Friday 23 February 2018

Sweet harvest of the hedgerows

Bounty: Elderberries can be used for tasty treats like crumbles, pies and jams
Bounty: Elderberries can be used for tasty treats like crumbles, pies and jams

Joe Kennedy

Underfoot, pushed aside on an older suburban street in west Dublin, the spiky kernels of an interesting tree harvest lay scatted in an autumnal fall.

Surely this could not be sweet chestnut (castanea sativa), that nutritious imprint of the Roman Empire across Europe, and Britain? Wherever Caesar's legions penetrated, these trees were planted. It was a brilliant and practical operation, designed to last. From the crushed kernel polenta-flour was procured -food for the future.

But these Dublin street spheres, like small hairy tennis balls, are, I learned, Constantinople nuts or Turkish hazels (corylus colurna), very similar to the prickly nuts I remember from the thick woods of northern Spain. The Dublin fruits are, in fact, as a result of a municipal planting of 20 years ago in an enlightened act by officialdom, prompted perhaps by some green-enthused local residents!

I had hoped they might have been chestnuts (to sample) which may be found in parts of southern England and Cumbria, wherever Rome's writ ran. The Romans did not venture here, to Ierne, apart from some tentative landfalls. The weather didn't suit them! They named the island Hibernia, the wintry land. And so it has usually remained.

In England, some of the biggest sweet chestnut trees are in Gloucestershire and one veteran, at Tortworth, is reckoned to be 1,000 years old with off-shoots bearing nuts.

In our own countryside now there is much wild harvest bounty. Elderberries are a flush of colour where crab-apples and sloes also hang. A reader has sent a picture of scarlet guelder-rose berries like drops of paint splashed on green leaves. In woodland, crisp fungi puff-balls were gathered by an enthusiastic forager who planned to fry them. I am conservative in mushroom preferences. I may admire the various genus, hues and blemishes but picking for the pot is usually from corners when milk-white buttons pop up. They can be cooked in milk and cornflour.

Field guides are essential. There are several excellent booklets and illustrated collections. A favourite from my old library is still the pocket-sized Collins Gem which I have had since the 1980s. It is still a surprise to see illustrations of attractive growths marked 'Deadly Poison' so you cannot be too careful. They are not called "Death Caps" or "Destroying Angels" without reason, though they may look harmless.

However, mushrooms are not gathered by everybody. Farming life proceeds and those fresh crops may be trampled underfoot, flattened by resting cows or squashed into mud by tractors or quad bikes.

Now ripened elder fruit pleads to be picked, but is generally ignored except by country wine or cordial enthusiasts. Its high vitamin C content should be an encouragement but berries are usually left for birds or fall to mammal and insect life on the ground. Many pleasant goodies may be made from the hedgerow harvest. Blackberries, elders, sloes, crab apples and rose hips can become jams, jellies, tarts and drinks. Try steeping blackberries in wine overnight - or blend them to stand for an hour to become firm and serve with a blob of cream or a dash of sloe gin from last year. Delicious!

Sunday Independent

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