Sea buckthorn season’s here! As temperatures drop and birds start migrating southwards, this is the period that sea buckthorn berries are ripe for them to munch on. And, if we’re lucky and live in the vicinity of these wild prickly bushes (or a well-equipped veg store), for us to enjoy as well.
Buckthorn berries add tons of flavour to anything you pair them with. So if you can get your hands on a freshly foraged or freshly bought batch of them, now’s the time to head into the kitchen and make the most of these tart little gems.
How to forage for sea buckthorn berries
Sea buckthorn bushes are adjusted to grow in sandy, calcareus soil, which means you’re likely to find them along the shoreline. Sometimes, though, they are also planted in public areas to serve as prickly fences or as pick-your-own spots. So even if you don’t live near the sea, you may yet have the opportunity to go out on a berry picking trip.
Picking buckthorn berries is less straight-forward than picking raspberries or blueberries and when you take up the courage to go foraging for them, it’s best to come prepared. Roughly, there are three ways to go about it.
- Head into the bushes with a bucket and your fingers and try to pick the berries as you would any other ripe fruit. This will most likely get you home sore and disappointed. The berries are packed closely to the branches, surrounded by long, needle-sharp thorns. Furthermore, they’re connected to the branch with tiny stems which are as firmly attached to the branch as they are to the berries. So, once you’ve been able to evade the thorns and squeeze your fingers around a single berry, instead of it coming neatly off the branch, it will, more probably, pop and splatter you with juice. As will the next one.
- A more successful approach is to head out with a pair of pointed scissors. With its long beak you can easily snip off the berries at the stems without the risk of squishing them. It’s a fun and mindful activity to tackle with a friend, while leaving the bushes intact. This method certainly guarantees the birds will still have enough provisions for the road after you’ve left, because it is quite labour intensive! I may have been slow because I was chatting at the same time, but collecting this particular 300 g batch of berries took me 2½ hours. I like to tell myself that you can taste the love and attention in the final culinary outcome…
- A very time effective alternative is to get in there with a pair of garden scissors instead. If you cut off the berry-carrying branches and trim off the leafy ends, you only need to tip them in the freezer when you get home. Leave them until the berries are completely frozen, then gently tap the branches and the berries will come rolling off effortlessly. This method is subject to discussion, though, because it’s obviously more invasive when it comes to the bushes. Some people say there’s no problem, because the bushes regrow very fast; others claim vigorous trimming does shorten their lifespan. In my case, as I was foraging in just a small bunch of publicly planted bushes, the choice was easy. I just took a small branch to photograph at home and test the freezing trick on and then stuck to the more time intensive labour of love.
How to prepare sea buckthorn berries
Fresh off the bush, sea buckthorn berries taste very sour, sometimes even bitter. When you add a little sweetener to the freshly pressed juice, though, the sharp edges disappear, revealing a tart citrus and passionfruit-like flavour. You can drink the juice as is, for a super shot of vitamin C, or use its concentrated flavour to add a bit of punch to smoothies and desserts.
When you heat the berries, you can turn them into jam, sauces or syrup, combining them with other fruits and flavours to your liking. I cooked my freshly foraged batch down to make a warm fruit sauce, adding some lemon juice, orange zest, grated ginger and a spoonful of cane sugar.
The resulting sauce is fresh, tart and fruity, with a warming kick from the ginger. It pairs wonderfully with sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla, which makes it the perfect addition to autumnal bakes and breakfast bowls. Try using it as the flavour base of a cheesecake filling, or as the sauce to top a lemon or vanilla cheesecake. Or use it to top my sweet-spiced buckwheat porridge, for a zesty breakfast on these chilly mornmings. Along with some yogurt and blueberries – and fresh buckthorn berries, if you’re a die-hard.
Sea buckthorn sauce with orange zest and ginger – makes about 1 cup/240 ml
- 300 g sea buckthorn berries
- 2 tsp. maple syryp
- zest of two oranges, grated
- thumb-size piece of ginger, grated
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. (40 g ) raw cane sugar
Put the berries in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the maple syrup, orange zest, grated ginger and a splash of water, then bring to a boil. Make sure to cover the pan, because once they cook, the berries will pop and splatter their juices everywhere! Turn down the heat and gently simmer the berries for 5 minutes.
Tip the cooked berries into a fine-mesh sieve and place it over a bowl. Using a wooden spoon, press out as much of the berry juice, breaking up any berries still intact.
Return the berry juice to the pan, along with the lemon juice and sugar. Over a low heat, stir until the sugar has dissolved. This will yield a rather thick puree, which you can use as is, or dilute to a pourable sauce by adding some water.
Leave to cool and use within the next few days. Depending on how much you diluted it, the sauce may set in the fridge to a jelly-like consistency. To make it a smooth sauce again, simply reheat and whisk with some water. This makes the perfect topping for my sweet-spiced buckwheat porridge, or any porridge, granola or yogurt breakfast bowl, really. Alternatively, use it as the flavour base for cheesecake, or as the delicious sauce to drizzle over it.