A foraged harvest

Harvest mouse by Mark Bridger (Shutterstock)

Harvest mouse by Mark Bridger (Shutterstock) - Credit: Archant

The season of foraging is upon us and already blackberries have swelled and blackened to juicy, mouth-watering morsels.

Even a short foray into the countryside suggests that there is a bumper crop on offer this year as towering brambles become ‘blackberry mountains’. A few scratches and berry-stained clothing is the small price we pay for an otherwise free feast, enjoyed immediately or perhaps later in a crumble.

It’s not just blackberries on offer and I was heartened to see a whole family out gathering mushrooms locally the other day. Their apparent preparedness and confident delight reassured me that amongst their ranks was the wisdom to know what was good to eat and what was not. They perhaps represent a small but growing contingent of people who are aware of what is naturally available in the wild as food and who harvest it for free.

Of course, for us, foraging is a luxury, some would even argue the latest food fad, but for nature’s inhabitants it is an essential way of life. The natural abundance of fruit, nuts and seed at this time of year brings an urgency to collect, feed, store and prepare for the seasonal change ahead.

Many of my recent walks have taken me through cornfields now on the cusp on ripeness: the dry barley heads crackling and snapping like Rice Krispies in the sun. A foraging frenzy is in evidence all around as swallows, house martins and swifts skim off the insect life over the corn. An occasional rustle or squeak along the path hints at activity within the crop itself – probably voles and mice also busily feeding before the inevitable comes.

A few fields on and the combine harvester has already done its work: the field laid bare. The foragers now become the fodder as kites, kestrels and buzzards gather to pick off any fleeing rodents. It’s a harsh end for the inhabitants of the cornfield but I take comfort in the fact that the ground, devoid of moisture, is fissured with deep cracks – surely suitable hiding places, at least until the cover of night. When the soil is finally turned under the plough flocks of gulls, pigeons and crows will pick off earthworms and grubs and complete the harvest of the fields.

There is an accommodating efficiency to this harvest-time foraging that stands in sharp contrast to some of our more modern farming practices. In these fields at least, no vast crop monoculture monopolizes, where insects have been removed, collapsing the whole food chain save that for our own stomachs. Nature plays a vital role in our harvest and we a vital part in nature’s harvest too.

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A recent survey by the Jordans Farm Partnership reported a shocking disconnection with nature amongst the British public. The survey found that 13 per cent of Britons hadn’t gone for a stroll in the countryside in the last two years or more. One third of those quizzed said they didn’t have a clue about wildlife. It is maybe this kind of disconnection that risks harvest-time being perceived as a purely human exercise in food collection with consideration only for efficiency and economy.

For me, foraging offers a different vision of the harvest and one that invites us to connect personally with nature – to learn about what is naturally on offer and learn the skills to find it and harvest it in a sustainable way. Even a family outing to pick blackberries can open the door to an experience of nature that would not otherwise have been had.

We are very fortunate in St Albans to have The Foragers @The Verulam Arms pub – a restaurant offering a menu supplemented with locally foraged food. True to form, I encountered one of their staff foraging for wood sorrel in a local wood just a few days ago. With his encouragement I tasted this tangy woodland plant for the first time that, up until now, I had overlooked and even trampled over.

Of course, there is nothing like a personal guide when it come to venturing out foraging so if you want to go beyond the basics of gathering blackberries in the summer and sweet chestnuts in the autumn, why not join one of the ‘foraging walks’ organized by The Foragers @The Verulam Arms. I’m sure you’ll find not just something good to eat but also deeper experience of the nature on your very doorstep!

For more information on The Foragers please visit www.the-foragers.com