Foragers’ fumbles and fails

Crab apple
Crab apples are a firm favourite with all foragers and are readily found in our countryside

FORAGERS are always enthusiastically looking for new wild foods and recipes to try out and share. Usually, we get to celebrate our successes…. but what about our failures?

Living in a part of the Irish countryside that’s rich with native plants, my family has had great fun finding and cooking all sorts of wild fruits and plants for almost a decade.

On the other hand, we’ve also had one explosion, a frantic weekend product recall and a jelly that refused to set. And for every fumble, I hope that an important lesson has been logged and learned!

The foragers’ case of exploding fizz

Our most dramatic foraging fail to date happened this summer and its cause remains unexplained.

I worked as a news reporter and environmental columnist for the Irish News daily newspaper from 1998 until 2015. For the first couple of years, I was based in the Belfast newsroom, so I was no stranger to news stories about so-called pipe bombs (improvised explosive devices that are potentially deadly).

However, that did not prepare me for when we unwittingly caused a minor explosion in our home.

Elderflowers in bloom

The culprit was a bottle of elderflower fizz. It’s a non-alcoholic, homemade sparkling drink that our daughters Ava (12) and Becca (9) guzzle with gusto every summer. We had made several bottles and believed we had left enough space for the bubble-making gases to form during the fermentation process. We were wrong.

Bang goes the bottle!

Unexploded fizz bottles

One sunny evening, I was walking through the utility room when I heard a loud and quick bang in the cupboard. Cautiously opening the press door, fearing that I might get hit by flying glass shards, I discovered one of the bottles had shattered. Luckily, the other bottles seemed to be unaffected but I still handled them gingerly.    

The clean-up job was very messy, involving lots of sugary, sticky, wasted fizz and miniscule pieces of glass that were potentially nasty for young fingers and pets’ paws. There was also the concern that other bottles might burst.

Happily, the explosion was an isolated incident, but I still spent the rest of the summer opening fizz bottles over the sink, with the girls watching fascinated from a safe distance.

There’s just one bottle of our homemade bubbly left and we hope to pop the top on Christmas day….if it remains intact until then.

Undeterred by the drama, we’ve also decided that in future, we’ll use plastic mineral drinks bottles for our fizz. And we would still urge people to have a go at making their own fizz. It really is delicious.

Elderflower Pong

Our exploding fizz was not our first unhappy experience with elderflowers.

One year, we picked the blooms and left them forgotten in a bag in the utility room. After a couple of days, we unjustly blamed our cats, Cindy and Rosie, for the strong feline wee pong in the room.

That experience taught us two valuable lessons – pick elderflowers in the morning when their scent is weaker, and always use them immediately, because no-one likes their home smelling of cat pee!

A foragers’ product recall

Many people who have made their own jams and jellies will know that it’s not always a fool-proof experience.

Crab apples
Set crab apple jelly

We’ve made spiced crab apple jelly that refused to set, even though we were using our new jam thermometer. Undeterred, we decided to describe it as a syrup and use it as a savoury condiment. However, our biggest fail happened several years ago, and I put it down to the fact that I was juggling all the things that mothers juggle.

I also broke a cardinal rule, which is to taste everything as you cook. And that is why I didn’t realise that our summer fruits jam contained sloe berries (from the blackthorn tree), with the hard pips still intact, rather than blackcurrants.

By the time we’d found a potentially tooth-shattering pip in one jar, we’d already given the jam to both girls’ teachers. I spent a frantic Saturday tracking people down, warning them not to eat the jam, and apologising like a mad woman!

And the lesson learned? Make sure you can identify fruits and berries when you take them out of the freezer!

And finally….

After reading this you might wonder why our friends would risk accepting any of our homemade products, but we love sharing the foods we make and people seem to like receiving them.

For me, the greatest thing about foraging and cooking is that I get to do it with Ava and Becca, and even their dad John in recent years. We’re all learning together.

I hope that the girls will take our experiences into adulthood and that they will know the value of taking time out from a hectic schedule to spend a few hours finding, making and giving homemade food.

If you want to read more about what we’ve been picking and producing then check out my blog You can also use the blog to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up to my newsletter.

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