Past Life:

Lor­raine Child goes for­ag­ing in the hedgerows

Cotswold Life - - NEWS - Lor­raine Child Con­tact the­quill@bt­in­ter­

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.

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