Autumn arrives

Autumn is most definitely here. It has thrown so many different kinds of weather at us this week that it has been hard to keep up. We had a blissful couple of bright sunny days at 20C (‘feels like’ 24C – and it did), dropping to only 15C at night: shorts and t-shirts all the way and maximum time spent outside. We’ve had days of heavy showers – the first in weeks – with the temperature hovering in the low teens and evenings cool enough to light our new woodburner for the first time; mmm, so cosy! There was a morning chilly enough to put a skim of frost on everything, another so shrouded in cloud the world was all white and muffled; several days have treated us to brilliantly artistic sunrises and equally fiery sunsets. There has been the gentlest of breezes sending a dry whisper through the hedgerows and teasing leaves here and there to drift down in slow and dainty pirouettes from the trees, and a night of gusty storms that rattled round the chimney and dumped a pile of colourful leaves outside the kitchen door as if nature had decided to indulge in a little seasonal window dressing.

Out on my bike, I’ve worn a t-shirt one day but three layers plus gloves on another and have spent days in the garden working up and down through various layers of clothing and switching between old trainers and wellies, sometimes from hour to hour. I planted white garlic in the warmest of soils on a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon and rescued wind-damaged brassica plants on a cold and soggy morning. Well, ’tis the joy of the season and I quite enjoy the whole unpredictability of it all; at least it hasn’t been cold enough to light the kitchen woodstove – yet – and glimpses of sunlit autumn colours against a blue sky have been exquisite.

In the garden, there has been a feeling of season’s end for many plants. We have eaten the last of the aubergines from the tunnel and the final outdoor courgette. The sweetcorn ran out of steam and with the last small cobs consigned to the freezer, I chopped and dropped the spent plants where they stood. I intend to plant climbing beans on their patch next year and have been busy making up for lost time, adding organic material to feed the soil; having planted up the neighbouring Strawberry Circle – and blimey, those new little plants are looking good! – I now need to shift the remaining four from the sweetcorn bed to give myself a clear run at feeding and extending it before spring. However, there is a bit of a problem in that the strawbs are still fruiting merrily after five months of berries and I am still picking them daily to eat on my breakfast oats; yes, I have pointed out it’s October (actually, almost November) but nothing so far has deterred them. They go on and on.

Crazy strawberries apart, it always feels a bit odd to see the lush summer growth of the garden fade and die back but it is all part of the natural way of things and we still have so much good food to come that I don’t find it sad. The ‘Autumn King’ carrots are living up to their name in every way and are without doubt the biggest we have ever grown; whether seasoned with warming spices and roasted with squash or grated with cabbage and topped with rocket, landcress, New Zealand spinach, pickled nasturtium seeds and herbs in a crunchy salad, they are sweet and delicious. We are ploughing our way through an incredible harvest of crisp and enormous pointy (early summer) and drumhead (late summer) cabbage while the Savoy (winter??? Not a hope . . .) are charging on behind. I love their huge crinkly leaves backlit in sunlight or sugared with frost, such beautiful seasonal textures to delight in. I’ve gathered up a few of the smaller summer cabbages to make sauerkraut and also set a jar of beetroot to ferment; things might be feeling a bit end of season but there is so much left to enjoy. Needless to say, the apple pressing goes on and on . . .

The Jerusalem artichoke flowers brought a bold splash of late colour to the vegetable patch but the plants outgrew themselves and toppled over a couple of weeks ago; I didn’t have the heart to do anything about them as they carried on blooming at ground level and were still buzzing with insects. This week saw the end of the flowers, however, so I have finally cut them down, leaving stalks to help us locate the tubers in the depths of winter. I chopped the plants and added them to the sweetcorn bed as a mulch which should rot down nicely over winter and encourage the worms to do their stuff. As well as a fascinating range of fungi (including some very tasty field mushrooms), the cut grass is now teeming with valuable wormcasts; it’s good to see these most precious of gardening companions are busy again and when it comes to mowing, we will leave the final clips on the surface to feed them. It’s probably no great coincidence that the moles are also back to their industrious ways, bless their little velvet socks, so I’m back to shovelling up their hills to spread as topsoil on various lasagne beds. They seem to be in cahoots with the jays, since every tump has a strategically placed acorn on top of it; no question, nature would plant an oak forest here in the blink of an eye if we turned our backs long enough.

