The Fermenting Forager, Week Ending 8/23/2020

Summer is full of flowers and fruit. Since I generally avoid sweets, I don’t eat jams, jellies, pies and other such treats. Instead, this year I’m fermenting my summer forage. Hopefully the yeast consumes the majority of the sugar, leaving behind a tasty, boozy drink.

I’ve explored fermentation previously in a variety of ways: kombucha, sourdough, kimchi, vinegar, and even my own yogurt. OK, some of that isn’t fermentation but culturing. Same idea though; using microbes to make the nutrients in your food more bioavailable, improving health via beneficial flora and fauna for the gut, and/or preserving food for long term. But none of these were the boozy variety of fermenting either.

Luckily Forage, Harvest, Feast provides several recipes. (Yes, I am something of a Marie Viljoen groupie. No, I don’t get any kickbacks. I simply love her book and her work!) Best of all, she even includes cocktail recipes that use the fermented goodies, so you aren’t left with a cordial you don’t know how to use. This was the unfortunate end of my knotweed liqueur from last year, where it just sat in a cabinet unused because I couldn’t decide how to drink it. Finally I threw it out because it was taking up valuable space!

Fermented Elderflower Cordial (p. 125)

Earlier this summer, I started the fermented elderflower cordial. But I completely forgot it was in my refrigerator until a week ago, when I started working on a milkweed ferment and an elderberry ferment. The result tastes something like a white wine, or a less sweet and more herbal aperitif like Lillet Blanc or dry vermouth.

Once I remembered the cordial, I rushed to use it on the “Ingrid Bergman” cocktail (p 126). I didn’t have the elderflower vinegar to make the shrub, so I used regular white wine vinegar instead. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for the drink. I wonder if my elderflower cordial is “off” somehow, because Viljoen describes the cordial as being bubbly and mine certainly was not. Or maybe I just don’t like drinks with that much gin. Or shrubs. Like, at all.

Fermented Common Milkweed Flower Cordial (p.95)

Late August should not be the time to harvest milkweed flowers. But when the field across the street was mowed at the end of June, all those milkweed plants had to start over from scratch. Two months later, they are finally back at the flower stage, while other plants in this area are almost done producing seeds.

When harvesting milkweed flowers, be very careful for the small creatures which also enjoy the flowers. I avoid any flower cluster that seems particularly crowded, especially if I spot monarch caterpillars.

A monarch caterpillar dining on milkweed flowers
A monarch caterpillar dining on milkweed flowers

The ailanthus webworm moth is a fan, as are bees, wasps, flies, and all manner of flying insects.

Ailanthus webworm moths completely covered the milkweed flowers
Ailanthus webworm moths completely covered the milkweed flowers

After cutting the flowers, I left them in the shade for a few hours so other critters could vacate. Tiny white spiders in particular were hard to get rid of, and I had to shake the flowers as I was cutting them into the liquid to help dislodge the most stubborn of them.

The cordial has been fermenting for seven days now, and has turned a very fetching shade of pink. However, it doesn’t seem to be quite as active as I think it should be based on the description in the book. There’s only a small amount of “fizzy” to it. I’ll leave it a while longer and see if anything ever develops.

Pretty pink milkweed cordial in progress
Pretty pink milkweed cordial in progress

Fermented Elderberry Syrup (p. 136)

The local elderberries are ripe now too. Actually, it’s a bit late – many clusters of fruit are already completely bare, ravaged by the local bird population.

A cluster of elderberries, perfect for picking
A cluster of elderberries, perfect for picking

Luckily I have plenty for the birds and me; we still have leftover berries from last year’s harvest!

Rule #1 of elderberries: never eat the fruit raw! The seeds are poisonous, but the poison is inactivated by cooking. And fermenting, apparently. The challenge for making a fermented syrup is that you need the berries fresh. The wild yeast living on the fruit is the source of the fermentation. Normally I would freeze the berries to make them easier to destem, but that compromises the yeast.

My hand stained with elderberry juice
My hand stained with elderberry juice

I feel like I’m doing something wrong with this one because the sugar keeps settling to the bottom of the jar. I shake it at least once a day, but the sugar settles right back out.

(I wish I’d realized sooner there was a fermented elderberry caper recipe in the book too… definitely something to try next year.)

As a side note: we have so many elderberries leftover because partway into flu season, COVID-19 became a “thing.” And people more knowledgeable than me suggested that elderberry syrup could actually make COVID-19 worse rather than better. Since I couldn’t be sure one way or the other, I opted to stop using elderberry syrup. I had even been experimenting with making the syrup into gummies to make the kids more amenable. Ah, well.

**NOTE: for both the milkweed cordial and fermented elderberry syrup, I placed the glass jars in dishes of water to prevent a sugar ant invasion. They can’t cross the “moat” of water, which keeps the sweet liquids inside safe.

Blackberry Elderberry Wine

(See, I occasionally range outside of Forage, Harvest, Feast!)

I also am experimenting with wine, mostly as a way to use up blackberries and elderberries I still had leftover in the freezer from last year. I’m using the recipe here as a guidepost. So far we’ve racked it once, and fermentation has definitely slowed but not stopped. Sometime around next March it should be ready to enjoy … assuming I remember its existence!

Have you tried making any wild wines, meads, cordials, or other fermented foods? What is your favorite way to use summertime forage?

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