An inveterate food forager

Ariège, Food & Cooking, North Yorkshire

I was brought up foraging. At four years old, I’d get up with my mother at half past five in the morning and go scouting for mushrooms on the now-deserted wartime air-strips near our house. At five years old, I went as part of the autumn school day to gather rosehips for Delrosa. Expert pickers got a tin badge. Smaller fry like me got nothing. Blackberrying of course we took for granted.

Later, much later, Malcolm and I moved to France. There, foraging is a way of life. Nobody leaves the house without their ‘Au cas où’ bag – ‘just in case‘ they find something for the cooking pot. It might be wild asparagus, wild garlic or Alpine strawberries in spring, cherries later, then blackberries of course. Autumn was bonanza time. This was the time to stagger home with sacks full of walnuts, of chestnuts, of sloes, of mushrooms of every kind. Autumn hikes were constantly interrupted by the need to squat down and fill a bag with yet more free food. You can read all about it here, for Fandango’s Flashback Friday, when I described how ‘all is safely gathered in’.

Sweet chestnuts

Now we’re back in England, the custom continues. I’ve discovered that locally, we’re regarded with good-humoured curiosity because of our inability to pass free food by without snaffling it. It starts with wild garlic, sometimes dandelion and nettle leaves in spring. During the last month we’ve picked several kilos of bullaces (wild plums) from Nosterfield; ditto blackberries from wherever there have been good supplies; windfall apples and crab apples from beneath village trees; a magnificent puffball weighing in at more than a kilo, which – thickly sliced and dredged first in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and fried in butter – made splendidly tasty steaks. Finally, this weekend, I glanced upwards on a familiar woodland path, and spotted golden mirabelles winking down at me. I summoned reinforcements (Malcolm, with bags, boxes and a useful stick) and now there are jars of tart but tasty mirabelle jam to see us through the winter, as well as plenty more waiting to be made into tarts and puddings.

Simple, but very real pleasures to add interest to our daily walks.

57 thoughts on “An inveterate food forager

      1. I was going on to say that puffball sounded tasty! And that all I’ve collected is bilberries when a child with my parents, blackberries, sweet chestnuts….hardly the stuff of survival!!

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    1. Oh yes! And we sometimes had it on rice pudding at school dinners. I would have thought any vitamins were boiled out of it in the preparation process.

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  1. A mouthwatering post. You’ve reminded me that I’ve not been blackberrying yet this year, except for snacks on the go. I’ve never had the confidence to collect fungi, except for puffballs where misidentification is impossible. Your puffball steaks sound delicious!

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  2. My mother picked roadside fruit on her walks with my dad. Never a great deal, little bits here and there that she put in the freezer until she had enough and then she made what she called ‘roadside jam.’ When she died unexpectedly one July my dad found fruit in the freezer and made the jame himself. We all cried.

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  3. I do love a forage although here in London it tends to be a bit less wild – i.e. responding to posts on the local email forum! Can’t complain though, as I bagged 2kg of quince that way this week 🙂 One of my family cookbooks has a recipe for mountain ash syrup which I look forward to trying at some point.

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  4. I’m envious of your puffball! I grew up foraging too. We once, to the bemusement of neighbours, picked rowanberries from a tree in our (former) London street. They were quite helpful though, even offered me a dining chair to stand on!

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  5. I learn so much from your posts! Never heard of golden mirabelles before! I would never have the confidence to pick mushrooms, blackberrying is as far as I go, though there are lots of sloes around here. It sounds like you’ll be fine when the supermarkets run out of food. We’ll all be coming round to your house for dinner ☺

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  6. You’ll be welcome. Mirabelles aren’t much of a thing here. They’re happier in central France. But I love them. Tart and sweet at the same time.

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  7. You have had a splendid haul so far this autumn. I spied sweet chestnuts in your photos and that reminded me that we did once go with my parents to collect chestnuts, but there don’t seem to be so many chestnut trees around these days. `Or, is that my imagination?

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    1. I’ve never found sweet chestnuts mature enough to enjoy in this country. Certainly not at this end of the country. And yes, for years now, chestnut trees seem to have suffered from some peculiar disease which brings autumn early where they grow – though they seem to prosper regardless.

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  8. You can see if there are holes or damage in the fruit. It can even happen with shop bought fruit. I’m still here to tell the tale. I bet your Portuguese friends are great foragers!

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  9. What a great post! I live in a place where EVERYTHING tasty and ‘available’ is private – so no foraging. But I used to pick blackberries, tiny blueberries in the mountains (when I was still letting myself be convinced that mountaineering would agree with me), but even as a child I was scolded when we visited my grandparents and ‘let loose’ for hours we’’d come back with some fallen apples, because ‘that’s stealing’! High expectations of grandchildren’s moral standards…

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    1. My very God-fearing mother regarded windfalls, so long as they were outside the house premises – on the street for example – as absolutely there for the taking. It’s a rule I’m happy to follow.

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  10. Wonderful photos of nature’s bounty – Autumn truly is the “season of mellow fruitfulness”!
    I do wish I had the knowledge to be braver with wild mushrooms – so many grow here, and even though many look like perfect ‘button mushrooms’ I have not tried them… yet!

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    1. It’s true you have to be a bit careful with field mushrooms, which have one or two less savoury look-alikes. But puffballs, shaggy inkcaps, and chanterelles (if you get very lucky) are unmistakable. Go on! You know you want to!

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  11. I’ve never lived in an area, where real foraging was possible. It sounds so wonderful and a charming way of getting food. I am quite pleased though, that I don’t have to get all my food that way and am utterly grateful for my sushi and poke take-away places!

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  12. Nothing can beat a good foraging. And I love the notion of ‘a just in case bag’. I usually do have one, and now it has a name. That puff ball recipe sounds totally wonderful, though have seen none in our vicinity. I’m now on a mission.

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  13. You’ve done well this season! Love a bit of foraging, although I don’t know nearly enough to take full advantage of where I live. Had a bumper crop of blackberries, sloes & apples this year and I can always think of things to do with those.

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