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

Country Life Every Week - - Kitchen Garden Cook Sweetcorn -

’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

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