatmeal and butter together using your fingertips until thoroughly combined and resembling fine breadcrumbs. Add the water and form into a ball of dough and wrap in cling film, place in the fridge for 30 minutes. At this stage, preheat the oven to 170°C and grease a 20 cm flan tin. While the dough is refrigerating, in a bowl combine the breadcrumbs and oats and place the syrups in a small saucepan, ready to heat to just warm a little later.
Take the dough out of the fridge and roll out on a lightly floured surface, large enough to fill the tin and line the sides. Carefully place the unbaked pastry in the tin, gently pressing into the corners and slicing off any excess pastry. Line with baking beans, or equivalent and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the tin from the oven and reduce the heat to 150°C. Meanwhile, heat the syrups till warm, stirring to avoid burning and add to the oats and breadcrumbs. Whisk the eggs and pour in, stirring until the mixture in combined well, and fill the baked pastry base.
Bake for 35 minutes or until set. Serve warm or cold, lasts well in the fridge for a few days. Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed.
Everyone has there own traditions for Christmas Day. For me, I'm satisfied if I'm in good company, have a dip in the sea & there's a healthy amount of indulgence.
Down here in Cornwall I've plenty of people to share these common themes with; least of all bracing the elements & stripping off on the beach for that ceremonial plunge - nothing like it for feeling alive & building up an appetite! So on the morn of the 25th, Sennen beach (just a mile from Lands End) was pretty packed with rosy faces & cold toes as we raced towards those rolling waves to start the day splashing about, all with good company, of course.
The rest of the essentials for the day already prepared, there was little left to do except dry off, drink hot tea & eat. As a lover of good food, I enjoy the simplicity of a good roast with lots of colourful veg to accompany it. I could tell you a good story of a wild meal, but in all honesty, for this day I'm on holiday, want to think as little as possible about food & just allow it to happen.
However, I had put my creativity together in the form of gifts & brought out some wild ingredients to invent new chocolate recipes. For weeks I'd been thinking about combinations that would excite & please. Who in my family likes richness, who needs to watch there blood sugar levels & who prefers a savoury twist. Of course, its impossible to please everyone, though the fun for me is in the creating & the making.
I created 8 recipes in all, some wild, some not, some rich & dark (I'm a Green & Black's fan myself) & some with raw cacao & agave syrup (far richer in minerals & with less of a caffeine hit - though still chocolate!). Cinnamon, fruit, Cornish sea salt, nuts & vanilla all featured & for the wild ones; laced with sloe vodka of course, & a white chocolate with dried blackberries in (good for children if you want to reduce the risk of too much hyperactivity).
The verdict? Well the large box of chocolates is being taken to family tomorrow & I'll see which ones disappear first & let you know! Its a time a year for many things & for me, there's definitely a place for good, indulgent chocolate, especially handmade. Wishing you all a joyous festive season & here's a couple of recipes to be going on with. x
White Chocolate with dehydrated wild blackberries - goes like raisins, though with more seeds/texture!
Last year's sloes had been soaking in vodka for 12 months, de-stone & chop them, add a couple of tablespoons of the sloe vodka & stir into the melted chocolate. And one image of the final box of chocs! Most of them I've tasted, of course, so I'm quite confident about the results!