Well this is unfortunate. Because of the cold weather lately, and spring’s late start, foraging was already slow. Then, this week, the snow came:
With leafy early-spring staples like ramsons, three-cornered leeks and jack-by-the-hedge all lost in snowdrifts, we’ve had to look elsewhere for wild food.
One thing we’ve been experimenting with is collecting birch sap. Birch sap is one of the most seasonal delights the wild has to offer. It only runs for a couple of weeks every spring, so you have to be ready to catch it when it does. This season, though, it’s been a bit erratic because of the temperature bobbing up and down above and below freezing. Early this week we decided to tap a few trees, mainly because birch trees were one of the few things still visible above the snow. Tapping a tree is a simple, but strange, process. We drilled a small hole (again, the trusty power drill got an outing) and inserted a length of piping. Just like tapping a keg. Sort of.
The sap that drips slowly down the pipe and collects in the bottle tastes like bottled spring water. The sugar content is not very high, but enough to detect a slight, pleasant sweetness, and enough that the liquid is visibly thicker than water. It’s possible to boil the sap down to make a sugar syrup, as is done with maple sap to make maple syrup, but as the birch doesn’t have such a distinctive taste, and the sugar content is so low that we’d need gallons and gallons of the stuff to make a significant amount, we decided to try something different. We’re going to make it into beer.
This year we’re planning to experiment a lot with wild ingredients in brewing, and birch sap beer will be the first test brew. Traditional birch wine is a fairly common wild drink, usually made by adding flavourings and a bit of extra sugar to raw birch sap and fermenting it. My plan for a new kind of birch beer, though, is to use the sap instead of water in brewing a refreshing European wheat beer. In ordinary beer, grains are steeped in hot water to extract and convert usable sugars which will be fermented into alcohol. The idea is to steep the grain in birch sap, which should have the same effect – the sap’s natural sugar adding extra strength and body to the beer. I’m also considering using birch twigs or bark as a bittering agent. Lots of things to try!
That will have to wait for a few days, though, because the sap has been refusing to co-operate. The day after tapping the trees, I showed up to collect the liquid, and sure enough each of the four bottles had collected about a litre of sap. A slight problem though – the sap in the tubes was frozen solid. We’re still managing to collect sap, but it’s a slow process – every morning I go back to the woods, collect the sap, clear out the pipes, scrape out the plug of ice that forms in the hole in the tree and reset the empty bottle. With any luck, now that the weather seems to be warming up, the sap will be flowing freely, and I’ll finally have enough to get brewing.
I should mention that we were careful to get permission from the owner of the wood before we took our drill to his birches. Also, when we’re finished collecting sap, we’ll be careful to plug up the holes, as leaving them open could lead to potentially fatal bacterial infections for the tree. To do this we keep a supply of the hard wooden pegs or ‘spiles’ that are normally used to vent and seal casks of real ale at The Verulam Arms.
All this trudging through snow and fighting against ice got me thinking – what would our hunter-gatherer ancestors have eaten in wintry times like these, when our favourite wild plants are nowhere to be found? Then, this morning, Gerald and Tommy arrived to remind me of one food source that remains plentiful all year round. While I’d been wandering the forest collecting sap, they’d had an entirely different morning. A visiting hunting party had killed two fallow deer, but didn’t want the meat. (A lot of hunters, rather wastefully, are only interested in the head and antlers as a trophy.)
That meant that a lot of meat was up for grabs, and Gerald and Tommy were able to get a good price for it from the farmer who had organised the hunt. There was one catch – they had to skin the deer themselves. Here are their innocent faces before beginning the task, which they described as “more difficult than you’d expect.”
After helping haul them into the storeroom, I can confirm that these two weighty deer will translate to a huge amount of meat. This much in fact:
And nothing’s going to waste – our friend Kev from Woodland Ways is even going to tan the hide. With any luck, the thaw will continue and I’ll have more foraging news for you soon, and an update on my birch brewing experiment. Until next time!