GOOD news! The squirrels have returned. Alan thinks they heard me writing them off last week, and put in an appearance to prove me wrong. Early one morning, a young grey swarmed down a trunk on the village green, more like mercury than anything made of flesh and bone. I learned recently that their hind feet are double-jointed, to allow them to descend as easily as they go up. That would explain it.
The following day, two of them raced after each other up and down the trees and across the grass. This might have been a territorial dispute, but it looked a lot like playtime to me. I know some people can’t abide greys, since they have endangered our native red squirrels.
Yet until such time as the reds reach Hoolet once more – that would be a happy day – the greys fill our squirrel-shaped gap. It’s heartening to know that they’ve been out there all the time, too fleet of foot for me to notice, or so nourished by the fruits and nuts on offer in neighbours’ well-plenished back gardens they had no need to venture roadside.
Already they’ll be gathering a store, to get them through the lean months. But it’s not just squirrels who have been scavenging in Hoolet.
A friend was disgruntled to see a couple of visitors pick a hedge clean of blackberries and carry them off to their car in large plastic containers. He felt it’s one thing for those of us who live nearby, or happen to be passing, to enjoy the delights on offer along our woodland paths, quite another for strangers to swoop down with premeditation, and strip the place like locusts.
Obviously there’s nothing anyone can do about this sort of lawful raid. In the mannerly world of foraging, however, the code is not to be greedy, or take more than is your fair share. Pocketfuls are fine; large tubs whose lids can barely be closed are not. This applies regardless of whether you live in the vicinity or come from miles away.
Last month blackberries weighed down the verges. We came upon veteran foragers, armed with a walking stick to pull the razor-blade branches towards them. With one hand encased in a protective leather glove, like a falconer’s gauntlet, the other was free to pick and tug.
Now the leaves are turning, horse-chestnut collectors have been scouring the green. Gauging when to hunt for conkers is an art: too early, and the tree laughs as you try to dislodge its not yet ripe nuts; a day too late, and all you’ll find are empty shells, where hours before a glossy nut was snugly encased, like the Koh-i-Noor.
This week, Christmas has arrived in the shape of fat red hips, decorating the hedges all around. If I had the patience, perhaps I’d make rose-hip jelly. Yet delicious though that is, I prefer to see the hips brightening the greenery, rather than locked away in my cupboard.
Word always licks around Hoolet as the sloes appear, this being a gin lover’s haven. Right now the blackthorn bushes are fit to bursting, as the berries reach their prime, but for those of us happy to buy gin off the supermarket shelf, there are other delicacies to tempt us.
When I was away for a couple of days recently, a neighbour took pity on Alan and gave him a pie-dish of home-made apple crumble to see him through this difficult time. He explained where to find the wild tree, some distance away, whose apples are deliciously tart. Much better than anything you’ll buy in the greengrocer’s, he said, yet usually they go ungathered.
This is not entirely surprising. Following his directions, Alan tried to find the apple tree, and after stumping around the edge of several fields, returned empty-handed. Thankfully, he had the crumble to console him.
Every month the countryside fills with new additions for the forager’s larder. September, while being rich in blackberries and blaeberries, is also good for crab apples and redcurrants, not to mention elder berries.
Occasionally, at the height of summer, I’ll spot a neighbour passing in the field, his eye fixed heron-like on the nearby elderflower bushes. The cordial he makes from them is so scrumptious that, while he adds it to prosecco, it far outshines the wine. No need for alcohol on a summer’s evening if he has been stirring up his concoctions. His bottles come with a three-month use-by date, but we’re doing well if they last a week in our fridge.
Pleasingly rustic though all this sounds, other than obvious fruits I’m wary about wild harvesting. Although there are guidebooks explaining what’s in season throughout the year I don’t trust my powers of observation.
My mother, who was brought up near Epping Forest, where mushroom picking was a family affair, put her long-lost foraging skills into practice when I was young. The result was a delicious Saturday evening fry-up – white pudding, fried eggs, chargrilled tomatoes and – joy of joys – fried bread. Pride of place was given to the tasty mushrooms she had gathered earlier in the woods.
Every plate was scraped clean, and cheerful whistling could be heard as we washed and dried the dishes. It was around this point that Mum felt a twinge of doubt. They might have looked like field mushrooms, but what if she had been mistaken, and they were instead yellow staining mushrooms, which are poisonous?
Half an hour later, all enjoyment had gone. Under her instructions, we had all tried to make ourselves sick; only Dad succeeded, losing everything at the bottom of the garden. As he returned, whey-faced, she called a doctor friend. He gave her the number of a poison advice line, and said that if we got through the next two hours without blurred vision, we were probably safe. I recall scrutinising the television screen, alert to the slightest flicker in my eyesight. It was mildly disappointing when at ten o’clock we realised we had escaped disaster and could safely go to bed.
Since then, I’ve steered clear of wild fungi. I am well aware what an abundance of tasty wild food lies all around us in Hoolet. Sadly that ruined dinner has put most of it out of bounds.
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