hazelnuts

What elation to gather the hazelnuts before the squirrels made off with the entire harvest. We felt a bit smug, having just outsmarted bears who make off with plums, too.

hazelnuts

What a pleasure to shuck them, sitting on the back step with the children, like shucking corn both in word and in action. Albeit with enough repetition to cause a couple of blisters.

hazelnuts, hulled

What a delight to set them in a basket to dry in a warm room, and watch the pale green deepen to that hazelnut brown.

And what a disappointment to find them all empty, not a single nutmeat amongst them. All our plans for hazelnut torte, or honeynuts! Dashed. Back to buying cobnuts at the shops. The hazels were recruited for an autumn display, beautiful but slightly unfortunate, like an ornamental cherry in spring. Do you gather nuts from local trees before the creatures take them all? What do you do with them?

honey nuts

We’ve been lucky enough to forage wild nuts this autumn, something I’ve never done. Walnuts and sweet chestnuts have been squirrelled away for winter. When the children spotted cobnuts, a cultivated hazelnut, in a box at the farm shop we couldn’t resist taking some home. We have a hazel in Canada, but the nuts are usually thoroughly harvested by creatures before we can get any.

honey nuts © elisa rathje 2011

There’s a lovely, simple recipe for preserving hazelnuts in honey in my beloved copy of River Cottage Preserves. After many days of looking at those cobnuts I decided we’d best try it out.

honey nuts © elisa rathje 2011

I’m very fond of my rod rolling pin and a clean cloth for anything requiring a good bashing, from pounding bread crumbs to cracking nuts. It’s great, satisfying fun to tuck the cobnuts into the cloth and smack them with the pin til they give a resounding crack. All of us thoroughly enjoyed it.

honey nuts © elisa rathje 2011

The children pull the kernels out of the broken shells and husks with their nimble little fingers. A few are simply hollow, they call those ones ghosts.

cobnuts-4-s.jpg

Toast them in a hot, dry pan, keeping them moving til they release a lovely scent.

honey nuts © elisa rathje 2011

Then pack them into honey! Honey nuts, how simple and great. Preserves recommends layering nuts and honey, but our jar was too large. Really there shouldn’t be so much honey, but that’s not really a problem. They should keep this way very well through the cold months.

foraging with alys fowler

As luck would have it, things fell into place for me to go along on a foraging walk with the remarkable gardener and author Alys Fowler. Her little series, The Edible Garden, was pure joy, you must look out for it if you’ve missed it, my little children adored it just as much as I did. A group of friendly people showed up for an unforgettable lesson in wild food. To my utter delight my dear friend Sonny joined us too, my friend who foraged sloes, damsons and rosehips for me last year, whom I hadn’t seen in far too long. Amazing.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Alys is ever so lovely, just as you’d expect. We walked with her through parks in the city, and she introduced to us an astonishing variety of edible plants, many of which we sampled like wine-tasters in a vineyard. She’d brought along some greens from the allotment, delicious weeds like fat hen.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We found bittercress and also chickweed;

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

And a gentler nettle than the prickly giants that grow all around our cottage. Just the thing Eeyore would prefer, I should think. I shall be watching out for these to add to salads.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Lime leaves! Best young and fresh in the spring before the aphids attack.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Hawthorns in full fruit. My little one is determined to make a jelly from them, but Alÿs says it may be a lot of work to get much out of them!

She prefers a larger type, closer to the crab apple, it’s dusty orange just now and will ripen later on.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Rose hips, the kind I love to make into cordial.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Apple rose, these hips are astonishing, we ate them raw, nibbling around the seeds, as those are irritating if eaten, and watching out for creatures. Gorgeous. I found some since with my children and they adored them.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Ah, the medlar, so medieval, this is the first time we’ve met in person, and I’ve not yet tasted them. Wait til they are overripe.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sloes! I made sloe ginlast year, it is exquisite stuff, but my children are begging for sloe jam, perhaps mixed with apples from granny’s tree. Alys puts them in the freezer before popping them into gin.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Like a magician Alys revealed, hidden in the low leaves, quince – Japanese quince? She says to look around parking lots, they’re often planted there. I’ll be skulking in parking lots in early autumn, then, for these are beautiful, and the quince brandy I made last year is long gone and very much missed.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Then I fell head over heels for a fruit I’d never seen, much less tasted. The mulberry, oh, my goodness. I declare it the finest of all berries.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We swooned over an edible flower. Begonia, can you imagine? Lemony. I love it. How can I have lived so long without begonias in my salad! I want to float them in jelly.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Feverfew, terribly useful medicinally, if unpleasant. We didn’t sample that one.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

I’m so pleased to know what a walnut tree looks like. Perhaps one day I’ll beat the squirrels.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sonny and I inspected the leaf closely so we’ll know the tree when we see it. Apparently the nuts are bound up in little green packages, but they were all gone.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Then there is the sweet chestnut, which I’ve also never tasted! I hope to try cooking with them. One of things I admire about Alys is that she clearly knows how to enjoy using wild food in the kitchen, not just standing at the bush having a browse. I aspire.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Sonny and Alys collected a few plums with the fruit picker, she says that they’re always mixing with other plums so the variations are endless. These were lovely. I’ve walked past a plum by my Canadian home for years, not sure if I could eat it, the way you do when you haven’t been properly introduced, and every year it litters the pavement with fruit. I’ll be up on a ladder with it now!

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

I’d love to find another place with so many types of apples.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

Beautiful, bright sweet crab apples, nothing like the crab apples I tasted (only once!) as a child.

foraging walk with alys fowler © elisa rathje 2011

We ate the little red ones like candy. Identifying all these plants was a dream, like going to a party full of wonderful people you’ve long admired and hoped to meet. A bit like meeting the extraordinary Alys Fowler herself. Her knowledge of plants is equally matched by my sieve-like memory, so I’m very fortunate that she’s written
The Thrifty Forager
, and hope to be studying it soon. Thank you Alys, this was a marvellous evening.