Hawthorn | Death, Sex and Food

hawthorn hedge with May blossom

May is undoubtedly the best month to enjoy the Essex countryside when the green fields are fringed with verges of swaying cow parsley and hedgerows seemingly beribboned with hawthorn blossom. Perhaps not so idyllic if you suffer from hay fever, but still a glorious sight and probably the one that I’d miss most of all if I lived somewhere else.

Every hedge on the farm at Slamseys has a little (or a great deal) of hawthorn, which is not surprising as it’s been grown as an impenetrable field boundary marker for centuries. In early May, the tiny buds start to open into delicate white or pink flowers, which are also known as May blossom, developing into deep red, round berries or haws in the autumn.

 

Pink Hawthorn flowers on gnarled tree

 

An old, gnarled hawthorn tree grows in front of the farmhouse on what used to be the boundary between the garden and meadow. Ponies in the field used to shelter under the dense canopy and reach up to nibble the leaves, so that the field side was neatly trimmed six feet above the ground. The branches are encrusted with lichen, it’s terribly lopsided and dominated by an enormous Wellingtonia tree but every year this beautiful deep pink blossom appears.

Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May is out

There seems to be disagreement as to whether this saying advises you to keep on your clothing until the month of May is out or until the May blossom is out, though perhaps the speculation only highlights the fact that the weather in May can be fickle and that old sayings and proverbs can be deliberately ambiguous. The temperature here on Monday was 26C, so this year it was prudent to shed a few layers when the May blossom is out.

 

Pink hawthorn flowers and lichen on branches

SUPERSTITIONS

There are all sorts of superstitions attached to hawthorn. In ancient times it was a symbol of fertility and marriage; it was linked to unregulated frolicking in fields rather than conjugal love in the home and according to old country superstition, illness or death would soon follow if hawthorn blossom was taken into the house.

Presumably these beliefs were due to the scent, which is heavy and not overly attractive once the flowers start to age and discolour. According to QI, the distinctive element of hawthorn scent is triethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals produced when a human body starts to decay and is also found in human semen and vaginal secretions. Given that, perhaps it’s not surprising that it wasn’t welcome indoors and was linked to death and sex. I think ageing hawthorn blossom smells like the Copydex glue that we used at primary school (which also started as white and yellowed with age).

 

White May blossom in hawthorn hedge

EATING HAWTHORN

Having read about the scent of hawthorn blossom, you may be dubious about using it any recipes. You may truly believe that you’ll be bringing death into the house with your bunch of hawthorn flowers. But …

You can eat the leaves and flowers in spring and the berries in the autumn.

Hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries are reputed to improve heart function.

Add young hawthorn leaves to a bowl of salad leaves.

Make a hedgerow (sort of) pesto with the leaves of hawthorn, stinging nettles, wild garlic and jack-by-the-hedge leaves whizzed together in the food processor with walnuts, rapeseed oil and cheddar cheese.

Make Hawthorn Blossom Wine or Hawthorn Blossom Liqueur using these recipes from Dalbeattie Community Initiative

Make Hawthorn cordial by steeping the flowers in a sugar syrup solution using this Hawthorn Cordial recipe at Life in Mud Spattered Boots.

Dilute Hawthorn Cordial for a long, refreshing drink or use it neat to flavour ice cream or drizzle over a fruit salad.

Drop hawthorn flowers into the water when making ice cubes.

 

If you’re going to use flowers for any of these recipes, just remember to use the young, fresh flowers that haven’t started to yellow or brown with age.

Use hawthorn flowers if they smell interesting,  but if they pong, just pass them by.

 

Snippets of happiness | spring

Spring has been cold and wet, apart from a few gloriously hot days last month when we abandoned coats and bared our legs in the optimistic hope that summer had arrived early. Sadly, our hopes were dashed and the wind and rain returned.

But despite the weather, there have been plenty of snippets of happiness in the last few weeks. Sometimes as simple as walking in the rain and then, as the rain stops and the sun breaks out, standing still listening to the birdsong and the rain dripping from the trees. Or the gratitude to the man who put his foot on my pound coin and stopped it rolling away down the pavement when it pinged out of the wretched coin lock as I tried to release a supermarket trolley.

Other snippets of happiness this spring …

Art installation Kettles Yard Cambridge casting shadows on table

A temporary art installation at Kettles Yard in Cambridge, casts shadows on a table. Simple but effective. I enjoyed the collections of found objects as much as the art on the wall and possibly spent too much time examining the polished floor of the gallery (we have problems with a similar floor) but the whole day was filled with happiness.

 

Cherry blossom with blue background

Bringing in branches from the flowering cherry trees before the blossom is drenched by rain and buffeted by the wind. Shall I put them in a blue room where the blossom makes a contrasting splash of bright pink against the dark blue.?

