Nature’s Serving Suggestions

As a young child, I was sometimes woken up when it was barely light, to go off with my mother mushrooming on the decommissioned RAF airfield near our house. Blackberrying was for late summer, always, and rosehips for autumn, when the entire village school would spend afternoons gathering rosehips for Delrosa to turn into rosehip syrup (‘Whaddya mean, slave labour? The best pickers got a tin badge to keep!’). Later, in France, we added wild asparagus, wild cherries, mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts and sloes to our Free Food bonanza. It’s made me a seasonal eater. I love it when the seasons announce that we have a different food to add to our diet, for a few weeks only. Fresh peas straight from the pod! The newest and smallest potatoes! Discovery apples in August! And in winter, these same foods, bottled and preserved give us a different pleasure – a memory of summer, but presented in a comforting, warming way: plum jam to spread on toast after a brisk winter walk; walnuts stirred into the soon-to-be steamed Christmas pudding; a nip of sloe gin on the coldest of days.

Nature’s had a habit of giving us the right foods for the right season. It’s a modern idea to expect strawberries in November. asparagus in September. All that anticipation, all that enjoyment of a food made special, distinctive by its very limited season has gone. If we listen, we can hear Nature telling us to get back in touch with the way things always used to be. Then we can get rid of all those unnecessary Air Miles too.

This week’s Tanka Tuesday asks us to write on the theme of Lessons from Nature. I’ve chosen the Shadorma form to illustrate what I’ve just been talking about. Mirabelles by the way are rarely seen in the shops. They’re small plums, yellow or rosy pink.

So …

And Nature said …

An inveterate food forager

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.

(Almost) all is safely gathered in…

Regular readers will know I’ve got into the habit, once a month or so, of revisiting an old post. And I’m reminded of what October used to mean in France. Blackberrying’s over now in England (the devil spits on the fruit as soon as October kicks in, didn’t you know?), but my inner-Frenchwoman has been squirreling away scavenged apples, pears, mushrooms – even a few unimpressive walnuts. It all reminds me of France, where foraging is a way of life…

October 25th, 2012

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

Autumn colours mean 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.

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.

Serious business, this scavenging.

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’.

Jacqueline, Martine and Maguy’s chestnut haul.

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

A contribution to Six Word Saturday, and Jo’s Monday Walk: it’s more than one walk Jo.  Extra value?  Or disqualified?

‘Au cas où’ you need some wood, or a bag of fruit.

We’ve been getting in touch with our inner Ariègeois(e) today.

Our foraging country in the Ariège

We spent six years in France, living in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Ariège, a département where almost everybody still had firm roots in the simple self-sufficient lifestyle of their forbears.  Nobody that we knew would have considered installing, as David Cameron recently has, a faux shepherd’s hut in the back garden.  Instead, most people had a serviceable shed, built of bits of this and that and adapted to personal requirements.

Nobody that we knew ever bought firelighters for their wood burning stove.  Instead, we’d all hang around as the weekly market packed up, rescuing the wooden fruit boxes, now empty of peaches and pears, which when broken up provide perfect kindling material.

Everyone we knew never left home without an ‘au cas où‘ (‘just in case’) bag, to fill with wild mushrooms, or walnuts, or sloes, or chestnuts, or apples, or any free food that came their way.

Foraging in the Ariège…..

That’s been us this week.  We don’t need a garden hut.  But we have got a wood-burning stove.  And today we’ve been re-purposing the wooden casing that our delivery of logs came in.  It’s soft wood, so we know we can only use it sparingly on our stove.  But it’s there – and we will use it.  So here we were, sawing it into manageable lengths, sorting and storing it.

We’re the odd-bods who gather the discarded fruit boxes at Ripon market. We’ve been breaking those up today too, for kindling.


Malcolm does a fine job of sawing up some wooden pallets.

And yesterday, our friend Gillian had us over to raid her plum trees.  We came back with a pail full of greengages, and a pail full of czars. Today was the day when we started to convert this ripe fruit into chutneys and cakes and hooch and crumbles.  Our French friends would definitely approve.


Food for free 2

Blackberries in a landscape, ready to be eaten.
Blackberries in a landscape, ready to be picked and eaten.