Along with the other summery veg and flowers, it’s also been time to bid hasta luego to the climbing beans which have finally reached the end of the road. In Asturias, our neighbours grow the plants up strings instead of poles (although last year, netting had become the new fashion) and harvest the whole lot at once, draping the pulled plants over horreo balconies to dry before threshing out the beans. My approach is a bit different, probably not as efficient but one that suits our lifestyle and organic gardening principles better. For starters, we prefer to freeze the beans rather than dry them; for us, they are a winter staple and it’s much easier to grab a batch last minute out of the freezer than have to remember to soak them overnight, so I’ve been picking and processing them over a number of weeks as they ripen. As they are legumes, I cut the plants off at ground level, leaving the roots to break down naturally underground in their own time. I then unravel the twisted stems up the poles, picking the last beans as I go. This is a bit laborious – especially as there has been a shameful amount of pole-hopping going on this year, so it’s like unravelling tangled balls of wool – but it means I can chop the vegetation as I go along, letting it fall to the ground as a mulch.

I’m planning to plant courgettes in this space next year; as greedy feeders, I think they’ll appreciate following the nitrogen-fixing beans and this additional layer of green fertiliser should encourage the worms to do their stuff and enrich the soil. It’s well worth the effort and not a bad job on a warm October afternoon. The twine I used to tie the poles is biodegradable so that joined the mulch mix, the hazel poles have gone into dry storage for next year and we have a freezer drawer full of fat creamy beans to enjoy in the months to come. We’ve had a great crop of seed from the dill and coriander that grew with the beans, all dried and stored for use in the kitchen. I’m leaving the dead plants untouched as their hollow stalks provide excellent overwintering homes for a wealth of beneficial insects – and I’d far rather we can count on their presence next year than worry about having a tidy garden. One of the things that has really struck me this week is the sheer number and variety of ladybirds we have and that is definitely something worth celebrating.

In the local neighbourhood, the maize harvest is in full swing; the field behind our garden is being munched by headlight as I write (it’s 9pm!), but one further along the lane was cut earlier in the week and the subsequent hauling of manure left an opportunity too good to be missed: as I set off to St P on my bike one morning, I met Roger running home pulling a wheelbarrow loaded with well-rotted muck behind him! Well, I’ve heard of people training by pulling tyres behind them but this did look a bit extreme . . . such is the life we lead. The farmer did scrape the lane clean once he’d finished, but why let nutritious stuff like that be flattened by cars when it can do so much good in the garden? This was my cue to take a deep breath and move the crown of rhubarb we inherited here and which I have been nurturing for many months. It really was long in the tooth, the central root thick and pappy but very deep so it took a lot of lifting. I split it into four crowns, each with a couple of fresh young buds and planted three of them in the Perennial Thug bed along with plenty of that manure: I’m hoping that at least two will flourish so I can alternate between them in forcing a crown each spring. The fourth root was potted up as a long overdue plant swap with a friend, so fingers crossed it will do the business. It’s good to see that bed filling up and I’m beginning to think it will be the best spot for planting some purple globe artichokes next year (once I’ve raised the plants from seed). This year’s green ones haven’t looked back, although we really shouldn’t be eating them at this time of year; in fact, I ought to be thinking about covering the crowns to protect them from cold weather over winter . . . once the spiders have finished with them, of course.

Foraging for wild food has become very popular – some might even say trendy – in recent times and the bigger part of me welcomes this. I believe that anything that encourages people to spend time outdoors, exploring their local environment in depth, connecting with nature and the seasonal cycles and broadening an appreciation of foods that haven’t been processed or bought from a supermarket is a good thing. The flip side, though, is that in some places, too many people have piled in and allowed over-enthusiasm (and yes, let’s be honest, greed) to rule, stripping hedges, woodlands, moorlands or wherever bare of the bounty on offer. The consequences of this don’t need spelling out: surely it’s simple common sense, for example, that elder and hawthorn stripped of summer blossom won’t bring forth autumn berries? Also, once the novelty of seeking and gathering is over, for some the idea of actually eating these wild foods doesn’t seem quite so attractive and consequently they are wasted . . . and that sort of behaviour I really can’t condone. I feel very grateful that we are privileged to be able to forage on our own patch and that alone serves as a useful check against over-indulgence. The red squirrel watching me with unwavering attention as I gather chestnuts or the flap and clack of departing blackbirds as I approach the hawthorn bushes serve as timely reminders that these goodies are there to be shared; it would be pure hypocrisy to wax lyrical about working to preserve and enhance our ecosystem if we then strip it bare of what are essential foodstuffs for others who share this space. We are lucky: we don’t need to live on wild foods, but we can forage small amounts to enjoy as celebrations of the season, or even enough to preserve for the leaner months, but we can leave most for those whose need is greater than ours.