 

Cherry blossom with yellow background

 

Or in a yellow room where the effect is more muted? It always surprises me how much the colour of something can be affected by its surroundings or the colours it’s placed next to or by the light. I miss the late afternoon sun that bathed my old kitchen in its golden light but am finding unexpected patches of light through the new house. It will be interesting to see how it changes with the seasons. Morris, the fox terrier has already worked out the best places to catch the sunlight at any time of day.

 

Rhubarb on wooden surface

Pulling rhubarb from the garden to make a comforting Rhubarb Crumble. Perfect with bright yellow custard made with eggs laid by the two remaining hens, eaten as we watch the rain lash against the windows. There has, of course, also been rhubarb jelly and rhubarb flatbread. And a little rhubarb compote. Next will be Nigel Slater’s recipe for rhubarb with sloe gin.

Bringing rather more than a snippet of happiness, has been watching two little grandsons give their newly arrived baby sister adoring hugs. That’s been more like a great big lorry load of happiness.

My snippet of happiness today? The sun is shining and there’s no rain forecast for the day. Hurrah!

 

Why it’s the best time of year to make Stinging Nettle Scones

Primroses, daisies, violets and leaves in spring flower arrangement

It has been wet here and there’s water in ditches that have been dry for years. Bill and Jack are desperate to get the tractor work done, but alas every sunny and windy spell that dries the fields has been followed by a soaking. On the bright side, there’s plenty growing; primroses smother some of the ditch banks and the violets are flowering profusely.

Stinging Nettles growing wild in England

There are also stinging nettles springing into life. Stinging nettles are unpopular a lot of the time. Unexpectedly encountering a clump of high growing and vicious nettles in the summer when walking with bare legs is a painful experience, as is not noticing small nettles when pulling weeds in the garden. But, it’s always good to have a patch of nettles somewhere out of the way as they’re a good food source for butterflies and insects and their high nitrogen content make them useful on the compost heap or soaked in water to make a liquid feed.

Even better, you can eat nettles and spring is the best time of all to pick them.

If you’ve thought about foraging for wild food but aren’t sure where to start, then try stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles are easy to identify, grow abundantly and they’re nutritious. Be warned though; nettles taste very green. If you look for stinging nettle recipes, Nettle Soup always pops up. I’ve made several batches of nettle soup and sometimes it was OK, sometimes it didn’t taste too good and it was never fantastically delicious. Mostly, it tasted as though it should be good for you. Which indeed it is.

Cooking with Stinging Nettles

We enjoy stinging nettles stirred into risotto, in a hedgerow pesto or as an addition to soda bread and over the years, we’ve decided that we prefer them as a supporting ingredient rather than the star. Perhaps that’s the reason that the recipe I return to every spring and continue to make through to early summer is the one for Stinging Nettle Scones. The nettles don’t dominate but they add interest and if nothing else, provoke a little discussion around the table.

The Best Time of Year to Make Stinging Nettle Scones

Spring is the best time to make Stinging Nettle Scones because you need to use young, tender leaves and not the tough stringy plants of late summer. Did you know that nettles are so fibrous that they can be used to make fabric? That’s why you need young plants for these scones. Although spring is the best time, you can cut down older plants later in the year and wait for the new growth.

Gathering stinging nettles in colander with violets growing beside

Picking Stinging Nettles

Pick the top six or seven leaves from young nettle plants, cutting them straight into a colander so that you don’t have to handle them. Alternatively, wear gardening gloves to avoid stinging your hands. Rinse the leaves, picking out any stray blades of grass, and tip the stinging nettle leaves into a bowl. Pour enough boiling water into the bowl to cover the nettles and leave them to wilt for a couple of minutes. Hey presto, the leaves don’t sting any more. Honestly. Fish them out, squeeze out the excess water and make a batch of scones using the recipe below.

 

Stinging Nettle Scones

Needless to say, these scones are best eaten warm, spread generously with butter.

Go on, be brave and give them a go.

 

How to make Stinging Nettle Scones

Nettle Scones

 

Recipe for Stinging Nettle Scones

 

To make Stinging Nettle Scones:

225g plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Pinch of salt

60g butter, cubed

Tops of 7 or 8 nettles wilted, drained and squeezed dry (see above)

1 tablespoon of chopped chives

40g strong cheddar cheese cubed

2 dessertspoons plain yoghurt

Milk

 

Put the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and rub in the butter.

Chop the nettles and add to the bowl with the chives and cheese.

Stir in the yoghurt and enough milk to bring the mixture together in a soft but not sticky dough. Tip out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly pat into a round about 4 cms thick. Cut into 4 (or 6) wedges and put them close together on a lightly greased baking sheet.

Brush the tops with milk and bake 220C for about 15 minutes when they should be risen and golden. Wrap in a tea towel and transfer to a wire tray.

Best eaten warm. Liberally spread with butter.