‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *

Autumn colours beginning means it’s harvest time for foragers

I’ve written before about the ‘au cas où’ bag: the carrier you always have with you on a walk, ‘just in case’ something tasty turns up and demands to be taken home and eaten.

Well, at this time of year, it isn’t really a case of ‘au cas où’ .  You’re bound to find something.  A fortnight ago, for instance, Mal and I went on a country stroll from Lieurac to Neylis.  We had with us a rucksack and two large bags, and we came home with just under 5 kilos of walnuts, scavenged from beneath the walnut trees along the path.  A walk through the hamlet of Bourlat just above Laroque produced a tidy haul of chestnuts too.

Yesterday, we Laroque walkers were among the vineyards of Belvèze-du-Razès.  The grapes had all been harvested in the weeks before, but luckily for us, some bunches remained on the endless rows of vines which lined the paths we walked along.  We felt no guilt as we gorged on this fruit all through the morning.  The grapes had either been missed at harvest-time, or hadn’t been sufficiently ripe.  They were unwanted – but not by us.

So many vines: there’ll be unharvested grapes there somewhere.

The walnuts we’re used to in the Ariège are replaced by almonds over in the Aude.  You have to be careful: non-grafted trees produce bitter almonds, not the sweet ones we wanted to find.  But most of us returned with a fine haul to inspect later.  Some of us found field mushrooms too.

Today, the destination of the Thursday walking group was the gently rising forested and pastoral country outside Foix known as la Barguillère.  It’s also known locally as an area richly provided with chestnut trees.  Any wild boar with any sense really ought to arrange to spend the autumn there, snuffling and truffling for the rich pickings.  We walked for 9 km or so, trying to resist the temptation to stop and gather under every tree we saw.  The ground beneath our feet felt nubbly and uneven as we trod our way over thousands of chestnuts, and the trees above threw further fruits down at us, popping and exploding as their prickly casings burst on the downward journey.

Just picture whole paths, thickly covered with chestnuts like this for dozens of yards at a time.

As our hike drew to an end, so did our supply of will-power.  We took our bags from our rucksacks and got stuck in.  So plentiful are the chestnuts here that you can be as picky as you like.  Only the very largest and choicest specimens needed to make it through our rigorous quality control.  I was restrained.  I gathered a mere 4 kilos.  Jacqueline and Martine probably each collected 3 times as much.  Some we’ll use, some we’ll give to lucky friends.

Only in France…. the serious business of chestnut harvesting

Now I’d better settle myself down with a dish of roasted chestnuts at my side, and browse through my collections of recipes to find uses for all this ‘Food for Free’.

I think these chestnuts represent Jacqueline, Martine and Maguy’s harvest.

* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: Come, ye thankful people, come’

12 thoughts on “‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *”

  1. Ah, I really miss the plentiful chestnuts in France. In my immediate vicinity chestnuts and walnuts grow, but are pretty rare. I need to find a good nut area near the German border for a weekend trip each year.

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  2. I love the food you find this time of year. Our apple tree has produced hundreds but my family now reckon they can’t fancy another apple crumble.
    The roast chestnuts sound gorgeous!

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  3. You can’t beat my recipe for creamy chestnut soup on a chill autumn evening. I haven’t found a local chestnut tree yet and my supply of roasted chestnuts from France is dwindling. Hmmmm I can see a weekend jaunt across the channel coming!

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  4. My gathering experiences weren’t so glorious…. There are some chestnut trees higher up from where we live but since I’ve seen plenty of times ‘poor’ people crouching under the trees and getting the fallen fruits I feel I really ought NOT to…. Am back from Switzerland where lovely and lush looking ware is selling for as much as CHF 9.- the kilo. And you can buy them at nearly every other street corner for dear money, hot, steamy, wonderful – but really a TREAT (money wise). We bought 5kg of walnuts on our trip to Charente Maritime on a Sunday market and we were very disappointed with the ‘outcome’. So much that we threw about 4.5kg away after their staying untouched in a large bowl. They were hard work to open up and the inside was uninspiring and bitter, often eaten by little beasts – really nothing in comparison to other goods. Then I collected what I thought were chestnuts and was just about going to boil them when I realised that they were horse chestnuts – so they made it as an autumnal decoration at least…. I’m mad about mushrooms but so totally uninstructed that I’d never eat anything I picked up! I do however occasionally add some young dandelion to a spring salad, add a flower to decorate something and urge my fellow eaters to dig in and eat them! I try (normally, except with bad walnuts) to never throw anything food-wise away, make a new creations with what is in my fridge or larder and at lunch I created a kind of cheese-tart with an organic millefeuille pasty, a Swiss cheese mix, some free range lardons, onion & garlic, a greek yoghurt & a fromage blanc, some nutmeg & pepper and just a bit of milk (no eggs to be had) – all and everything I had was used, the tarte decorated with slices of vinegary gerkhins, gosh, it was so good – but the whole house stinks now just like after a fondue or a raclette….

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    1. That all sounds very enterprising. Sorry about your walnut experience though. We recently got some in Spain and they were wonderful. I’ll be inviting myself round to a meal any day now!

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  5. I also would NEVER dare picking up or even cutting off left-over grapes – and believe me I’m being tempted enough…. I just don’t dare! Even taking apples from the ground of trees that clearly weren’t ’emptied’ of their fruit always gave me cramps – they could be considered to be stolen! It’s the same with taking people’s photos – I just can’t do it!

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