Today is Blog Action Day and the theme is food, so I’m reliably informed, so here’s my where my food thoughts are today:
The season of mists of mellow fruitfulness is pretty well over in the UK, certainly here in North Wales. Today I picked my last blackberries, but only a few, to add to the frozen stores. Last week Hilary (my wife) made an apple and blackberry pie for Harvest – Gwasanaeth Diolchgarwch – when we enjoyed a simple meal with members of the church family and with some visitors from Tanzania, and I laid down my last bottle of sloe gin grieving for the beautiful sloes still hanging on the bushes, knowing that we will not use more than two or three bottles of the stuff over the next year. My grief led me to a final foray among the sloe bushes and I made sloe jelly for the first time ever and it’s not bad at all though it has the slight edge to it that sloe inevitably imparts.
I picked my last fat, juicy ‘mushroom’ in the churchyard and fried it in butter and garlic to eat with my lunch – it had a brown skin and had ‘edible’ written all over it though I never seem able to convince Hilary of that fact until I have survived for a few days after, when it’s too late for her to taste it. And why are the churchyard mushrooms jucier than the ones growing by the Fire Station I wonder?
As I look back on what has been the most amazing season of autumn fruits – wild damsons, greengage, merelles; even horse chestnuts and acorns bigger than I’ve seen in a good while – I ponder why is it that so much goes to waste and so few seem bothered to collect them? When I was a child in West Cumberland my brother and I would climb the crab apple trees to shake the fruit down for my parents to gather below and my mother to make into crab apple jelly. I got my arms and legs covered in bleeding scratches for the sake of the bramble pies we would enjoy and the brim-full Kilner preserve jars that, alongside the gooseberries and blackcurrants from the garden, would see us well through the winter. Everyone seemed to collect wild fruit in those days. I guess my parents were still in frugal mood following the war and anything wholesome and free was welcome whatever the trouble to gather and prepare or preserve it.
In the early years of our marriage and while our four children were young I would always stop on the way home from work to pick up fresh road kill – provided it wasn’t squashed flat of course. We ate many a rabbit though we never quite got the hang of pheasant, or the technique of hanging pheasant and creating a flavoursome meal with it. Today I passed three dead pheasant, none of them flattened, and a group of four jay-walking and asking for trouble, but we don’t stop for road kill anymore. The best hare I ever ate was in the home of a woodman north of Stockholm in the winter of petrol rationing 38 years ago. It was his family’s New Year dinner garnished with several varieties of wild fungi and vegetables, and the meal had cost him nothing. Why then do we turn our backs on this free supply and opt for the convenience of food we must pay for? Are we too busy? Are we distrustful of wild food? Have we lost interest in or contact with the natural world on our doorstep? Do we fear what others will think of us scavenging for food?
I heard this month that some local authorities are banning collection of blackberries on the basis that the natural habitat is being damaged and that wild animals are being deprived. That’s such hogwash! The only things being trodden down are briars and the nettles which grow with them and the only creatures being deprived are the flies that lay their eggs and the maggots that hatch and feast on the fruit. The birds don’t seem interested and the fruit simply falls from the bramble after the maggots attack.
One thing about returning to Cambodia next month will be the renewed joy of seeing that everything nature provides being harvested and nothing wasted. Every stream, ditch, pool and river is fished. Every mango tree picked, every sugar palm drained. Spiders and crickets, beetles and shellfish – every imaginable thing from air, land and water is gathered, prepared, sold and eaten, whether cultivated or free-grown – nothing is wasted. That’s the difference between our world and theirs – we have developed such a wasteful consumer culture based on colossal over-supply and induced demand. Mind you my experience in November at the end of the rainy season may be rather different – the extensive flooding is worse than it has been in recent years and has damaged huge areas of rice paddies. The annual Water Festival has been cancelled for Phnom Penh for fear of more loss of life – there have been hundreds drowned in the floods already and the authorities do not wish to risk another disaster like the stampede over the narrow footbridge at last year’s festival which caused the deaths of some three to four hundred people. The monies allocated for the festival are to be diverted for relief to the flood affected areas.
And so here in the UK autumn is over and the opportunities to gather fruit have well-nigh gone. The full-grown lambs are being sold in the market next door. The swallows have already gathered and departed for warmer skies. Soon the red-breasted Robin will shiver on his perch and we shall warm ourselves by the log fire reflecting on the early winter while eating tasteless strawberries flown from the South. Those that stay at home that is.
As for me, I’m off back to the warm land of crickets and embryo eggs, looking forward to plates of rice and fishy soups, and if I can make it to Coloured Chairs, I’ll have some sweet and sour …