I’m not a fashionable forager.  You won’t find me back in the kitchen preparing to fry hogweed, or blitzing ground-ivy into my mayo.  I’m a bit conventional, and I stick with what I know.  A month or two back it was elderflowers for cordial.  Just now the blackberry season is in full swing, and cob nuts are there if you know where to look.  Friends with big gardens invite me to forage beneath their apple and pear trees for windfalls, and as soon as the first frosts strike, I’ll be looking for sloes to make a batch of sloe gin, and maybe I’ll make some rosehip syrup too..

I like to look for mushrooms too, though I’m only confident to identify two or three kinds of fungi at most.  There are field mushrooms for the taking at the bottom of the garden.

Refugees from the sports pitch? Or puffballs?
Refugees from the sports pitch? Or puffballs?

But last Thursday I was out walking with a friend when we saw something that put any existing evening meal plans on hold.  Over there in the corner of that meadow – look!  A white football, miles from any football pitch or recreation ground, with a tennis ball alongside, and a couple of golf balls next to them too.  Except we knew they weren’t lost property accidentally abandoned by sportspeople .  They were puffballs, those extraordinary giant white mushrooms which have no open cap with spore-bearing gills.  And they are barely attached to the ground, with no apparent stem.  My friend didn’t want them: she’s married to an amateur mycologist and sees quite enough of mushrooms without eating the wretched things, thank you.  But I did.  I reorganised my rucksack to accommodate the football and the tennis ball , and left the golf balls to grow up to be footballs in their turn.

My pack seemed unexpectedly heavier for the last mile or two of our walk.  It was hardly surprising.  My football weighed in at 827 grams – well over 1 1/2 lb.  It made a wonderful supper, fried in thick slices in butter with lardons and parley and lemon zest, with just a hint of garlic.  I gave a big chunk to friends who had us round to forage for apples and plums the next day, and the rest made a vast vat of soup.  Who said there was no such thing as a free lunch?

Here's our bigger puffball, on the scales and weighing in at 827 grams.
Here’s our bigger puffball, on the scales and weighing in at 827 grams.

  • ‘Food for Free 2’ to distinguish it from a post I wrote in April 2011, when I did indeed join in foraging for some rather odd items of wild food

Our départ réel from Harewood House.

Wednesday, August 20th.  The morning air was chilly, just a little damp and drippy.  Flowers in the borders hung their heads, their petals shabby and tired.  Autumn has arrived.  It does seem a little previous.

'All is safely gathered in/ Ere the winter storms begin'
‘All is safely gathered in/
Ere the winter storms begin’

All the more reason to get out and about, before the days really close in.  Ripon Ramblers chose to go to Harewood.

You’ll perhaps have seen Harewood House  on TV recently, as that’s where the Tour de France really started from this year, after the Départ fictif  from Leeds.* Half way between Leeds and Harrogate, it’s a playground for both towns, with its fine Adam-designed stately home, and extensive grounds designed by Capability Brown. At the time, the 1750s,  investment in the slave trade brought immense wealth to the Lascelles family.  Their descendents, the Earl and Countess of Harewood live in these fine surroundings built two and a half centuries ago.  This stately home is regarded as being among the finest in Britain and is for the most part open to the public.

Our walk took us on a circular path that began outside the grounds, over farmland and with views across the Wharfe Valley.  The route across the cow pastures was a bit of a puzzle.  Weren’t those mango stones beneath our feet?  And melon seeds? And even squashed tomatoes?  The smell of rotting fruit wasn’t what we looked for on a country walk.  Finally a young woman from a nearby stables helped us out.  A local supermarket regularly dumps its surplus fruit at this farm for the cattle to enjoy.  Four tons of fruit seemed to us to be remarkably poor stock control on the shop’s part, and we couldn’t help wondering what the cows’ insides made of this exotic diet.

Cow on a mango-hunt.
Cow on a mango-hunt.

Far more enjoyable were the autumn fruits that lined our route for much of the day.  We gathered blackberries every time we felt hungry or thirsty.  We enjoyed the sight of haws turning red, elderberries turning black, and prickly chestnuts swelling and fattening on the trees.

