Bread & Cheese
I snatch at some of the zippily coloured new leaves as I pass and stuff them in my mouth shouting,
Does anyone want any hawthorn?!
to the others who are up ahead.The answer is no, nobody wants a mouthful of these waxy, faintly bitter and unpleasant leaves. But I persist.
Are you sure? They used to call it bread and cheese in the olden days you know? I don’t know why, it doesn’t taste anything like bread or cheese. It’s horrible. Blargh.
I swallow. I’m not dead or even in mild discomfort though so I nip off another bundle of young leaves and chew on them.
Blargh. Are you sure you don’t want some?
My friends remain untempted, clambering over a stile in their wellies. I shrug and run after them over the stile towards the small, brown river where we are going to catch crayfish.
It turns out that lots of edible plants such as shamrock, sorrel and mallow went and still go by the name ‘bread and cheese‘. It was a name used by children for anything they could grab a few leaves of and cram in their faces as they ran past during a long day of playing out which wouldn’t make them vomit up their dinner. The delicious sounding moniker arose from a time where cheap fastfood wasn’t an option and hungry children plucked their snacks from the hedgerows.
Indeed it wasn’t only children, hungry colliers in 1753 protesting the exportation of much needed grain from the port of Bristol were reported to have plundered the hedgerows in a desperate attempt to fill their bellies with hawthorn. In short, this gnarly, spiky little tree represents much more than a just a garden ornament and this is why I find myself choking down the new growth on a Sunday in Bedforshire.
It is as though a door opens by a crack in front of me when I discover the eatability of something that previously blurred in to the countryside. If I stare through the crack I can try and see the hundreds and thousands of children galloping through the fields over the decades and tipping a bundle of leaves in to their mouths as they run past. I can see the grim faces of dirt poor colliers as they ferret about in the branches, I can hear the rumbles in their bellies. I can see a hundred thousand housewives mashing up haw berries and boiling them for jelly, rolling their eyes and feeding the juice to griping husbands with sore throats. I like to catch a glimpse of my own father, resplendant in schoolboy shorts with knobbly 1950’s knees out and proud. It’s nice to see him run past, chewing on a leaf or two, maybe spitting it out because it tastes horrid.
But I digress.
You will literally eat anything won’t you?
Says Jamie backing away and shaking his head as I try to force a bunch of leaves in his mouth. His lips disappear in to a thin, white line with the force of his mouth clamping. I give up and drop the leaves in to my own mouth, grimacing at the taste.
But it’s not about the taste really, it’s about knowing what is all around me for the taking and the snacking. The idea that, if I should even be genuinely hungry or even just making some feeble attempt at self sufficiency, then I would at least know where to begin.
At the moment the shiny new growth pokes out, limey green against the shadowey old growth and we are only in spring. Come October though, I can come back and pick the berries which I can use in a million exciting ways. It turns out that my father-in-law’s well intentioned attempt at schnapps upon the advice of an Austrian relative was with hawthorn berries. The concoction of piles of damply preserved yellow berries in a thin puddle of vodka was more the result of a love of money saving than one of foraging but nonetheless it gives me an idea. Hawthorn Bounce?! Could it work? I will try it this October and let you know.
Hawthorn berries can also be used to make a dusky tasting, slightly appley fruit leather, a set jelly, a pleasant tasting juice and can be combined with beautiful tasting rosehips to make a sort of jam. And the good news is that not only can the the berries and leaves of the lovely hawthorn be turned in to a plethora of freeby foodstuffs but they are also said to be full of flavonoids which, according to some knowledgable sounding folk at The South China Institute Of Botany, are shown to have
antioxidative activity, free-radical scavenging capacity, coronary heart disease prevention and
anticancer activity, while some flavonoids exhibit potential for anti-human immunodeficiency virus functions
Which is nice.
I leave you with an incredibly useful recipe for hawthorn jelly which I will return to post haste in October when the trees are fruiting. I’m sure it will be wildly exciting.
Can be dried in slices to make fruit leather, eaten as it is, perhaps as an alternative to mebrillo (Spanish quince paste) and served with cheese or combined with boiled rosehips for a beautiful fruit butter with which to adorn ones toast.
1kg ripe hawthorn berries
apple juice (optional)
Put the berries in a bowl and mash them up with a potato masher or the end of a rolling pin. Add a mug of water and mash together with your hands. Add further water until you have the right consistancy to strain the mixture through a sieve and end up with enough juice left in the bowl to do something with. Hawthorn berries are very high in pectin to the less water, the harder it sets.
This strained mixture will begin to set immediately so if you wish to add the other ingredients heat it in a saucepan adding sugar, juice and your chosen spices until you have the desired sweetness and flavour.
Leave to cool and solidify then use as you wish. The jelly, when sliced thinly, can be dried in the sun or a low oven to make the fruit leather. We’ll get to rosehips another time.
You can, if you like, use hawthorn leaves in a hedgerow salad of such stalwarts as young dandelion leaves, wild garlic, lemon sorrel and beech leaves but again, perhaps let’s talk on that some other evening.