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Here are the photos from our recent attempt to harvest some birch sap, which I posted about a few weeks ago.
The first picture shows our respective His ‘n’ Hers setups: his is the green bottle, mine is the white. We both whittled sticks to use as “straws” to guide the sap from the cut in the tree and into the bottle.
On this second attempt we both collected about 200ml, which isn’t much (pro collectors will harvest litres from each tree) but that may be as much to do with the location of the trees as our methods: the landscape around is very dry and these particularly trees were on a steep slope quite a way from any water source.
This is how the cut James made looked the following day. We didn’t have any beech tar or equivalent so hope that the other internet sources who claim that the method of cutting a flap and then just pressing it back down afterwards doesn’t damage the tree are right! The ants were enjoying their bounty anyway.
And this is a gratuitous pic of James and DD on their way up the hill to find the bottles. There might only be two silver birch trees, but it is very beautiful here.
Since this walk we’re actively spotting birch trees whenever we’re out in the car. Today, on the way up to Belcaire, we spotted quite a few in the woods so we have until next year to get our walking legs on and find a good spot for the next year’s harvest.
One of the many things I love about this place is the abundance of wild food. When we arrived the trees were loaded with fruits and nuts – figs, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds. Locals in the know were busy helping themselves, taking baskets along on their walks so they could collect whatever they found.
Then there was the apple and pear harvest, where locals harvested fruit from their own orchards (or individual trees) and sent the fruit off to a local pressing co-operative, returning with the freshest of apple juice, perfect for quenching the thirst as is or for leaving bottled to allow natural fermentation to occur, resulting in a very tasty cider later in the year.
Then there are the nuts and seeds to be foraged from woodland: mushrooms, which I don’t know enough about to pick, and sweet chestnuts, which we didn’t have time to go out and collect but were lucky enough to be given some by a friend along with information on the best sources locally, noted for this year.
Then everything slowed down, dying back over winter, but now spring is here nature is starting to provide once again. The first hint of this came when a week ago a friend posted on Facebook that the sap was rising, making it the perfect time to collect birch sap, something I’d wanted to do for a while, and asking if anyone wanted to visit her in the mountains and spend a few days working the trees there. It turned out James had been thinking about doing this too, quite independently, but as we were busy getting ready for our move a couple of days away wasn’t very practical. We decided instead to find out what to do and take ourselves off on a walk from the gite to find any local trees and have a go at tapping the sap from those. After an evening spent Googling and watching various videos on YouTube we were ready to go.
We were keen to avoid an extra shopping trip so decided to try a simple and low-cost method that uses a knife to pierce the bark and an old plastic water bottle suspended around the tree to collect the sap. The videos made it look so easy but of course it was a little more difficult in practice. The first hurdle though was finding a birch tree. On our exploratory walk we walked a couple of miles and found just two trees! The walk itself was pretty eventful, as DD practically ran up the hill, no less than 200 metre as good as straight up, but given our mission was to find birch trees it wasn’t a great success. Accessing the two trees was pretty tricky too as they were quite a way from the track, which meant scrambling through brambles and bushes – not popular with a now shattered DD and not easy with DD on my back. We made it to the tree and James managed to rig up a fairly simple bottle in the short time we had before the two smalls got really restless and we had to go back.
The next morning James went back to check the bottle and see how we’d done. There was about 200ml – not bad. We agreed that it would be good to leave the bottle there longer and also to try and refine our method, plus I wanted to try it for myself, which meant skipping the walk and heading straight for the trees, so we would have time to set things up before the two little ones got restless again. We waited until after lunch then headed out. It was a beautiful day and nice to be out in the fresh air. I sat and supervised the smalls while James popped up to the tree to set up his kit, then we swapped over. DS entertained himself playing with sticks and rocks while DD ran about taking photos and pretending to be various animals (tigers, primarily). I nearly took my eye out walking through a bramble that was so thin and straggley it was barely visible, but apart from that it was pretty uneventful and straightforward.
Returning the next day we both had pretty much the same amount – 200ml – so no great shakes there, but what we had tasted delicious. It didn’t last long, unfortunately, but was a good experience and something we hope to repeat next year when we have more time and also, hopefully, have more trees to work with. The two we found possibly weren’t the best – it’s very dry over here and they were on the hillside, quite a distance from a source of water – so between now and next year we can keep our eyes peeled when we’re out for some better locations. We may also try to refine our gear, opting for an alternative method. James is keen to try a method that involves drilling a hole then plugging it with a dowel and I’d like to try the method advocated by Fergus the Forager on his website, which collects smaller quantities off individual branches rather than tapping the trunk. If we can harvest more sap then there’s the potential we can boil it down to make syrup, much like maple syrup but more labour-intensive as the ratios for birch syrup are 100:1 rather than the 40:1 for maple. I’d love to try it. Since we are trying (mostly successfully) to avoid sugar the idea of a homemade natural sweetener is very appealing! I used to love bacon and maple pancakes, but we forego them nowadays. With homemade syrup it would be a treat we could all look forward to. Heck, I’m already looking forward to it just thinking about it!
I have some photos somewhere, so if I can just find my camera in amongst all the boxes in here I’ll share them in a new post.
Share you wild food stories! What wild foods do you have on your doorstep? Do you have any good recipes?