We completed our upward yomp, and walked along the ridge which offered a fine panorama across to the Crimple Valley and Harrogate beyond, to Almscliffe Crag, and even Ilkley Moor.  Clouds in a dramatically cloudy sky were unloosing light rain into the nearby plain, and the breeze soon pushed the showers our way…..

Look carefully.  You'll see rain falling in the plain  below.  But not on us.
Look carefully. You’ll see rain falling in the plain below. But not on us.

….and then pushed them on again, so that we could enjoy a rain-free lunchtime picnic with all that view before us.

Lunchtime view over the Crimple Valley.
Lunchtime view over the Crimple Valley.

After lunch, we were in the grounds of Harewood.  Not the formal grounds near the house itself, but areas of woodland, pasture, lakes, deer park and farmland.  And  in the distance we spotted a fake Dales village, only built in 1998.  This is  Emmerdale, used in filming the long-running soap of the same name.  No filming that day, so we were soon on our way, hurrying now before the rain, promised for mid-afternoon, settled in to spoil our walk.  We made it – just.

Our best view of Harewood House came at the end of our walk.
Our best view of Harewood House came at the end of our walk.

* The ‘départ réel’ of the Tour de France from Harewood signified the true beginning of the race.  City centre Leeds was no place for cyclists to jockey for position, so riders just tootled out to Harewood on the ‘départ fictif’.  Then the action started.

Brimham Rocks

We’ve had quite a weekend.  Our vaguely organised daily lives, with plenty of chances to stand and stare, or at least sit down with a cup of coffee and the paper have been shot to pieces by the arrival, for two days only, of our twin nine-year old grandsons, Alex and Ben.

We had a busy Saturday, full of pancakes, playgrounds, and Ripon’s Prison and Police Museum (recommended).  But the highlight of the day was Brimham Rocks.P1150790

It’s an extraordinary place.  There, slap-bang in the middle of the rolling and verdant Yorkshire Dales, is a 30 acre fantastical landscape.  Dry-stone walled fields and charming villages are suddenly replaced by an odd collection of weird and wonderful shaped rocks.  Brimham Rocks.  These are formed from millstone grit: glaciation, wind and rain have eroded them into extraordinary formations, pierced by holes, balancing apparently precariously, or stacked into tottering towers.  Geologists study them, rock climbers scramble up them, but above all, families come to let their children become impromptu explorers, mountaineers and adventurers of every kind.

We’ve only chosen quiet times to visit here in the past, but with Alex and Ben, we had no choice,  We wanted to take them there, so a brisk and breezy Saturday slap-bang in the middle of the school holidays it was. The car park was overflowing .  Oh dear.

But it was fine.  The space is big enough to provide room for all.  And it was fun to be amongst children from the smallest toddler to the tallest and lankiest of teenagers, all having an equally good time: all exploring, all testing themselves physically, weaving their own adventures.

Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks
Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks

And besides, we didn’t come home empty-handed.  August is bilberry season.  Alex and Ben, particularly Ben, rose to the challenge of stripping the small and rather hidden fruits, becoming ever more purple as time passed.  Teeth turned blue, hands indelibly stained, fingernails beyond help from any nailbrush: it was so good to see my grandchildren discovering the pleasures of food-for-free.  Bilberry pancakes for Sunday breakfast then…..


Ransoms and bluebells

Wild garlic in the woods
Wild garlic in the woods

Little tells me more forcefully than a walk through the woods at this time of year that we are back in England.  Instead of crisp brown leaves underfoot, from the Autumn before and the Autumn before that, there are narrow damp paths through the rich carpet of undergrowth.

Wild garlic, ransoms, bear's garlic, ramps
Wild garlic, ransoms, bear’s garlic, ramps

And that smell!  As you walk, inevitably bruising the leaves that crowd onto your path, you’ll smell the pungent notes of garlic: because those leaves, topped off by a mass of star-shaped flowers, are wild garlic (or ransoms, ramps or bear’s garlic), and they’re unknown in the part of France where we lived.  In among, competing for the sun which dapples in through the tree canopy, are bluebells.  At the moment, they’re largely still in bud but give them a few days and they too will carpet the woodland floor in a shimmering violet-blue.  And these are our English bluebells.  They’re more graceful than the upright, paler Spanish bluebells that we sometimes saw in France.


