I’ve never been keen on the free food and foraging idea. I know it’s been fashionable for a few years now, with Danish René Redzepi serving up blueberry and ants and snail shaped, snail mousse in the best (now second best) restaurant in the world : Noma.
But here, in the fields of Normandy, we have what must be some of the best hedgerow berries ever this year, so I thought I could at least make a small start.
This ‘Food for Free’ book I found on Amazon, with a shiny blackberry on the cover and passionate descriptions on the health benefits of hedgerow fruit, almost had me start collecting.
I could see the point of afternoon tea with a bowlful of these and some beautiful china ( note to self: I must ask Sharon of MyFrenchCountryHome fame where the best place would be to track down French porcelain, like this delicious pale blue cup and saucer.)
But by the time I started looking, the blackberries had gone over – it was time now for the rosehips and hawthorns and blackthorn berries (sloes).
Tim reckoned that sloe gin would be a good idea. His parents – my parents in law -used to make it in Gloucestershire, when he was a kid. (I was going to say a long time ago, but corrected myself…).
I also however, remembered other stories of his, about the country people of his youth being laid low occasionally by wood alcohol in some sort of home brew or perry or elderberry wine gone wrong, so I needed to find a definite recipe (he couldn’t remember the details). I wouldn’t want to end up poisoning everyone at Christmas with my festive treat!
I researched some recipes.
Sidetracked a little, I toyed with the idea of sloe flavoured cider (‘slider’) and even sloe chocolates but narrowed it down in the end to a French recipe called Prunelline (prunelles are sloes):
Pour préparer la prunelline, il vous faut :
- 750 g de prunelles
- 1 bouteille de gin et une d’eau de vie à 45° (soit 1 litre et demi)
- 3 cuil. à soupe d’amandes mondées
- 200 g de sucre de canne
- 5 clous de girofle et 5 grains de coriandre
There was serious detail in this one – they even included instructions on how to make a special wooden tool to prick the sloes with.
So I was ready – it was time- to collect my berries.
This is where I ran into some problems. I’d been also sidetracked online by the ecology and folklore around these hedgerow plants. Two examples:
1. Berries are an important food source for many birds during the winter, especially when the ground is too frozen to hunt for worms and snails and there are few insects about. Some birds, like thrushes and blackbirds, redwings and field fares, find most of their winter food from berries.
2. It also appears that you have to wait until after hallowe’en to collect the sloes (for witches to fly over them or because they taste better after the first frost; depending on what source you are reading.)
But then you can’t pick them today either: November 11, which is bad luck, according to local legend .Today is the day that winter begins and the goddess of winter strikes the ground with her blackthorn stick, ‘Great misfortune would befall’ I read,’ to any mortal breaking a blackthorn branch’.
(To be fair, they didn’t mention the berries but probably best not to pick them either for a few days, to be on the safe side?)
I also read that it is especially magical when hawthorn and blackthorn grow together near oak and ash trees.‘The blackthorn is a possible protection tree of a faery portal, especially if you find it close to the oak or ash trees’
And these all grow together in ‘La chêne’, The Oaktree field. It’ s here that the best sloes are on the Haras.
So I’m hesitating again… An old English country saying (that mightn’t translate so well into French):Many hips and haws; many frosts and snows Many sloes; many cold toes.’
makes me worried about what could be a cold winter to come and all those birds and fairy folk.
Maybe I’ll leave it again, to next year?
Picture Credits: fellow expat Annie in Beziers ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/annieinbeziers) kindly let me use her sloe berry picture ,Mike Beeman from Colorado is the artist of the fabulous pastel afternoon tea picture and Geraldine Spickernell (Artist at Geraldine’s Angels, London) loaned me her wonderful picture of hedgerow angels.