September is a month of abundance, even after a summer drought, says foraging expert Carl Mintern as he enjoys the literal fruits of the season
This year has been a test of water management for both us humans and the natural world, with droughts seen across much of the country and record temperatures to boot. Indeed, many of our trees have decided to shed brown leaves as early as mid-August, giving some areas a very autumnal look and feel already.
I, along with you I am sure, am hoping that the coming weeks and months give our surroundings a chance to recover from this summer with some much-needed rainfall.
I have also noticed that many of our hedgerow harvests seem unaffected by the conditions, with a bumper year for blackberries and also many nut trees looking extremely bountiful.
One such tree is the walnut (Juglans regia), a prized tree in the forager’s inventory. While many people are surprised to hear that we can go foraging for walnuts in the UK, the walnut tree has been growing here since Roman times and can be found in many parks and larger gardens, as well as on roadsides. Indeed, it is one of the things I will often spot from my car on journeys all around the Blackmore Vale and surrounding area.
As with most nut trees, the trick is getting to the ripe nuts before the squirrels, who are particularly adept at outwitting us human collectors when it comes to timing our harvests.
Ideally you will wait until the shell has started peeking through the green husks which are in clusters of two to five. They are green and oval in shape, looking a little like a lime from a distance, and inside is the wrinkled seed. As the nut ripens, the shell forms and hardens around it. Once collected and dried out it can be stored for up to a year.
In the world of foraging, nuts hold a special place for me, alongside mushrooms, as they can form the centrepiece of a meal and offer a huge amount of protein and other nutrients. As such, it should come as little surprise when I say that the walnut tree is by far my favourite tree to find on the landscape.
The next plant I wish to share this month is meadowsweet, (Filipendula ulmaria), a truly abundant wild herb that likes a damper environment – hopefully the autumn will deliver one. This sweetly-scented plant was famous both as a strewing herb, scattered on the floor for its scent, and as a flavouring for mead. Today I use it to infuse many things, from vinegars to custards.
Last September I undertook a challenge where I only consumed food I could procure myself, with not a single thing bought from a shop, and I made meadowsweet custard by infusing my goat’s milk with the flowers from this plant, which deliver an almond flavour with hints of vanilla.
All parts of the plant are edible and can be added to soups or sauces, giving a deliciously sweet aromatic flavour to sweet dishes such as stewed fruits. The bitter roots, along with the leaves and flowers, have been used dried as a tea.
Traditionally found in damper meadows, meadowsweet grows prolifically in the Blackmore Vale along roadside ditches which have been created and maintained to irrigate agricultural land. It is both abundant and easy to find and identify.
Finally this month, I would like to draw your attention to the possibility of finding other fruits we usually associate with cultivated harvesting. While I will spotlight no one in particular, I think its easy for us to forget that wild strawberries and raspberries proliferate in wild spaces all around us, along with wild blueberries and currants.
As I sit to write this article, I can see a heaving bowl of pears, collected from a wild pear tree growing on an almost unused roadside connecting two small hamlets. The differences between the pears I have and the ones in the shops? Well, apart from the fact mine taste better, and were free, not much at all …