This week we had some time free to take long walks, and it was impossible to miss how brimming full of berries the hedgerows are after such a warm, sunny summer. Blackberries are everywhere, and the sloes seem almost ready to pick (although we are hesitating to pick any this early when tradition says they should be gathered after first frost; we have picked them early, but not this early). We even passed a garden fence with grapes growing over and through it. Now we don’t have to envy all those vineyards posting photos on Twitter of their grapes changing colour. We’ve got our own photo of veraison in Hertfordshire.
This has fueled all sorts of fantasies of planting our own grapevines, of course. We are trying to resist the urge, but may well fail.
On one of our walks we forgot to bring along our favourite pocket-size guide to foraging, Food for Free by Richard Mabey, which was a piece of bad luck. We passed shrubs and trees covered in mysterious berries, but couldn’t check to see whether they were edible or not. We also found small red fruits that looked something like plums, or cherries, or apples. It seems strange that we couldn’t tell which, so we picked one and a leaf to bring back with us to look up what it might be. We still don’t know. It was purple, like a dark plum, but grew on the ends of stems in groups sort of like cherries do. The flesh was very hard, purple, and not very juicy, and the centre had pips that looked a bit star-shaped, rather like an apple looks if you cut slices around the middle horizontally. They may have been a sort of crabapple, but we never found any photos in books or online of any fruit that resembled it closely enough. I mean, the juice was purple. That’s just not very appley. We’re deeply annoyed to have found a tree full of fruit that we can’t even identify, but if we can’t identify it, we simply can’t risk eating it.
Luckily, there were fruits we could identify, such as these crabapples. Look at the sheer number of them! We picked enough to fill a carrier bag and you would never have known anyone picked any at all.
Janet has found a recipe for a spicy crabapple cheese she’s going to make with them. It should be like membrillo, the Spanish quince paste that goes so well with cheese, only in this case it will be appley with bits of chilli in it.
For quite literally years it has annoyed me that I can find hazel trees on our walks, but never any hazelnuts. We occasionally find hazelnuts on the ground, pick them up, and get home to find they are empty or rotten on the inside. But this year, to my great delight, we found a tree with hazelnuts still on the branches, and cracking one open, we could see it had a proper hazelnut inside. We almost couldn’t believe our luck, and actually came home to check to see if it was ok to pick them off the branches or if you really had to wait until they dropped to the ground. Advice was contradictory, but based on our field research, one thing was clear: the hazelnuts we picked up from the ground ended up being rotten and/or with unspeakable bugs and worms in them, while the ones we took straight from the branches had real hazelnuts on the inside. So for once, we have wild hazelnuts we picked ourselves.
There wasn’t quite that much free space in the box when we first put them in there. It’s all too easy to crack a handful and munch on them while watching tv.
We also found beech nuts, but most sources agree that they aren’t worth the bother. They’re small, meaning you have a real chore ahead of you if you want to collect enough to do anything with, and once you’ve done all that, they don’t taste like much. Mind you, you could probably grind them up and put them into flour or drop them into stews to add a bit of protein, but that’s cuisine for people with masses of time to spend collecting and no better sources of protein. Anyone else should probably pass on beech nuts.
If we make anything from our foraged bounty this year that turns out special, we’ll share it. Do you ever collect from hedgerows? What are your favourite finds?