Smart Consumer: I took the sting out of pricey produce -- by eating nettle soup!
There's a wealth of goodness just waiting in your local hedgerow, writes Bill Tyson
Why do we pay a fiver a punnet for imported blueberries when there are lots of free and organic native berries waiting to be picked?
Are you trying to trim your food costs?
Or maybe you'd like some tasty organic produce but can't get it in your local shop?
Well, there is a supermarket with branches nationwide that is organic, open 24/7, and completely free -- your local woodland or hedgerow!
The Irish countryside and suburbs are full of tasty nutritious foods that fed our grandparents, but we forgot all about it when we embraced shopping as a way of life.
We probably drive past thousands of delicious blackberries on our way to the supermarket to fork out a fiver for a handful of their imported American cousins -- blueberries.
There are lots of other Irish berries as well as blackberries ripening nicely at the moment -- elderberries, sloes, and damsons for example -- that are perfect for making tasty treats.
"When I was growing up we all used to pick blackberries for jams and tarts," says Zoe Devlin, founder of the guide to Irish flora wildflowersofireland.net.
Zoe feels that these habits are coming back now that the recession has given people a new ethos of self-sufficiency.
Ireland has a huge tradition of living off the land. One reason we have so many blackberries is that brambles were protected under Brehon laws to preserve a food source for the community.
People on this island didn't always buy pricey imported products -- they made jams and drinks from our many native berries, or picked herbs, nettles and what we regard as pesky weeds and turned them into soups and stews.
However, Zoe warns novice foragers to be sure they know exactly what they are picking (see poisons.ie for a guide to our poisonous plants).
Another site, wildfood school.co.uk, provides a free downloadable guide to the plants on these islands.
However, novice foragers should stick to plants they know to start with. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Blackberries are easily identifiable, with no deadly cousins lurking in the bushes.
They are also one of the top 10 superfoods rated alongside the much promoted and much more expensive imported goji and acai berries.
Apparently the darker the berry the more "good stuff" is packed into it and you can't go much darker than black!
Blackberries are very high in antioxidants, which fight cancer and heart disease. They're also packed with manganese and vitamin C to boost your immune system.
Apart from that, blackberries are delicious when heated.
Pop a handful in your porridge, or make jam, tarts or pies (they go very well with apple).
For a low-calorie treat, zap a bowl of them in the microwave and eat with a little natural yoghurt or instant custard.
It's getting a bit late in the season but there are still plenty of late-ripening berries on hedgerows that don't face the sun, advises Gerry Scullion, who grew up in a fairly rural spot rich in brambles outside Monaghan town.
"You should soak them for an hour or so and then pick out the few worms that may have been feeding on them, before you make your jam etc . . . unless you want some added protein!" he advises.
Gerry continues a family tradition with a bit of foraging but the few punnets he collects are put in the shade by the exploits of his predecessors.
"My dad was the second youngest of 13. In October the kids would be sent out to fill a 40-gallon barrel with blackberries. His parents would then sell it to buy shoes for the winter! That puts things in perspective," he says.
But if you want to pick blackberries, make sure you get out there before the legendary 'púca' (a Gaelic Goblin) gets at the crop on October 31!
There's an old belief that blackberries shouldn't be eaten after Hallowe'en as that's when the púca either wees or spits on them, apparently. And there is an element of logic in that as the berries are probably turning mouldy by then.
Sloes or haws are red or orange berries found on hawthorn trees, which are quite common in hedgerows and woodlands.
They are at their best after the first frost, so we are coming up to the perfect time to pick them now.
They are supposed to be bitter but I found them just a little bland and with large seeds that take up most of the berry.
However, they do make a good jam and are especially prized for sloe gin.
Zoe advises: "Prick them with a darning needle and steep them in a mixture of white sugar and gin. Shake from time to time. Strain after a good few months and drink."
She can't vouch for any health benefits -- in fact it should carry a health warning! "It's looney soup!" she says.
Elderberries look like clusters of tiny little black grapes. But be careful, they can provoke a reaction in some people who haven't eaten them before. Test your reactions by biting a berry without eating it and if there is no reaction wait for a few hours before eating the rest.
However, the health benefits outweigh the risks and the berries have "recognisable anti-viral properties comparable with the echinaces," according to Gerry, who's qualified in biotechnology.
Elderberry flowers can be also used to make a low-alcohol "champagne" along the lines of ginger beer, which just takes a few days to brew and is delicious as well as bubbly, he says.
Zoe is also a fan of the elderberry. Her daughter makes "a great vitamin C-rich cordial which she doses her family with when the sniffles arrive, although it needs to be strained carefully as it's full of pips."
Nettles are as easily recognisable as a bully that terrorised you throughout your childhood.
And there's probably something psychologically as well as physically healthy about eating the little feckers now.
What better way to 'get closure' on years of torment than tracking down the bullies, lopping off their heads, boiling them and slurping the lot down?
Nettles, as all their victims will know well, have spiky green leaves with stingy little white 'hairs' and grow in damp spots near hedgerows and woodlands.
To get tender young shoots and avoid the fibrous bits further down, simply lop off the heads, using gloves, of course.
Fry a chopped onion and two cloves of garlic in a saucepan, add in the nettle tops and a couple of cups of water, and flour depending on how thick you want your soup.
Simmer it until it thickens and liquidise. If you have no liquidiser, then just chop very small and simmer for longer.
The sting is caused by an acid in the leaf, which is neutralised by heat, and apparently also by chopping and crushing.
Next comes the hard part. Shoving a spoonful of nettles into your mouth is not easy. But once you get over the fear, they are quite tasty with a sweet zesty flavour -- a bit like spinach, but without the aftertaste.
Some people say you should only eat nettles in the spring as they have an acid at other times that can cause a reaction.
Unfortunately, I only reached that part of the research after gulping down two bowls of nettle soup. But there have been no ill-effects -- yet!