The hedgerow harvest is as bounteous as the veg patch at this time of year. Sloes, cobnuts, damsons, plums – take your pick. The air below every wild apple tree is thick with cider fumes as the windfall decays. And every bush, of course, is a tangle of blackberry brambles. There’s even a mirabelle tree dropping fruit all over the cars of our local Sainsbury’s car park. And if there’s one thing all this prime foraging demands, it’s a hedgerow harvest crumble.
For those with expert knowledge, there are leaves, mushrooms and roots galore to be foraged in most hedgerows. But this requires skill – mainly the ability to recognise your quarry from something deadly, and almost always, virtually identical.
I’m not keen on my idle dog-walking forages becoming a matter of life and death so I prefer to stick to the more obvious, and perfectly delicious, harvests of apples, blackberries and cobnuts. In the main they require little explanation – see it, pick it, avoid busy fume-filled roads and dog-weeing height – but cobnuts can be a little more entertaining…
Cobnuts are just young hazelnuts and most hedgerows contain hazel so in theory they should be easy to find and pick. However, you’ll have to get past the squirrels first. Hugh F-W is hilarious on the subject in The River Cottage Cookbook:
If you want to find a hazel tree, follow a squirrel. And if you want to get a decent crop of nuts off it, shoot the squirrel (see page 370)…
Should you make it as far as locating a crop, the squirrels tend to leave the early green nuts to dry out before tucking in, so your harvest is likely to consist mainly of the milky soft nuts nestled within the green shells. These are delicious so it’s no hardship. Once brown, the nuts taste more like your average hazelnut and are, I think, a little more predictable and less unique.
To harvest the nuts, you will need a walking stick with a hook or a giant or maybe both. Many of the best cobnuts are frustratingly just out of reach. It’s like a Cotswolds version of the Tantalus myth.
In fact, the whole affair, frankly, is a cruel game invented by Nature, because your next challenge is this: many wild cobnuts are empty. Yes, empty. And you can’t tell if a sweet, milky nut is waiting within the shell or if it’s simply hollow or, worst of all, harbouring a maggot, until you crack it.
Of course, if you buy your cobnuts from a shop they will have most likely been cultivated in Kent where they they’ve got a handle on Nature and the nuts are large and rarely empty. Waitrose stock them at this time of year (of course they do).
Anyway, however you get your nuts, cobnuts make a cracking crumble topping. And, handily, most hedgerow pickings make a cracking filling. See, Nature isn’t always a cruel mistress.
So here is my hedgerow harvest crumble recipe – perfect for an Autumn tea after a foraging dog walk. (Incidentally, the G&G spaniel is delighted that the hedgerow season has arrived – finally, the humans are rooting around the hedges just like me – I knew they’d cotton on to the joys of hedgerows eventually…)