The blogosphere is crammed with suggestions for making use of the garlic, among the earliest greenstuffs available after the winter months.  Here‘s what David Lebovitz suggests.

Well, I rely on David to supply ideas for delicious grub, so off into the woods I went for garlic leaves.  I was careful to pick only leaves, rather than yank up entire plants with their tiny bulbs, so that they would grow again next year, though a few bulbs crept into my harvest despite my efforts.  I’d taken my haul  in any case from the woodland edge, as the garlic plants made an escape bid into nearby fields.

And here’s the resulting pasta dish.  Frankly, we were a little disappointed.  It wasn’t the most interesting dish we’d ever eaten.  But I could see the charm of these leaves to those who’d struggled through the winter months on a diet of beans, swede, and the odd bit of salted pork.  Wild garlic has a bright, ‘green’ flavour, mildly garlicky of course, and I will try it again, maybe substituting it for spinach in a tart with walnuts and a sharp cheese for instance.  I always enjoy an excuse to forage for food.

Wild garlic pasta, David Lebovitz style.
Wild garlic pasta, David Lebovitz style.

Cabin fever.

The rainy season still hasn’t stopped. It’s rained every day for over a fortnight now, except for one.  That was Friday, the day it snowed.  I had to come back from nearby Villeneuve d’Olmes at nearly midnight that day, driving at a stately 12 miles an hour along newly – and deeply – snow-covered roads.  The last bit was easy enough though.  I followed a snow plough.

So Sunday’s all-day walk was abandoned yet again.  There was heavy rain again this morning.  Nobody was leaving home except to collect the daily bread.  We had a back-up plan, we members of the walking group,  to begin walking at 1 o’clock if the morning’s weather was poor.  By 11.45, with the skies still black and full of rain we were all ‘phoning each other to say ‘No thanks.  Count me out’.

Except that at quarter to one, it stopped raining.  I decided after all to make a break for it (Malcolm stayed in front of the fire).  Maryse arrived at the usual rendezvous too, then Annick and Michel turned up.  Then Jean-Charles, Danielle and Marcel.  We’d all got cabin fever and we’d walk come what may.  We had three rain-free hours.  No country paths for us today: all sodden.  Strictly road-walking.  Snowy fields, snowy views across to the Plantaurel, a small lake, forest paths.  We had our ‘pause café’ at Fajou, with its 400 year old oak, and an apple tree just waiting for us to collect its windfalls.  Still no rain.  Still an hour’s walk to do though, so we didn’t stop for long, and continued onwards, enjoying the familiar landscape in its new white winter clothing

Back home, refreshed after a shower and a cup of tea, I leaned over to draw the curtains.  Of course I glanced out of the window.  You’ve guessed.  It was raining again

Prunelles, gratte-culs et champignons…

…  which are, being translated, sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  But it sounds rather more poetic in French, non?  Even if you take into account that ‘gratte-cul‘ translates as ‘scratch-bum‘, because as every naughty school child knows, rosehips seeds are distressingly itchy when shoved down against the skin.

Chapelle Saint Roch
Chapelle Saint Roch

Anyway, I went off by myself for a walk the other day, starting by the ancient and slightly isolated Chapelle Saint Roch.  There’s still a pilgrimage there every year, because he’s the patron saint of plague victims, and well, you never know, do you?

I’d got several ‘au cas ‘ bags, ‘just in case’ I found sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  It wasn’t ‘just in case’ really though.  I know exactly where to look for the juiciest sloes, the thorniest rosehips, and even a decent clutch of field mushrooms.  Finding mushrooms before the French get to them counts as a real achievement for me.

It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby
It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby

Here are my sloes, destined not for sloe gin this year: we seem to have such a lot left from the last few years.  No, this year I’m making  a richly flavoured jelly with the fruit I picked that morning and a few windfalls.

Sloes waiting to be picked
Sloes waiting to be picked

And here are the rosehips.  It’s a syrup for those, I think.

Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack
Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack

But the mushrooms……  Someone got there before me.  And it wasn’t a Frenchman .  Grrr.

I didn't know slugs ate mushrooms
I didn’t know slugs ate mushrooms