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, that carrier isn’t ‘au cas où’ : anyone out walking round here is likely to be guilty of ‘going equipped’. 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.
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.
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.
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’.
* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’