Hunting and gathering

‘Hunting’ as in ‘seeking out’.  So we’re talking fruits, not foxes.

Hunting for the wonderful abundance of edible berries, flowers and plants that are all around the country if only we knew where to look, when to look, and what the heck it is that we looking for.

When I was researching for this I spent a fascinating couple of hours with some Grandees in Derby talking about all the different kinds of wild foods that they would find and eat when they were young.  How did they know what was safe to pick and eat what wasn’t? The answer was that they just did – everyone did then.  They remembered being sent out from home in the morning and told (in the nicest possible way, I’m sure) not to return until sunset, with just a drink and maybe a sandwich to keep them going all day.  So they had to find food to eat or else go hungry. ‘Need’ was, I think, really only half the story.

There were more than a few misty eyes of nostalgia in the room as they told me about being on a Scouts trip and picking wild strawberries from the mountainside before the goats got to them (sometimes I think they make this stuff up). Or cooking moorhen eggs in a thick paper bag that had some water in it and was set over a fire – thereby surely inventing the whole concept of ‘boil in the bag’. Memories as evocative to them as for my friend Georgia who remembers proudly returning home with battle-weary scratched and crimson hands from scrabbling around in the hedgerow for perfectly-ripe blackberries.

So what could be better after your picnic feast and maybe a few hectic games of something or other, than to head off into the surrounding countryside to see what treats you can find. It’s the perfect opportunity to make use of the first-hand knowledge of any of your picnicking party who are old-hands at this foraging lark. I know that I go on a lot about the generations doing things with each other, but this really is another one of the great things for grown-ups and kids to do and discover together. With the added bonus that sending boisterous youngsters off to pick fruit will bring a very welcome calm for anyone who needs to lay their head down on the blanket and snooze off that extra glass of (elderflower?) wine.

The ground-rules for picking wild foods are common-sense, mixed in with healthy respect for the countryside:

  • Is it legal? Well, broadly speaking yes – so long as whatever you pick is for your own purposes and you won’t be making any money from whatever you have collected.  If you have read Enid Blyton’s ‘The Hidey Hole’ you’ll remember that the plot hinges on Betty, Bobby and Jacko going fruit-picking to make some money so that they could buy their friend a tricycle.  An admirable sentiment but one which might skate dangerously close to landing the intrepid trio on the wrong side of the law these days.
  • You’re on dodgy ground too if you wander into someone’s private land to pick from there.  That includes farmer’s fields.  For fields or gardens you will need to have the landowner’s permission.  Overhanging branches or the outside of hedgerows are absolutely fine.
  • Do not strip nature bare.  She needs some left to be able to sustain other wildlife and for the cycle of life to continue.  If you take all the flowers on a bush, then there will be no fruits later in the season.  And if you take all the fruits, where will the seeds come from for next year’s crop?
  • Finally, be sure about what it is that you are picking. If you are ever at all uncertain, then check check and check again with a proper wild food guide.

I had a bit of a tricky start to making my first ever batch of elderflower cordial. We went out ‘elderflower’ picking and it was only when I got home and double-checked our stash with some pictures that I realized this was no elderflower.  I have a nasty feeling that we’d actually gathered  – highly poisonous – water hemlock.  My second go fared little better and I actually did go all the way and make a mystery cordial from a plant that I still have no idea what it was.  I clocked just before bottling that whatever it was, it wasn’t elderflower.  Third time lucky.  Or rather, third time correct.  Happily well-worth the effort and near-miss poisoning.  A story which looking back makes me feel so stupid for not recognising what was and wasn’t elderflower.  The moral of my embarrassing tale is: know what it is you are picking and if at all unsure, make sure.

Armed with a little bit of knowledge, something to put your trophies into (and I would suggest some gloves too to protect from the brambles), and you are all set to discover the countryside that you are picnicking in.


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