Anne here, ruminating on the gathering of food from nature…more or less. This train of thought was started when I visited a friend's blog and read this verse of poetry:
Nutting, by William Wordsworth
—It seems a day,
One of those heavenly days which cannot die,
When forth I sallied from our cottage-door,
And with a wallet o'er my shoulder slung,
A nutting crook in hand, I turn'd my steps
Towards the distant woods, a Figure quaint,
Trick'd out in proud disguise of Beggar's weeds
Put on for the occasion, by advice
And exhortation of my frugal Dame.
And it sparked such memories. When I was a kid we used to spend time with friends who'd built a beautiful Austrian-style log cabin in the foothills of the mountains, near Bright in Victoria — Otto, my dad's friend, was originally from Austria and this cabin was a labor of love carried out over many years.
Nearby was a farm that contained an old walnut orchard, and we kids used to sneak in and pick walnuts off the ground. The farmer was elderly and very grumpy and at the first shout of "Oy, I've told you kids—" we'd run like crazy, giggling our heads off, our hands and pockets full of booty. He'd threatened to give us a hiding if he caught us and it didn't take any convincing for us to believe it.
It was one of those games you play in childhood, flirting with danger, wresting food from nature (or the farmer) at great risk. In retrospect I suspect it was much the same for him, because the cabin was only five minutes walk away and he could easily have walked up the track and complained to our parents, and as far as I know, he never did.
Once gained, our precious booty was devoured. We cracked the nuts between river stones — the bigger kids, especially the boys, used to crack them in their hands, nut against nut. We'd eat the meat, but even then we weren't finished with them. The aim of cracking the shells was not simply to get at the meat, but to try to crack the nuts without breaking the shell, to split them into perfect halves. We'd use the halves for all sorts of games — we'd make walnut shell boats and race them, and being a small girl, with another small girl for company, we also made them into cradles for bush babies, and on several memorable occasions made tiny gardens in them with mud and moss and tiny ferns from the creek that burbled down from the mountains, cold and crystal clear.
Further down the road there were huge chestnut trees that grew along the side of the road and as far as we knew they were public property, and not nearly as exciting. But the nuts were easy to collect and delicious to eat, and we'd bring them back in triumph. We'd put a small cut in the skins, then lay them around the edge of the fireplace, close to the hot coals and waited until they split with a hiss or a sizzle, then, juggling the hot nuts in our hands, we'd peel the skin off and eat the hot roasted flesh sprinkled with salt.
We also used to go out mushroom picking. In the cool weather, a few days after rain, we'd get up early in the morning and head out to the best mushroom places. The adults knew which were safe and which weren't and we soon learned. We kids would compete in spotting the smooth domes of creamy mushroom rising from the grass. We'd fill my mother's wicker basket with mushrooms and then go home where she'd cook us all a mushroom breakfast. Even now, one of my favorite breakfasts is mushrooms, cooked with bacon, garlic and thyme, on thick hand-cut toast.
In late summer, we used to pick all sorts of fruit; figs, fresh off the tree, warm from the sun, with a golden drop of nectar showing that fruit is ripe, apricots, apples, plums, quinces, feijoas, all of which was eaten and preserved as jams or jellies.
My favorite thing was going blackberrying. Blackberries are regarded as a weed in Australia and they spray them early now, and kill them before they have a chance to fruit, but when I was a child they were everywhere in great abundance, huge tangled mounds of prickles, covered with sweet, ripe berries. We'd spend hours picking them, eating as many delicious berries as we picked, coming home with mouth, fingers and clothes stained purple. We'd make blackberry jam and have blackberries and ice cream for dinner or blackberry and apple tart.
When we went to live in Scotland for a year, I discovered that schoolchildren were encouraged to collect rose hips — for hospitals I seem to recall, though I could be wrong. They were paid some small sum per pound, and the rose hips, which are very high in vitamin C, were turned into rose hip syrup and rose hip jelly. I'd never tasted either, but that year I picked hundred of rose hips.
One year when I was about 10 we moved into an old house with a line of trees with dark reddish foliage along the back fence. My mother was delighted. Crab apples. One long weekend, just when the crab apples were ripe, my eldest sister came on a visit from the city, bringing with her a Very Special Boyfriend. He spent the entire visit up the trees, picking crab apples, while my sister was in the kitchen, slicing and boiling and straining crab apples. To this day my brother-in-law shudders at the mention of crab apple jelly. I've no idea why. 😉
There is a special pleasure, I think, in finding food from nature. It probably satisfies our ancient inner hunter/collector instincts. My parents certainly loved it and passed on the knowledge and pleasure to us. The list of things we collected or picked or caught was endless ; my first oyster was eaten straight from the sea, prised off the rocks with my father's penknife; my brother used to hunt rabbits and bring them home for the pot; we kept bees; my brother and his friend used to catch yabbies (like freshwater prawns) with his friends and they'd cook up a feast of them then and there with a fire and an old tin can. I was never allowed to go (too small) and have never caught a yabbie, so even though I've eaten them in restaurants, the idea of catching and cooking my own still carries a special allure for me.
Food gathering and collecting — and I'm not just talking about harvesting— has been part of the country dweller's seasonal routines forever. It's probably only in recent years, when food of all sorts, from all climates is widely available in supermarkets, regardless of season. But the pleasure is still there when we get it for ourselves — those pick-your-own fruit farms know it; it's not only about saving on labour costs.
Country activities such as these are rarely mentioned in historical novels, possibly because such activities aren't in the experience of city bred modern authors. I'm not talking about huntin' fishin' and shootin' which, of course is in many historicals. But gathering food that's growing wild is rarely mentioned, even though it was common at the time. Such things could, of course, be left for the servants to do, but really it's a lot of fun, especially if done in a group, and the gentry would do it, too, I'm sure.
Georgette Heyer knew it, even though she lived in the heart of London. In her book, Venetia, the heroine, Venetia changes into her oldest gown to go blackberrying and heads for the best spot for blackberries – the property of her absentee neighbor, the notorious rake, Lord Damerel. Of course, the Wicked Baron, home on an unexpected visit, comes upon our heroine and before she knows it, she's being kissed; forfeit for the berries she's taken. It's a wonderful introductory scene. (If you haven't read it, get a copy. You won't regret it.)
Can you think of other scenes in books where characters collected food from the wild?
And did you ever go out collecting food from the wild when you were a child? Did you enjoy it, or was it a chore? What did you gather, collect or hunt? Do you still do it now? Tell us about it
Or has your collecting instinct concentrated itself in that other ancient pleasure, shopping? And if so, what's your weakness?