THE first hint of autumn in the air and the hedgerows and woods are laden with food. Nature’s supermarket aisle, all produce free from artificial colourings, preservatives and sweeteners – but hurry now while stocks last!
I arrive early to beat the crowds. The birds, mice, squirrels, deer and slugs are all keen to take advantage of this annual giveaway. Delay and the shelves may well be stripped clean.
The sloe berries are fat and plentiful this year. I used to wait until the first frost before collecting as this was supposed to improve the flavour but as the birds were not so patient I will take my share now and put them in the freezer before making the traditional county tipple, Sloe Gin.
Picking blackberries when we already have a freezer full of our homegrown blackcurrants may be unnecessary but I simply can’t resist. My love for foraging grew alongside kitchen gardening and a wider interest in producing my own food to escape the clutches of the supermarket whose ethics and priorities did not often chime with my own. After working hard to cultivate your own fruit how can you walk by mother nature’s efforts?
The blackberry season is only just getting going here. We use them in crumbles and bramble jelly but this year for the first time I’ve tried drying a few batches in the Aga and plan to combine them with some dried rosehip and apples from the garden to make a forest fruits type tea.
Boletus edulis, also known as cep, porcini or penny bun are the most sought after foragers’ prize. They’d cost a small fortune to eat in a restaurant but in our woods at this time of year they are not hard to find. Perfectly fresh, when the pores are light grey, they have a nutty taste and are delicious simply fried with garlic and eaten with bread. Older specimens are best dried and added to cooking. I made a lovely chicken and mushroom pie using these and freshly gathered field mushrooms.
Out for a run the other day I found a giant puffball. I couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind so completed the jog carrying it, which did attract a few strange looks but was well worth the effort. Fried with some homemade chorizo and homegrown tomatoes it was a rare seasonal treat, the puffball like tofu in the juicy mix.
In fact the ability to scoop something up from the side of the road and turn it into a truly delicious and free meal for my family is a skill I’m extremely proud of acquiring. The first time I was presented with a road kill, by my beaming father-in-law from a generation brought up to waste nothing, I was revolted. Things weren’t so bad we had to ‘stoop’ to use food like this, I thought. But the more you are involved in producing your own food, from growing veg and keeping animals to foraging, cooking from scratch and butchering your own meat, the less inclined you become to leave anything to waste. It doesn’t take a degree in biology to work out if meat is fresh or not, and the more you handle it the more experienced you get at making the most of the ingredients to hand. So out with the dogs the other day, when I found a pheasant lying at the side of the road I was delighted and didn’t think twice about carrying back home, along with a tasty cep found close by!
It is empowering not embarrassing to bring home food in this way. The pheasant made a lovely family meal gently stewed with garden vegetables and the stock, made from the carcass bones, was an additional delight.
It’s not just frugality and the chance of a free meal that makes foraging so worthhile. Author Emma Mitchell talks about a ‘harvest high’, a burst of dopamine which lifts the mood when we seek blackberries or simply pretty leaves. Her book, Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months is filled with projects designed to fend off dreariness in the winter months from foraged infusions to making a nature diary.
So whether you are keen to fill the larder or simply nourish your soul there is no better time to get outside. It’s certainly where I’m heading now.
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