It isn’t the cost of vegetables and fruits which periodically sends me scampering to the fields and woods to scout for wild food. It’s the self-sufficiency of it. It’s about reaching back through generations to glimpse my ancestors, to experience an instinct going back to human beginnings, and to relate to the universal need to find food.
I don’t know very much. I can identify two varieties of mushrooms out of the hundreds of edible ones, and neither of them grow in England, as far as I know. But I still love walking through the forest scanning the ground for them. Something about the aroma of damp earth and leaves triggers some primeval urge to stay alert to what I might find underfoot – or encounter, for that matter.
I pick elderflowers in June, infusing a mixture of sugar, water, and ascorbic acid with the subtle, tantalizing fragrance of elderflower to create cordial. In autumn, people here collect sloes, which I have yet to do, though I hope there is more to do with them than make Sloe Gin. Ubiquitous black berries, or brambles, growing along paths and weaving themselves through hedges, will ripen in late August and September. And I have discovered that nettles, which grow abundantly just about everywhere, are a delicious substitute for spinach, as well as for stimulating infusions.
This week we pulled up some wild fennel which was growing in places we didn’t want it to, so I washed the white roots, peeled them, and cooked them with potatoes. The younger, smaller roots were delicious, adding just a hint of fennel to the spuds. The bigger ones were a little tough, not worth bothering about. I’ve seen a recipe using the stalks to stuff fowl, which I will try, and the fronds are delicious chopped up in salads or as a bed for roasting or baking fish. I will try things until Bernard cries "no more fennel".
Lemon verbena grows in our garden, too, and sometimes I make an infusion with that. The plant is supposed to keep mosquitos away, but I don’t think it does. We have lots of varieties of thyme, lavender, mint, marjoram, wild garlic, chives.
I wish I knew more. I am probably too lazy to do much about it now, at my advancing age. It is the sort of thing grandmothers ought to teach their grandchildren, but stopped doing a few generations ago. Reports are that Malia, three, who lives in the California foothills, is a dedicated forager. I have seen her pick and eat by the handful the dry, mealy berries of the Manzanita, which taste a little like apples. Indeed, Manzanita means little apples in Spanish, and are reddish, but the resemblance goes no further. Now she is apparently equal to the task of avoiding the defensive thorns of the blackberry bush to get to the juicy fruit.
I hope she will persevere. Maybe she will teach me, instead.
- More North – June, 2008