We went a-foraging

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Autumn is my favourite season. I know I’ve said that before, and I’ve said it about other seasons. But autumn is absolutely my favourite. It’s the time when you can see nature at work around you, busy with the last push of productivity before winter sets in. It’s a great time to get out and nick gather or forage the wonderful goodies that nature puts out there for us. It seems that, for most people, foraging doesn’t really go beyond picking a few blackberries out of the hedges by the footpaths. But if you spent most of your childhood Octobers being dragged around the hedges looking for sloes and crab apples, you’ll be aware of how much more is out there. And I’m sure I only know a fraction of what’s available for the hard-core forager.

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Autumn is also just a wonderful time to get out there and smell the air. It’s that wonderful smell that you remember from your first day of school when everything was new and fresh and crisp like the first blank page of a new exercise book.
You have free reign to make what you want of everything you see, whatever it is. If life gives you lemons, they say, make lemonade. Similarly, if autumn gives you crab apples, make jelly. Or if it gives you sloes, make sloe gin.
Oh go on then.

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The contents of my kitchen table changes from day-to-day, if I’m very lucky, there’s even space for me to eat at it (although less in autumn than during the other seasons. Here’s a snapshot:

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I’ve had hazelnuts and beech nuts from the garden opposite (only the ones that fell outside the boundary of course!)

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Walnuts from another garden (following the same rules)

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And these, which I have always known as Chinese Lanterns, which weren’t strictly foraged, but given to me. Apparently the bush had too much fruit for the owner. I didn’t complain.

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On a walk last week in some vain hope of extremely late blackberries (which I just knew was hoping for too much,) we turned a corner into the wood, went up some steps, and I spotted some suspiciously small apples on the ground. One bite confirmed that they were too sour to be someone’s discarded (and slightly bizarrely located) picnic, and the fact that there were more strewn around the place, all the way up the slope to our left proved that they came from a tree not far away.

Dear reader, if you knew how much of my childhood I spent giving myself a bad stomach on hedgerow fruit, you’d think that the discovery of crab apples in Switzerland would be the most exciting thing that had happened to me for a long time. Well, it was. But it was topped an hour or so later, by the sudden appearance of a laden Prunus spinosa bush. Yes, sloes. Last year I bemoaned the fact that the Swiss don’t need blackthorn as a cow deterrent in quite the quantities that the English do. But this bush was holding enough fruit for, as it turned out, three-and-a-half litres of sloe gin. Coming across that bush was something akin to walking through a Swiss town and finding a Waitrose or M&S (complete with non-Swiss prices.) Oh what a snob I am.

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So we set about picking, and The Boy soon picked up the traditional Olde Englishe sloe-picking song. All together now:

Oww ow ow oww. Owwwww,
Owww, owwwwwww!

Of course, the best thing you can do with a fruit that’s a good 50% plus stone, and is far too sour to eat (and enjoy) more than a very small handful, is to stick them in a bottle,

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add sugar (usually on a 1:1 ratio with the sloes, but they were very sweet for sloes, so I did various different ratios, between about 2 sloes:1 sugar, and 3 sloes: 2 sugar,) and fill up with gin.

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The 5lb of crab apples that we picked up went to make crab apple jelly, in two batches, one of juice that I left to strain overnight (for the non-cloudy approach) and one of juice that I squeezed out. I added sugar on a 7:10 ratio to the fruit juice, and boil-boil-boiled. (Playing Harry Potter? Me?)

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I don’t know how the apples went from this greenish-yellow colour:

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to this wonderful pinkish red:

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but it did, and doesn’t it just look lovely?

One last forage, yesterday we climbed a hill in search of rowan berries. Unfortunately we were too late, the few we found were very over-ripe, but the rose hips were in their prime. several hours and three containers-full later, I had to re-organise my freezer. I’m planning more jelly, but I’ve read that they’re better used after a frost, or after freezeing and thawing, like sloes. It turns out that the song that goes with sloe picking is very similar to the one for rose hips.

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