Each time we head out for a walk we never fail to appreciate how lucky we are to live where we do, we’re just a couple of miles from the city centre so while we’re never far away from fantastic coffee, we’re only just minutes away from walks where you feel you must be right in the the heart of the countryside….shady lanes, wild flower filled pastures and hedgerows fair brimming with berries and fruit.
It’s taken about a year or so of walking out and looking around me, little notebook often in my pocket to jot down where particular fruits and berries are…..some things are really only noticeable at a particular time of the year (elderflower has a very short season, easily identifiable in May and June…by September any flower heads not picked become dark jewelled clusters of berries…but if you’re out walking say in March or November, unless you’re good at identifying bare branches, it’s hard to tell what’s there.)
I don’t get tired of looking, I’m happy to just amble along and check how what I’m starting to think of as a wild pantry is coming along, what’s nearly ready to pick, what still needs a few weeks..and most importantly, what can I make with my hedgerow harvest.
Stepping out on Thursday it wasn’t long before the notebook was out and I was jotting down new finds of sloes. It’s too early to pick them yet, and they’re a bit hard to see at the moment. Generally they’re best picked when there’s been a good frost (though it’s been so chilly here in the evenings that the thought of a frost doesn’t seem laughable) though I think as long as they are that lovely dark and deep prussian blue a couple of nights in the freezer will make up for a proper lack of cold. For now though the berries are a beautiful bluey green.
The blackthorn trees are always the most gnarliest old things you’ve ever seen, and you have to avoid long sharp thorns when you pick the sloes (the thorns used to be used for needles and I’ve seen some beautiful ones for sale which I’ve dropped hints about regarding birthday presents)…but a few sips of a nice sloe vodka or gin on a cold winter night will make any “foraging mis-adventures” tales to laugh about. (though the time I stepped in fox poo after jumping back from being stung by a clump of nettles which I’d landed in after trying to avoid being face to face with a huge spider in a blackberry bush when I was trying to de-tangle myself still needs a few years to go for me to find it as amusing as everyone else….)
Searching for sloes you need to look up…but the first sign you’re near a mirabelle plum tree will often be a few squashed fruit on the ground underneath the tree…look up and you’ll find a bounty of small wild plums nestling in a cascade of green above you.
The mirabelles start off a very greeny yellow, they won’t be ripe yet and if you’re tempted to taste one you’ll pull a face as they’re very tart. If the weather is good they’ll ripen before you know it, turning through deeper yellow, a lovely amber orange, rosey blush and then a gorgeous deep red. You can pick them before they’re fully red all over if you want to use them for jams and tarts and brandy, but if you want to eat them as they are then I’d wait til they were ripe as they can’t be beat then for taste.
We’re very fortunate because when the houses here were built (most of the village was built in the sixties and seventies I think) a lot of fruit trees were planted at the same time. There’s also lots of common owned land and pockets of green behind some properties where the wild trees have flourished.
These mirabelle plums are one such find…..last year wasn’t such a great harvest but the year before was fantastic. They cook beautifully in pies and crumbles , and make a lovely jam which is so good on big doorsteps of toast on a wet and dreary Autumn morning. Mirabelle plums are also a very good choice for making plum brandy.
We’ve got a couple of decent sized trees just round the corner from where we live, and then there are a couple more group of trees a bit further up. In all there are about 30 or so plum trees scattered around the village but some are near the road, it’s not ever that busy but it’s harder to pick when you are trying not to step out off the verge. So I prefer to pick form the more sheltered spots.
One tree that often eludes me even though right now the branches are bowed with fruit is on an uphill so they are that much harder to pick, even with my old man’s walking stick (it looks a bit odd to take out on a walk but it’s my secret weapon in being able to reach some of those high up branches) it’s tricky if I’m out by myself. And while I do like going out for a walk by myself, foraging is always much more fun when there’s two as someone can hold the branch down and the other of you can pick.
Nope they’re not apples (which my beloved one thought the other day) but gorgeous green walnuts.
There’s a huge tree very near to home which no-one else seems to have taken note of so I’m thinking to pick them to pickle…..to me pickled walnuts seem like something old men eat sitting outside country pubs with their plough-mans and a beer, but when I mentioned them yesterday I had a couple of less wrinkly and aged friends say they were particular to them so I’m thinking perhaps to pickle some as gifts for Christmas and the Winter Sostice.
As well as pickling, walnuts apparently make for a nice liquor but as we’re already planning on sloe vodka and blackberry brandy again, perhaps I’ll pass on the liquor this year.
Whatever I make though the green hulls are notoriously stain inducing so I’ll be wearing a pair of marigolds when I pick them.
In the past I’ve picked up green walnuts in churchyards and have used them to dye fabric for a quilt. The walnuts hold so much dye that you don’t need to use a mordant, though they are really stinky when you start to simmer them. They make for a lovely dark brown colour, which is even darker if you’re dying wool rather than cotton cloth. If you’re interested in natural dyes then I’d suggest one of the many books written about the subject by Jenny Dean.)
I’m actually planning to make a wild food trail/map for me and my boyfriend. I’m forever making notes and observations where some of our favourite wild foods are to be found in a scrappy and pocket squished notebook and I’ve included sorrel, wild chamomile and water mint (the best mint for cocktails) as well as berries, apples and other fruit. Half of me thinks it’s something that could be worked in cloth, embroidering little fruits and berries and plants over a large map of the area…I’d like to make a table cloth, something we could use but then I know myself all too well and worry that it would be just another un-finished item to lurk in the back of my wardrobe, so for now it will be drawn and then if I can get a few more things finished from the sewing pile then perhaps I’ll dig out an old sheet and get embroidering.