Lorraine Child goes foraging in the hedgerows
Bowed under the burden of its purple-black drupes, the blackthorn lures the innocent. ‘Pick me, pick me’, it seems to say, before pressing its flesh-tearing thorns into the grasp of the unwary. Autumnal mists herald the season for foraging, when many of us discover an urge to plunder Nature’s of her buxom ripeness, to live off the land, even though we have no idea what to do with the mushed fruit when we get it home. But it’s free at the point of picking, even if the cost is to mortal flesh.
My adored grandmother, born in the fading light of Victoria’s reign, was a country girl through to her bones and we enjoyed many autumns gathering fruit from the hedgerows around the Cotswolds. Despite the bothersome pain of arthritis, she used her antique walking stick to hook the higher branches, stretching like Tantalus for the dark berries that lay just out of reach. Often was this determined lady rescued from a ditch, bloomers disclosed, having lost her footing. Never in the fields was so much dignity lost to so few sloes.
The blackthorn, which bears the sloe, is a large shrub or small tree of vicious temperament. It has a dark history twisted with ancient rituals and witchcraft, its malignity delivering bad luck to those who bring it indoors, though presumably the fruit is benign when turned into flavoured gin. Having smudged my lips just the once with this rubied brew, I think not. Blackthorn was known as the Dark Crone of the Woods or Mother of the Woods and believed to harbour the dark secrets of those with a troubled conscience. In Celtic legend, a curse befell those who cut the wood on Samhain, the festival marking the end of summer, or on Beltane, the hot, fiery bacchanal that celebrates the shedding of winter and the return of the earth’s fecundity. Wonderfully raw, primal, earthy stuff.
Paul Humphreys in From My Cotswold Window, September 1979, wrote of the seasonal pleasures of turning fruit into wine, wherein his wife was particularly adept, having made hawthorn blossom, crab apple and even parsley versions, and he recalled a very good parsnip wine made by a Dorset farmer’s wife. My greatuncle’s hospitality was dimmed by the potency of his sweet rootstock wine, so rough it could have stripped rust from an old seadog’s anchor. Pressed to more than one glass felt like being softly bludgeoned with a sandbag. Home-brewing and winemaking still thrive, giving a sense of satisfaction from picking fruit and turning it into a liquor that is apparently drinkable, with the strength of Tom and Barbara’s legendary julep, peapod burgundy. Being something of a home-brew connoisseur in the 1960s, my father turned the spare bedroom into a chemistry lab where magic happened: bubbling demijohns, siphons, dainty glass phials that bobbed up and down, the heady hit of bubbling yeast, and a strange powder called isinglass.
This is an essential ingredient if you don’t like cloudy ale, but there is a gathering realisation amongst vegans and vegetarians that the clarity of the amber liquid they are necking comes courtesy of fishes’ air sacs, though seaweed and various mosses are now used by breweries that take a stance on such matters. Surprisingly, and no doubt quite forgettably, there are many varieties of isinglass: Siberian Purse; New York Ribbon; Brazil Lump and Honeycomb, sounding more like cellophane-wrapped lovelies in a confectioner’s window. In 1905, on February 18, a Thursday to be exact, a meeting was held at The Grand Hotel in Birmingham to discuss the natural history of this strange substance. Maybe there was little to keep the good burghers of Brum at home on a chilly winter’s evening, but it shines a light on Edwardian life that the companionship of their wives was subordinate to the beneficial properties of a dried swim bladder.
For me, a good grape, never the grain, imbues life with touches of warm, congenial pleasure, but winemaking will never float my float. Having inherited my late father’s wine pan, re-purposed from a lovely old bread pancheon, it is now filled with lobelia and impatiens: white rather than red. The great and much-missed journalist and bon viveur Christopher Hitchens wrote “alcohol makes other people less tedious”; unless, that is, they are boring you rigid about the clarity and brightness of their wort.