Autumn is upon us. Keats’s “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” is my favourite time of year described in one of my favourite poems. It’s the season when everything is fruiting and the leaves are starting to turn. This year it seems to me we have the best of everything. While the sun still shines and provides some warmth the hedgerows are filling up with tasty things to eat and drink. As a non-gardener it’s the only way I am ever going to get anything to eat without going to the shops.
There is something immensely satisfying about foraging for food. It fulfils the basic hunter-gatherer instinct and the resulting dishes seem to taste that little bit better and are certainly more satisfying. I recently had the privilege of eating at L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s award-winning restaurant in Cartmel in Cumbria. He specialises in foraged food and employs a professional forager to go out into the surrounding countryside and pick, cut and harvest whatever looks good. The results are extraordinary. They look and taste amazing and they make you realise just what a range of good natural food we have around us but that we ignore it in favour of packaged supermarket fare.
I would love to accompany someone who knew what they were doing. To be clear, I don’t want to go out with a survivalist who can find enough calories and fluid to stay alive in the most hostile conditions. The sort of person I have in mind (shout up if this is you) wears a wide-brimmed hat, carries a selection of strangely curved knives and a long walking stick, and has a shallow wicker basket over one arm. I want to be able to find for myself delicious food for free not just make it through till morning with a mouth full of nettles. Fruits are the easiest and most obvious find. Who hasn’t ever brambled (blackberried for the Southerners) – yes it is a verb! Right now I have noticed how good and abundant they are… the climate seems to be very good for them. In my youth I used to occasionally go bilberry picking which was totally soul-destroying. You could spend a couple of hours picking the tiny fragile (and quite honestly quite watery-tasting) fruit and only end up with a small bag. Contrast that with the joy of finding a bush which no-one else, either bird or human, has got to and which is absolutely weighed down with the large black berries. You may get a few thorns for your trouble but they are worthy battlescars for the forager. More recently I have been quite fond of sloes. Now there is a thorn! The blackthorn bushes are looking quite good this year. Sloes do seem to have bumper crops followed by two or three average and this year looks promising. However, those thorns are long, multidirectional and strong and few slow-pickets get away without the telltale bloody scratches. In this state they taste bitter-skinned and very acidic – quite the opposite of how they look with an elegant bloom. However, either by picking them after the first frost or giving them a burst in the freezer then pricking the skins, they respond very nicely to equal parts of sugar and gin or vodka and a good long rest in the cupboard. I’ve even stumbled across a good wild gooseberry bush or two for a bit of variety. Crab-apples, chestnuts, elderberries and elderflower all add to a great roadside larder. The wonderful book recommended by Simon Rogan – Food For Free by Richard Mabey – lists a few other fruits and berries that can make decent eating.
I like the idea of wild garlic and sorrel but sadly, although I think I could find the wild garlic by smell, I have yet to properly understand where to find sorrel and what it looks like. A friend also introduced me to the delight of wild horseradish and pointed out its distinctive leaves. It is worth pointing out that you can only uproot produce on private land and with permission. You can pick things by the roadside but the advice is to only pick what you need and to avoid places with either dog walkers or heavy traffic to avoid a nasty surprise.
There is a large section in the book about fungi and this sadly is where I have to draw the line currently. I don’t have the knowledge or the confidence to find chicken of the woods, morels and ceps. I love mushrooms and truffles and it would be wonderful to go out each day knowing you were going to come back with a basket of edible ones but the consequence of getting it wrong doesn’t bear thinking about. I don’t know whether the story about being able to take fungi to a French pharmacist for identification is correct in this day and age but wouldn’t it be great if you could pop into Boots for a checkup before dinner?
Food For Free describes a lot of plants which yield leaves which are edible but seem to make either fairly unsatisfactory drinks or a food which resembles spinach. Quite honestly, why bother? Another group offers stalks which, if either peeled or trimmed, and picked when they are bright young things yield a substitute for asparagus. Again, why not just wait for asparagus? I promise you that Mr Rogan did quite remarkable things with all manner of living things which had quite distinct and delicate flavours coaxed out by skillful preparation and combinations.
Quite apart from the epicurean attractions, foraging is a great family activity. I’ve yet to meet the small child that doesn’t like the idea of picking blackberries – they’re pretty handy for getting to the low-hanging fruit too. It’s a good way to start or break a country walk and it must be good to get into the great outdoors around us. I’m pretty sure Simon Rogan started his Michelin-starred career with jars of sloe gin and some blackberry jam and, in my own slow way, I’m following in his footsteps. Until I can find a forager to teach me a bit more it’ll be slow but delicious purple-fingered progress.