18/03/17

A Taste of Things to Come

Kieran Jefferson

There is much to look forward to.  The winter has been a harsh one, with frosts and fog and frozen days/fingers/face, and it has seemed so long.  But now there are little green shoots pushing up through the ground, warmed by February sunshine, the fruit trees are budding, the insects are beginning their daily patrols.

I have been in Burgundy, France, for some six months now, having moved here from the UK with my partner in a grand experiment in self-sufficient living.  To this end we are growing fruits and vegetables, we have chickens for eggs (and amusement, strange little birds as they are), we have a well, we are awaiting a swarm of bees with which to populate our new beehive, we will keep pigs and possibly a couple of goats.  We forage, we preserve, we brew.  We wait.

We are surrounded by old pasture, grazed by the famous white Charolais cattle, and we can see the forest, a mix of pine and oak. from our house. We are visited by egrets and buzzards, and we share the area with deer, wild boar, and coypu.  (Hopefully we will not share too many of our crops.) 

Wild food will play a key part in our plans.  There are so many unique flavours and textures to be found, and, done responsibly, gathering of these ingredients helps one to form a connection to the land, a deeper understanding and appreciation of one’s place in the world, and of one’s impact upon it (both positive and negative).  It is a small act of rebellion against the ways food is produced and consumed, ways that are increasingly alarming and unethical, out of season and out of kilter and out of touch with nature.  It is a way of enjoying ingredients long before they reach the kitchen, and the flavour is all the better for this. 

The harvest can be extended in much the same way as from the garden; fermented and pickled and turned into booze.  Wild garlic pesto is a must, mixed with fresh pasta and washed down with a glass of nettle beer, and can be enjoyed well after the plants themselves have tucked themselves out of sight.

There are many edible plants and fungi, but there are also many that are fatally toxic and will put paid to your fledgling adventures - but do not let this put you off.  Get some (a lot of) books. 

Go on an organised foraging walk with an expert.  Do not try eating anything unless you are 100% sure of its identity.  Be mindful of the laws of the land, and do not give in to any feverish temptation to pick everything in sight; there are many wild beasts who rely more than you on these morsels.

I have quite a few years’ experience of foraging in the UK, and I am looking forward to learning what is to be had in the wilds that surround our smallholding: will it be the same?  We arrived in time for mushroom season last year, and I picked baskets of ceps and bay boletes, which I dried, powdered, pickled, or ate fresh.  Then winter set in, when there is little to be had - a few winter greens, oyster mushrooms and velvet shanks if one is lucky.  With the advent of warmer weather I am looking forward to spring salads, wild vegetables such as common hogweed, but I am, in many ways, starting the learning process all over again.  

Wild foods in the UK are increasingly fashionable, but here this aspect of terroir has never gone away.  There is a wealth of knowledge to draw on, and I am sure to come across some ingredients I am unfamiliar with, as well as missing some things that do not grow here (such as alexanders, so common around Bristol, where I lived for ten years, and a favourite).    

Anticipation is a key element of seasonality.  One cannot get wild foods out of season, and I feel like a child waiting for a trip to the seaside; so far away it seems I will never get there, so quickly a memory.  It will be worth the wait.