WHY are we always so unpredictable? Just when we’ve adapted our constitutions to the gruelling demands of take-away dinners and fast food cuisine - after a relatively short love affair with tunnels and trowels and allotments and natural fertiliser - along comes this irresistible urge to go foraging for food like our Neolithic ancestors.
Foraging tourism has taken a hold in the country and that has to be a good thing, but do we have to introduce it to the average dinner table? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’ – if you really want to be chic and with it in this day and age.
You’d think there was a famine looming, the way everyone is suddenly out in the fields reaping the hedgerows or down by the sea combing the beaches. Scariff Harbour Festival is hosting a foraging walk this Saturday at 2pm and I’m half thinking of having a go, if for no other reason than to wallow in a spot of nostalgia, for I was once a child prodigy when it came to ‘picking’. It was the only stroke of genius I ever exhibited.
It’s in the genes I’m told – like getting up early in the morning. Only joking, for heaven’s sake! But if you were foraging for wild mushrooms, for instance, you’d have to be up early or they’d all be wilted by the time you got to them. But like many other genetic traits, I think I’ve lost this one. Anyway, I’m not sure if I want to live like that anymore. I’d much prefer to pluck my ingredients from the supermarket shelves, even when the writing is so small that I can’t even read what’s in them. Searching for delicacies in the woods and ditches sounds like hard work, and anyway I’d be afraid of making a mistake and adding a bunch of deadly nightshade to a salad, thinking it was wild garlic.
Oh, I know you can now enrol in foraging courses at an amazing number of venues throughout the country, and be trained in the art of recognising edible plants, flowers and herbs in the wild, but I’m not interested in this new fad. As far as I’m concerned, life is too short to have to put such an enormous effort into getting the dinner.
But as I said, I once showed great potential as a child forager. Every year towards the end of the summer holiday we’d scour the fields after a thundery night followed by a burst of early morning sunshine, looking for wild mushrooms. Not every field yielded a crop of fungi, but I knew the fields where flocks of sheep had grazed earlier in the summer and they never failed to produce. Sometimes if you looked long and hard enough at the one spot, a mushroom would sprout right under your nose.
I usually came home with more mushrooms than my friends mainly because of the competitive nature of my foraging and partly because of my excellent eyesight. Nobody else came near to me and even if they were getting close, I’d warn them that one of the cattle eyeing us from the far side of the field, was almost certainly a bull. Sometimes, however, there might be some strange looking specimens in my basket and I’d be very offended when my mother would pull out one that looked like a miniature guard at Buckingham Palace, hold it up disdainfully and ask if I had got that one under a tree.
As soon as the mushroom season was over, we’d be out foraging for blackberries in the brambles, stuffing ourselves with luscious fruit and blackening our tongues with glee. We picked more blackberries than we ever needed or could ever use, seeing that none of us had freezers in those days and very few of us even had a fridge. My mother made blackberry jam and crab apple jelly, but like everything that was plentiful and free, we didn’t value it. What we did have in abundance, though, was what Seamus Heaney delightfully described as a ‘lust for picking’ and certainly none of us could ever have envisaged a day when the brambles would be kept at bay by EU rules and we’d be buying blackberries in small punnets in the local supermarket.
We gathered elderberries, sloes, rose hips and wild plums and why I don’t know, because we never really found a use for them, apart from the plums which were used to make jam, but they were so acrid that my mother said it would take the entire sugar beet factory in Thurles to sweeten a pot of wild plum jam. Sadly we had no idea then how to make elderberry wine or sloe gin, or even rose hip syrup.
In summer, we gathered water cress that grew by the well and picked wild strawberries by the road. They were the first strawberries I ever tasted and funny enough, I never came across a strawberry afterwards that was quite as pleasing to the palate. Late in the autumn, we gathered nuts under the hazel trees in the glen and chestnuts under the magnificent trees on Lord Dunalley’s avenue. We ate the nuts at Halloween, cracking the shells with a stone, but the chestnuts we hoarded as a kind of a status symbol, especially seeing where they originated.
Some of our neighbours collected wild plants for cures for various ailments, but this was a skill in itself and a secret jealously guarded by those who knew it. One man I knew used to make a poultice from the much maligned ragwort or ‘buhalawn’ to relieve his rheumatic pains, and we all used dock leaves to cope with the torture of nettle stings. Docks are now the enemy.
Talking of which reminds me of the only real downside of my foraging days. In late spring and early summer, boiled nettles would sometimes replace the cabbage in the daily menu and we’d have to test our valour by picking the young shoots with our gloves on. We were told they were full of iron, and the prowess of Brian Boru and Fionn MacCumhaill, was cited as testimony to their amazing properties. But even the prospect of greatness and renown in later life wouldn’t have tempted me then to relish a plate of bacon and nettles.