It has long been my opinion that gathering wild food is good for the soul; it’s mentally stimulating, it boosts confidence and it’s intensely satisfying. Above all, it teaches everyone, especially our children, so much. Foraging in the forest, scavenging along hedgerows or digging in the tideline on the coast are all lessons they will certainly never learn in a classroom, and the best part of all, finding wild food is easy.
It’s the children’s autumn school holidays, which means two weeks with no set routine and no early morning school runs. The Vacances de la Toussaint are centred around the French national holiday of La Toussaint, All saints Day, which occurs on November 1st. It is one of the most respected public days in the country. Many French people like to attend an All Saints mass to remember the Catholic Saints as well as honour their late relatives, and it is a common sight to see French people laying chrysanthemums on the graves of loved ones, and at this time of year the local markets are full of them. Chrysanthemums are indeed so closely linked to La Toussaint that the French never give them as a gift.
Without exception school holidays mean I am burning the candle at both ends, but I would far rather work late, well into the small hours of the morning if it means I can have my daytimes relatively free to spend with the children. In fact after a lovely bike ride a couple of days ago I commented to Roddy how grateful I am that our teenage children love to spend as much time with us as the younger girls do. Jack, who is 14, happily cycled along with me; there was a constant banter between us, lots of jokes and giggling. Ahead the others raced along and echoes of laughter floated back, carried towards us on the gentle autumn breeze; who wouldn’t give up some precious beauty sleep for that? Surely it’s worth a few dark circles under the eyes, it certainly is to me.
But back to the hunt for wild food, for it’s one thing we all love doing together – a little foraging. The iPhones and iPads, the computers and all forms of technology, are forgotten; this is back to basic living in its simplest form, practised by man for centuries and yet still it holds fascination for both young and old alike.
First on the agenda was a visit to a wild lone spanish chestnut tree we spied a while ago whilst taking a supposed short cut; one of those deviations that always seems to turn into quite the opposite, a ‘long cut’. Typically, this will lead one on a wild goose hunt, but this time we found some treasure in the form of some chestnuts, and I’d made a mental note to return.
Ignoring our advice Hetty was keen to get started but quickly she realised why we had told her she needed to wear thick gardening gloves to protect against the prickly outer shells!
Returning home with a full basket we set about removing the outer spiky husks. Then we cut a cross in the flat side of the dark shell which makes peeling it off much easier after they’re cooked. In the evening we lit the fire in the summer kitchen for the first time since last winter; it’s that wonderful time of year when it’s warm enough to be outside, but chilly enough to be grateful for the warm glow from burning wood. Last year’s vine-cuttings and small logs from the pruned fig tree crackled in the hearth, their earthy aromatic scent filling the ancient building and a couple of spiders descended from the ceiling on silken threads as they wended their way down from the rising heat. We gathered around as the sweet nuts roasted for a good half-hour in an old chestnut roasting-pan specifically designed for this with small holes in the bottom (another find we discovered abandoned by the fire when we bought the house). When they were finally ready we picked off their charred skins and ate our fill.
Our next outing was to some nearby oak woods.
Unlike our French friends where the gathering and cooking of wild mushrooms is a common family event at this time of year, we Britons tend to be a little more hesitant to forage for wild fungi. Our reluctance is, of course, understandable. Mushrooms can kill. But separating the delicious from the deadly is where expert mycologists can help, and as there are estimated to be over 14,000 different species of fungi in France it’s certainly good to know you can take anything you find to your local pharmacy where it will be identified for free and you’ll be informed as to what in your precious haul is edible and what is best left well alone.
We quickly spread out, scanning the forest floor. The search took on the energetic feel of a great big family adventure. We came across some beehives in a small clearing.
Continuing we clambered over brambles and branches between the trees, calling Roddy excitedly when we spotted something remotely interesting. We had armed ourselves each with a stick, carefully chosen from the hundreds that lay in our path, not daring to touch anything with our hands until he had given his verdict, for although nowhere near an expert he is by far the most knowledgeable amongst us. This autumn has been particularly bad for mushrooms so far. It’s been far too dry, fungi like rain, they like damp conditions and we have had none. Still we continued our search but sadly in vain. However, this time no one was too fussed, it’s such fun to walk in the woods.
Locals shake their heads when we talk about mushrooms at the moment; apparently we need to wait another couple of weeks,then maybe, if there is rain (and if the conditions are right), our efforts might be rewarded; but they all agree it will be a very poor season even if we do get some wet weather.
We did find a hazel tree and a handful of nuts, but that was all we had to show for our efforts!
Whilst I was preparing the chestnuts I flicked through the pages of Roddy’s practical handbook on all things ‘fungi’ open on the table. I found a quote taken from The Grete Herball (The Great Herbal) that caught my attention. “There be two manners of them (fungi), one maner is deedley and slayeth them that eateth them… and the other doeth not.” The Grete Herball was an early Modern encyclopedia that detailed the medicinal virtues of plants. It was the first illustrated herbal produced in English in 1526. If we should find some mushrooms in a few weeks time, at least I think we know how to stick to those that doeth not!