Urban Foraging: Wild Cherry Brandy
There is so much we walk past and do not see. When I am out on our daily stroll, or when I take a walk in the woods at the weekend, I think I am observant. I think I am enjoying my surroundings, appreciating nature. But how much do I actually see? And how much more do I miss?
Elle and I moved out to the edge of our town 4 years ago; surrounded by houses, but only a stone's throw from the countryside. During those 4 years, we have been on hundreds of walks around the local area, exploring the avenues and cul-de-sacs with the same enthusiasm as the footpaths and bridleways.
Yet, it has only been in the last 12 months or so that I have really begun to notice what we have growing around us. Since lockdown, during our daily walks in the area around our home, I have been surprised to find so much wildlife and natural beauty: hares weaving through fields, housemartins swooping low between the buildings, delicate pink dog roses clambering through the hedgerows. It had never occurred to me that there would still be so much diversity in this thin borderland between town and country.
In their 2011 Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts borrowed the term 'edgelands' from Marion Shoard's 2002 eponymous essay to look creatively at these spaces: to see what these strange landscapes of modern life have, rather than just what lack. This is exactly what we are discovering around us. Allotments, building sites, railway lines, and those dark, dank margins of trees that separate different sections of our housing estate. It turns out there is a strange vitality here.
More than anything, it has been the foraging opportunities that have surprised me. Within a 10 minute walk from our house, we have found wild fennel, sloes, raspberries, blackberries, apples and crab apples, rosehips, sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, elderflowers/elderberries and, most recently, wild cherries.
This latest find came as a real surprise. Often, the natural, uncultivated version of a plant is hard to tally with the artificially 'enhanced' wares we find for sale in the supermarket, but wild cherries are cherries: perhaps a little smaller, but immediately recognisable, beautifully formed, and (most importantly) delicious!
Aside from the fruit, cherry trees are also instantly identifiable by either their stunning, heavy blossom in Spring, or their uniquely banded trunks and branches, with irregular, horizontal white rings across the surface of the bark.
Once you spot wild cherries, you'll need to keep a close eye on them if you're to catch them ripe before the birds do. Easier to spot when they're bright red, you'll need to wait until they are very dark before they are ready. They have a knack for hiding behind the leaves, so it helps to lift the branches up and forage from beneath. Don't be greedy, but collect as many as you can use, since you can guarantee there probably won't be any left if you come back for seconds!
Don't be greedy, but collect as many as you can use, since you can guarantee there probably won't be any left if you come back for seconds!
Once you have collected your wild cherries, we highly advise giving them a good wash, and checking them carefully for any unwelcome visitors. Insects are just as likely to be tempted by the cherry’s soft dark red flesh, so check for holes and discard any that look like they've already been somebody else's dinner! Usually any small unwelcome maggots show their heads moments after picking, making this a little easier.
Wild Cherry Brandy:
500g wild cherries
200g caster sugar
A fork or skewer for piercing
A 1 litre sterilised jar, with an airtight lid
A sterilised funnel
Thoroughly wash the wild cherries (as discussed above).
There’s no need to remove the stones from your cherries; simply prick each cherry a few times with a sharp fork or a skewer, and add them to your sterilised jar.
Add the sugar to the jar, using your funnel if you have a narrow necked jar like ours!
Now add your brandy. The sugar should start to dissolve slowly. Seal the jar tightly and shake it to combine. You may find it takes a while for the sugar to dissolve fully.
Store in a cool cupboard or larder for 4 months (so it will be ready in time for Christmas!) We give ours an occasional shake, especially in the first few weeks. When ready, decant into smaller bottles, removing the cherries.