"Foraging is an uncertain business, even for sharp young eyes."
As a natural history artist turned cookery writer, I cook and I paint, and these are the skills I hope to pass on to my grandchildren.
All seven are city kids, five in London and two in New York. The Londoners - the eldest is now 18 - have spent their holidays running wild in the woods that surround my stone-built farmhouse in the foothills of the Cambrians. They know things I don’t: where the moorhens hatch their chicks, the drainpipe down which frogs make their way into the cellar.
What I contribute is, well - anyone for a handful of jack-by-the-hedge with its flavour of garlic and cabbage? There’s not much our ancestors haven’t eaten when there was nothing else around. As an ancestor myself, there are obligations to be met, grandchildren’s fingers and mouths to be stained with the juice of blackberries and blueberries and raspberries ripening on a vertical cliff by the river Ystwyth. The banks are easy for a child to scramble down but scare a grown-up witless. Scaring a grown-up witless is part of the fun.
The river broadens out in summer to form a deep bathing pool beneath a capsized oak, a safe haven for learners. In winter, the water runs icy and fast with snow melt from the mountains, good for driftwood but not much else. In autumn, the beech woods along the banks yield skeins of delicate apricot-coloured chanterelles half-hidden in moss, big brown-capped penny buns with tubular yellow underparts, white-topped hedgehog fungi named for the tiny teeth on their undersides that make them impossible to mistake for any other fungi.
And there's the joy of it, the happiness of it, the triumph of knowing the difference between a toxic toadstool and an edible mushroom.
Famous occasions mark our foraging history. Once, the eldest granddaughter spotted a hedgehog fungus as big as a handbag from her preferred vantage point with her head poked out of the open sun roof of my four-wheeler travelling at snail speed along the single-lane track. And there’s the joy of it, the happiness of it, the triumph of knowing the difference - at a hundred paces from a moving vehicle - between a toxic toadstool and an edible mushroom you can slice up, fry up and eat with bacon and eggs for supper.
Foraging is an uncertain business, even for sharp young eyes at the best of times - spring and autumn. Winter’s the time for hibernation, summer’s too overblown. Suitable spring gatherings for young grandchildren (interests change) are first-growth nettle tops for soup (top four leaves only and make sure to wear gloves); suitable for salad are young hawthorn leaves, chickweed (plentiful in the salad bed), winter cress, young dandelion rosettes, the little spear-shaped leaves of sorrel, blossoms of garden-grown violets, primroses and heartsease (endangered in the wild).
Autumn berries are the most accessible hedgerow pickings, though it’s wise to avoid roadsides close to houses or farmsteads where there might be ancestral gathering rights. And it’s certainly fair to say that loss of our native hedgerows and woodlands - rather than over-enthusiastic berry-stripping by WI jam makers and disciples of Richard Mabey - is depriving our fellow creatures of an irreplaceable food source. Which indicates the need to restore our woodlands, turn our road verges into wildflower highways and replant our hedgerows so food for free can be shared by all – the very reverse of slapping prohibitions on where and what can be gathered.
It’s been a late year, but plentiful for chanterelles and there’s promise of a good year for rowan and rose hips. It takes a lot of foraging to fill the pot - even longer if granny hands out paper and paints - but the memory lasts a lifetime.
Elisabeth's book Squirrel Pie is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from Amazon.
Lovely article! We have several hazel bushes in the lane behind our house. The nuts are delicious, but I haven't been able to persuade GS to try them, although he is quite happy to pick the ones he can reach for me. At least now he knows where they come from! The blackberries are smaller this year and there don't seem to be any sloes on our patch. Fungi are a bridge too far - he knows you can't eat the red ones with the white spots but we have agreed it is better not to pick any of them unless they are in a box at Sainsburys!
I am an inveterate Autumn forager. This year I have been gathering, sloes, bullaces, greengages, and blackberries, although this year the blackberries are very poor, none at all until late August and virtually finished already. I could gather apples and crab apples, but have a more than sufficent supply in the garden
DGC live in a town but have parents that take them out at weekends to walk and explore the countryside. We live in a village and we recently, by accident rather than design, drifted into twilight walks when the family visit. Going out in broad daylight, but as it as the light is just beginning to fade. Woodland is magic as the shadows grow and it fires the children's imagination. When we reach the top of the hill they can see lights coming on in the highly populated countryside round us and trace roads and locate places they have visited.