Wildfood for Free: Summertime Foraging -Bilberries / Froghan

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I spent a lovely summer morning this Saturday catching up with a friend and picking bilberries on the Sugarloaf Mountain, Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow.  Unfortunately the rain which appeared out of nowhere (it is Ireland after all) cut my foraging short but I managed to pick enough berries to make a dessert; Bilberry & Apple Crumble -dairy & sugar free of course!
 
Bilberries (Vaccinium Myrtillus) grow wild on high ground in Ireland from May to September, peaking in July.  The plant can often be found growing amongst the gorse and heather of the hillsides and mountain slopes.  The low lying bushy shrub with narrow, slightly toothed green to rust coloured leaves hides clusters of little black berries which resemble small blueberries.  Although they are similar in taste to blueberries, they are a different species with a more distinctive, deeper and tarter taste.  This was my first time foraging Bilberries and I quickly learnt that they can be a bit painstaking to gather, as they are hidden on the underside of the plant and are not easily accessible.  It took me nearly two hours to find and pick a cup full, but it was a pleasant warm morning with beautiful views over Wicklow as my favourite Swallows darted overhead.  I also saw a wild Hare for the first time, which I got very excited about!
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Bilberries are known as Fraochán or Froghan in Irish.  They are the first wild berry to ripen here and as such were historically a highly prized food source linked to the Celtic Festival of Lunasagh when the first fruits of the harvest were celebrated. The berries were traditionally made in to Froghan Cakes, as well eaten raw, used medicinally and as a dye.  According to Irish folklore, the berries are not to be picked after August 1st as the faeries spit on the fruits that night, bringing bad luck!
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Me picking the berries :-)

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Froghan berries and green/rust coloured leaves

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Froghan nestled in between purple Heather and yellow Gorse, with the rolling Wicklow hills behind

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As with all foraging, chose a plant away from pollution and traffic fumes.  Given the remote places in which Froghan grows, this is thankfully much easier with bilberries compared to foraging some other wild plants.  Always ensure that you do not pick the entire crop of berries so that wild animals (and faeries!) can still benefit from the food source.

I used sweet eating apples rather than cooking apples for this recipe as bilberries are quite tart and I wanted the crumble to be a little sweeter.  If you don’t have a high powered food processor you could use 3/4 cup oat flour (which is essentially finely milled oats) and 1/4 cup oats, or just use 1 cup of rolled oats and chop the nuts and dates in to small pieces by hand. This quantity will make 4 – 6 individual ramekins.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 heaped cup berries
  • 3 diced apples
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 4 tbsp date syrup
  • Seeds of 1 large vanilla pod
  • 8 dates
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 1/4 cup walnut halves
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 3 tbsp coconut oil
  • Sprinkle cinnamon to taste

Put the apples and orange juice in to a pan and stir over a medium-low heat for about three minutes until the apples begin to soften.  Add the seeds and pod of a vanilla pod, along with the berries and stir gently for a further three minutes.  Remove the vanilla pod and spoon the mixture, including all of the juice, in to a baking dish or individual ramekins.  Bake the mixture in a 170 degrees celsius oven for ten minutes, while you make the crumble topping. Put the dates in a bowl of very hot or boiling water for two minutes to soften.  Place 3/4 cup of the oats in to a powerful food processor, along with the almonds, walnuts and dates.  (Make sure that you remember to take the stones out of the dates first! I completely forgot and nearly broke my tooth when I took a bite! Doh!) When the mixture resembles bread crumbs, transfer to a bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 cup oats and the sunflower seeds, along with the softened coconut oil and mix until everything is thoroughly combined and coated with oil. Spoon the crumble topping on top of the baked fruit and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes or so, until browned and bubbling.  Serve with your choice or cream or ice cream.

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