There is a current school of thought that, in the face of the climate crisis and general uncertainty over the future, we must look back towards the wild foods that sustained our ancestors in order to move forward. That is for greater brains than mine to analyse but in the meantime, I think it is interesting and informative to experiment with the possibilities of the wild foods we can gather here. Turning to foraging in times of crisis is nothing new; the log books of a Welsh village school where I once taught described how during World War II, children were released from lessons to gather rosehips for syrup . . . and were even given government issue wellies to help them on their way. I have been collecting rosehips for some weeks now and freezing them ready to make into a cordial once we are back to kitchen stove days; my plan is to use it as a hot vitamin-rich drink in the dark depths of winter. Hawthorn berries are also in the freezer, waiting for my first experiment with making fruit leather – thanks to Jonathan for the recipe idea. I’m going to combine them with apple and (hopefully!) dry them into a decent leather overnight in the stove, something that should then keep for a year or more and serve as a healthy and nutritious snack.

Roger took the ladder down into the hedgerows a few weeks ago and picked a large bag of fat blue-black sloes. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years but with Sam and Adrienne due to visit from Norway for a few days before New Year, I thought it would be a lovely seasonal treat to share with them (we won’t have seen them for almost exactly two years, to say it will be a full-on foodie fest is something of an understatement). As gin is never on our shopping list and we rarely go near a supermarket, it has taken me a while to remember to buy the necessary bottle so in the meantime, the sloes have been enjoying a deep frost in the freezer. This is a brilliant hack for sloe gin, as they burst on defrosting, releasing all those precious juices without the tiresome need to prick each one several times. They are now macerating happily in a jar with the gin and some sugar, I’m giving it all a good shake every day and then next week, I’ll strain the liquid back into the gin bottle and forget about it until Christmas.

Since foraging is not a precise science (especially practised at the top of a ladder), we ended up with more sloes than were needed, so what to do with the spares? While I messed about with gin, Roger did a quick internet search for ideas and came across Rachel Lambert’s inspiring foraging and wild food website at In no time at all, he had made a jar of her sloe syrup, rich, dark and fruity with just the right hint of astringency; Rachel suggests drizzling it over porridge but we also think it will make an ideal substitute where recipes call for pomegranate molasses. Why stop there? Before I could turn round, our walnut store had been raided and, using the fruits left over from syrup making, Le Chef had turned out a batch of sticky sloe and nut clusters. We are not great lovers of sweet things but sometimes there’s a need for a little boost after a long run, walk or bike ride and these gooey, chewy, fruity, nutty little numbers just hit the spot perfectly and taste like nothing else. Even better, with the stones consigned to the compost heap, there wasn’t a scrap of waste from our sloe harvest (and still plenty left on the blackthorns in the garden). Just as foraging should be, surely?

As the season shifts, so does our focus on the list of jobs to tackle. It’s a good time to reflect a bit on what we’ve achieved so far and to get stuck in to priority projects outside while the weather still holds. Some kind of shed and rainwater collection system in the veg patch is top of the list as hauling water from elsewhere isn’t very efficient (and also a lot of hard work), so Roger has sketched out a design and made an impressive start, re-purposing timber and roof panels from the carport bay he removed earlier in the year. We need to tackle the hazel hedge which has been allowed to grow into tall trees and casts a lot of shade across the growing areas for too much of the year; we are planning to reduce the height considerably, thin it out and then lay it properly – that will be quite a task. We’ve made good progress in creating habitats for wildlife but a pond is the one key thing we are really missing so there will be that to dig out, too. There’s also some work to be done in the coppice and logging is an ongoing task as always. Of course, there’s still the kitchen to finish (!), curtains to line, a bedroom to decorate and a pile of other indoor bits and pieces to be done . . . but while the sun is shining, we will be outside enjoying the very best of autumn while it lasts.

Wild things

I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.

It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.

We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!

Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.

In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.

Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.

As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.

For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.

The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!

These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.

Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.

The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.

Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂

Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.

Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .

The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.

In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!

Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .

Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.

Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .

. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