Even though we are sinking out of summer, August and September are our favourite months for foraging as we pass into early autumn. We have throughout the summer been adding to our foraging map; Carol laments the cherries dropping outside the doctors and ignored by everyone but us, Andrew cries when more hazel coppices are pulled down and Little D points out anything that looks edible and learns what is good and what is bad. We are not experts, and still carry a foraging book with us (Food for Free by Richard Mabey) and if we are not sure we take a leaf home with us and Google it. We don't do mushrooms because we're not confident about them. Sometimes common sense prevails and we have discovered that in the two mile radius we call our patch, we come across no other foragers; we do come across lots of people asking what we are doing and that is often punctuated by, 'Why?' We were once asked to get off a canal footpath as we picked blackberries it was for walkers not cheapskates. Sadly, this is just a sign of how far we have distanced ourselves from the land around us, we ramble through it but it is all about the walk rather than knowing the land and the seasons. A forager walking in spring will be out for the early herbs but will note what is in blossom and how heavy that blossom is. They will return in late summer and early autumn for a promised bounty of nuts and berries and a good forager will take what they need not what they want. They will take only what they can eat over the coming months rather than foraging everything out of existence. If you strip an entire tree of fruit you hit the ecosystem and food chain hard, we have seen this with local whinberries around here. Stripped a few years ago and sold on local markets, the low growing bushes have never really recovered and each year we find very little of them to eat. Yet, we have to remain positive, each year we lean down to see if there is anything there but there hasn't been anything for three years and we suspect that they have been foraged to death. But we can hope they will recover. We forage what we need and over the Bank Holiday weekend we got out between the showers - come on, it's England, it's a Bank Holiday - and started our first foraging foray for wild hedgerow fruit down in the valley.
The blackberries which are in abundance in our own garden are sparse this year out (though we have found many green ones and they are on our foraging map) and about, even scurrying down old quarry paths normally burgeoning with blackberries seem to be devoid of any life beyond rose willow herb and nettles. Foraging can often result in the feeling you have been stung and not always by nettles. The great thing about foraging is that you never know what you will come back with or how you will feel about it.
This trip we found cherry plums and bulice, we have found a large crop of hazel nuts that will be ready in a few weeks and we're going back for some more cherry plums in a couple of weeks. The great thing about foraging is you are working against the clock, so we will have to process this fruit in jams, chutneys and leather. We will eat some fresh, normally on the walk back home up the hill.
We are always amazed at how much wild produce is left to rot on the ground. The cherry plum was planted throughout the UK as hedgerows and trees to protect farmland and walled gardens. They can often be found around old orchards, long after the orchards have died, the cherry plums remain. These hardy trees often blossom, fruit and drop all its cherry plums on the ground so that a few people can complain in the local newspaper about how this free harvest is a slippy eyesore. It happens around here in the villages, people moan about the fruit on the paths but when you tell them that the fruit is edible they dismiss it, thinking that any fruit not wrapped in plastic is poisonous. It shameful that only a few generations after our ancestors relied on such bounties that we see them as something to complain about. We have even offered a bag of cherry plums to friends and they have tentatively taken them, sniffed them and placed them aside as if we were on the point of poisoning them. Honestly, if we offer you some jam, chutney or hedgerow fruit we are not out to kill you, we never met any forager desperate to kill people, one at a time, one fruit at a time. It would take too long and let's face facts you are killing yourself just wonderfully every time you bite into an apple coated in plastic or sprayed with chemicals. The polite refusal of wild fruit is a simply a case of familiarity, we have forgotten what hedgerow harvests look like and because we don't pay for them we place little worth on them. Maybe this is one of the reasons we lost our hedgerows, not just because of modern farming but because of people who saw the hedgerows as something that was beneath them, disgusting and worthless. After all, what can free fruit and nuts do for your diet?