Mary Green explores the fruits, nuts and fungi of autumn.
Last month I wrote about the cornfields we see around us. They’re not the only harvest, and this year there has been a good harvest of other growing things.
Among other arable crops around here, there’s lots of oilseed rape. It is a seed of a plant in the cabbage and mustard family. Its bright yellow flowers in April are well known now in our countryside, but I can remember when they first appeared, so it’s relatively recent in the UK.
It was introduced as a source of cattle feed, called canola in the USA, but is also much used now for edible oil, including golden cold-pressed virgin oil as well as the cheaper kind used in food manufacture. The seeds are small and black and are harvested in late summer.
Unfortunately, it is even worse for the environment than corn. On top of herbicides as used in other arable crops, the pesticide regimen is complex. The flowers need insects to pollinate them, but then pesticide is used after the seeds are set to stop small beetles that feed on the grain getting at them, but of course it gets rid of all the other insects too.
There have been attempts to farm it organically – there is one organic farm in the north of England but their whole crop is already bought up, so it’s impossible to buy organic rapeseed oil that hasn’t meant heavy use of pesticide.
There used to be far more crops than these, and you still see them occasionally. The main ones are pulses – peas and beans. There isn’t really a difference between peas and beans, the rounder ones usually called peas and the elongated ones beans.
They were traditionally grown for animal feed but also for human consumption. We used to have “field beans” on our farm and I have seen them near Cofton a few years ago. Field peas are also occasionally found – I saw some near Tardebigge.
These older varieties predate the modern peas and beans grown commercially for human use in market gardens nowadays and were often dried and kept over winter. I can remember making “pease pudding” out of dried yellow peas. It’s funny how this has gone out of favour in the face of the ubiquitous hummus, which is basically the same thing!
One kind of pea you don’t see much around here is the Carlin pea, otherwise known as Maple Pea, Pigeon Pea, Brown Pea and Black or Grey Badger Pea, first recorded during Elizabethan times.
They are still grown in the north of England and are specially used for a Passion Sunday meal. That’s a good example of how a food stored through the winter was used for celebration in the spring. They are rather uninspiring-looking when dried but taste nutty and delicious cooked, and fresh they are sweet enough to eat raw – I’ve grown them.
A specialist grower who has kept these old varieties alive (the Carlins in Shropshire) is now harvesting the first crop of chick peas in this country, as climate change has made the summers hot enough. In Warwickshire the first harvest of usable haricot beans has happened too, so we can soon have local baked beans as well!
Having high-protein beans and peas as a staple food helped give a varied diet to country people in the past. They also used other seeds and fruits, of course. One is buckwheat, not grown much here but it could be. It is not a wheat, but related to some of our common arable wildflowers (and to Japanese knotweed!) and is gluten free and high in protein and fibre.
It’s much used in eastern Europe and Russia, including in the lovely pancakes called blinis. Experts on ancient foods think many more seeds like this were ground and eaten in our earlier times before we got hooked on wheat.
In the wild the harvest has been excellent this year. All kinds of fruits and nuts were once part of our diet and that of our animals. Many trees have had what’s called a “mast year” – a year full of fruit. Oaks have produced masses of acorns this year. They do it all together and communicate with each other through chemical signals in the mycorrhizal fungi which run between their roots.
This way they outwit the squirrels and jays that take the acorns away, as there are so many that there will still be enough for more trees next year. Even if squirrels take acorns away, they bury them to eat later, and forget some of them, so they grow well away from the parent tree. Acorns were used for pig feed but were also used during wartime to make a kind of coffee.
Edible nuts have been plentiful too. Hazel nuts were very profuse, but you had to get them very early before the squirrels. Sweet chestnuts have grown well too – you need a good summer for them.
The other kind of chestnuts, conkers, have been great this year but you can’t eat them. They have had cosmetic uses, though. Beech mast is good this year, another old animal food and a usable source of edible oil for humans.
Some fruit has been spectacular this year, other kinds sparse. It often depends on whether trees caught any of the odd late frosts while in blossom or were affected by the dry spring. But native fruit like sloes, and their relatives plums and damsons, have been good.
Wild crab apples have been plentiful but orchard apples a bit variable. There have been bushes full of blackberries and elderberries, and even hips and haws that you can add to your hedgerow jam.
All these fruits and nuts are food for wild birds and mammals, who also spread the seeds. Even poisonous fruits like yew are edible to birds because they pass the seeds, the toxic part, straight through them.
Some trees have seeds that are designed to be spread by the wind, with little sails called keys. Maples, sycamore and ash spread this way. Others, like poplars and some willows, have furry white cotton-wool like material which the wind carries.
Some have done well this year, but ash has been a bit odd. Two near me are full of keys, but my female tree and many others nearby have nothing. One has ash flower galls, caused by a tiny insect, which are harmless.
And under the trees, you may have found fungi. Wet and warm weather in late summer and autumn brings these out. They are there all the time underground, some of them huge. The bits we see, the fruiting bodies, usually come up once a year and shed spores. Many of them are edible, but you need to know what you are doing.
I must mention too the great harvest we have been having all summer and autumn from the Incredible Edible planters in Alvechurch. I have been “trimming” their herbs regularly, and lots of people have benefited from the beans, tomatoes and other food grown. A big thank you to Tim and his team for enhancing Alvechurch’s environment.
Autumn was for our ancestors a time of plenty, when grains, seeds, fruit, nuts and fungi provided good food, with some for preservation for winter eating and some for their animals. Harvest festivals began at Lammas, in August, with the first cut, and ended with the end of autumn on October 31.
All Saints Day on November 1 was the start of winter, hopefully with full larders as the available food disappeared. At this time of year, it was believed, the dead were nearest to the living, so it was a specially sacred time marked with fire ceremonies. Now we have Bonfire Night to remind us, with its fires, hot food and spicy mulled drinks.
Have a look at the last golden hazel leaves, though. The nuts have long gone, but the little catkins for next year’s fruit are already there.
The poem is one I wrote at this time a couple of years ago.
The village smelt of fire this evening
A little fog bringing it around us
My neighbour is installing a wood burner
And the canal boats are smoking gently.
Bonfires are growing in fields and gardens
And I am eyeing up pumpkins
Not for carving into lanterns
But for soups and roasts, fire inside.
The ash trees are finally alight
And the red flames of maples flicker
It all burns up, lovely for a while
Forget about the ash and brown tomorrows.