Everyone’s a fruit and nut case
Favoured by squirrels, birds and man, our native nuts and berries are everything they’re cracked up to be, says forager John Wright, if you know where to look and what to do with them
’m a very practical sort of forager, as were all our foraging forbears. There’s little point in expending more energy in pursuing a wild food than you receive in eating it, however, on occasion, I love a challenge and few wild foods are more challenging in Britain than nuts. We simply don’t have that many and what we do have can be parsimonious in their offerings.
In descending order of availability and usefulness, they are hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts, walnuts and beech nuts or beechmast. With economy of effort in mind, the practical forager simply picks whatever he or she can find, so an excursion to pick nuts will always involve an extra basket or box dedicated to other hedgerow delights such as blackberries and sloes.
Hazelnuts have a long, long history as a foodstuff in Britain, as they were a staple of mesolithic man, whose middens speak eloquently of their diet. It could even be said that the British countryside was shaped by a quest for hazelnuts, as these peoples enlarged forest clearings with fire, partly to provide young growth and edge habitat for the hazel trees that regrew quickly after the flames had subsided.
Indeed, the humble hazelnut has supplemented the diet of poor people down
Ithe ages. The Kentish Gazette of 1788 celebrates the ‘greatest nut year’ for ‘some time past’ and that the hazel branches, bending under the weight of their nuts were ‘inviting the rustic gatherer to pluck their grateful clusters’.
Although the hazel is a common woodland and hedgerow tree, the nuts are less frequent, refusing to grow in close canopy conditions, preferring wood edges and hedgerows. Roadside hedges are often devoid of nuts because of the unwelcome attentions of the council hedge-trimmer, thus, it is internal hedges and wood edges that provide the most reliable sources.
They grow in bunches of three or four and you’re invited to pluck your clusters—generally in the second week of September, although I’ve picked huge numbers on occasion in mid October. They can look almost ready to pick in August, but the nut will be green, astringent and slightly fruity. Some people like them this way and picking them early will allow you to pre-empt your main competitor—the grey squirrel. A poem by the prolific Anon from the 18th century suggests sending out virgins to collect hazelnuts, although I don’t believe this to be essential for success or even practicable in some parts of the country.
It’s always easy to tell if hazelnuts are truly ripe, as those that are have a frustrating habit of falling into the undergrowth when you reach out your hand. This, however, suggests the simple technique of laying out a large sheet on the ground and beating the tree to encourage the nuts to fall. The alternative is to bring a walking stick with you to hook down the branches so that the nuts may be easily picked.
Do check that at least some of the nuts are not empty shells, as this will avoid bitter disappointment later. most of the nuts already on the ground when you arrive will be empty, as the tree will have discarded them a few weeks earlier.
On a mushroom foray last year, our group came across a gentleman busily collecting the sweet chestnuts that had fallen in ankle-deep profusion. You can imagine his delight when we cast aside our pursuit of mushrooms for half an hour to join him.
The sweet-chestnut tree grows very well in Britain, but isn’t inclined to provide nuts that are remotely as large as its
‘The practical forager simply picks whatever he or she can find