Mahonia Madness!

I have never been a fan of the Mahonia, perhaps because it is such a common ‘car park ‘plant, and perhaps because I struggle a little with yellow flowers in design terms : brash, harsh, hard to combine with other colours. Although there is a moment in midwinter, when these fragrant panicles are very beautiful Mahonia 'Winter Sun' - Mahonia x media - arbuste And probably have some benefits in supporting foraging insects. My middle school had these planted en masse in the dry shady areas around the buildings : I never noticed them flowering, but remember looking at their scruffy habit, and dirty looking berries, and wondering why someone had bothered.

The Frederick Messer Estate, which is my short cut route to Seven Sisters Tube Station, is my prime foraging ground  :

and I noticed a few weeks ago, that the Mahonias, part of the rather lumpen planting around the car park and playground, are in full fruit : at a time of year when nothing else is. IMAG0932 It took me about 10 minutes to pick a couple of kilos : so much easier than blackberries, which have to be teased singly from high thorny branches, these can be picked like blackcurrants, just by pulling off a whole panicle at a time. The fruit was very ripe, though : and this did happen. IMAG0933 Two women stopped to talk to me about the fruit, saying they had no idea they were edible : raw, they are bitter and stony, but they do cook up into very nice jelly, and with any luck a rather cheeky Mahonia Merlot! I shared my intentions with them, and hope they will look a little more kindly on their planting as a result.

Mahonia Grape Jelly

  1. Wash the fruit, and pick out any pits of stick, leaf, or berry sized snails you may find. IMAG0936
  2. Weigh them, and add a roughly equal amount of sugar, and some water. I did a kilo at a time, and added about ½ a litre of water.
  3. Bring to the boil, keep stirring, and after about 10-15 minutes, start testing the set, by putting a little of the liquid onto a plate, and checking whether it wrinkles up when you push it. Standard jammaking practice.
  4. When you think it is ready, pour the jelly through a sieve into another pan, then into sterilised jars. IMAG0939

The flavour is not unlike blueberry : not as tart as blackcurrant, but still very agreeable, on a piece of home made sourdough! IMAG0945 Mahonia Merlot. 1.Tip the contents of your sieve which still contains plenty of fruit, plenty of sugar, back into the pan, fill with water, mix and add some ordinary breadmaking dried yeast.IMAG0943 2.Leave it over night to start fermenting, then sieve again and bottle. I have used two litre fizzy drinks bottles, and followed my method for ginger beer and elderflower champagne, which is to keep the bottles closed, and vent regularly. I think you have to keep the air out, for alcohol to be made, although maybe keeping the bottles closed just makes the wine fizzy as it develops alcohol. 3. I am intending to keep it in the bottles until the sugar is all used up, then taste it and maybe add more sugar or more water. I think that at a certain point, the alcohol will kill off the yeast, and the wine will be ready to bottle.IMAG0947   Whenever I present someone for the first time with alcohol I have made, they always express a fear of it being ‘the wrong kind of alcohol’ and that it could cause madness and even death. In fact ethanol alcohol (C2H6O) is quite different from methanol (CH3OH), as Wikipedia will tell you, ethanol is easily made by fermenting a solution of sugar and water ( or fruit!) : its part of nature’s way of recycling fruit : we’ve all seen drunk wasps in the orchard in September! Cheers!


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