We’re approaching the time of year when, for centuries, farmers have harvested crops before the weather turns. At the end of summer we celebrate the abundance and the safe gathering-in of foodstuffs for both people and animals. Produce is stored ready to be used during the lean months; we make preserves in the form of chutney and jam. Fruits, herbs and vegetables are dried, canned and pickled. Meat and fish are smoked and cured.
In these modern times few of us are truly self-sufficient or even approaching that. We have neither the means (outdoor space) nor the time to grow, tend, harvest, preserve and store. Few of us have a cellar, larder or pantry where we can keep large amounts of food. And there is little need. The vast majority of us live in, or near, towns and cities with ready access to supermarkets and independent food shops.
And yet there’s something about gathering in which appeals. It could be a bit of light foraging, a dabble in jam-making. Because opportunities for this type of resourceful pursuit present themselves throughout the year. Seville oranges make a brief appearance during January and February, so a rainy afternoon marmalade-making session is the best way to take advantage of their fleeting season. Early summer brings elderflowers – and bottling the syrup means we can enjoy a taste of summer months after the leaves have fallen.
So, what’s the appeal? Perhaps it’s part of the modern-day yearning to get back to simpler ways of living. Of being closer to nature and returning to living in accordance with the seasons. An almost primal desire to slow down, retract from the myriad of food choices we’re presented with all year round. Strawberries in December, green beans flown in from across the globe. It’s as though all these things have become workaday, no longer special.
Walking past that patch of blackberries every weekend, stopping to check whether they’re ripening. To consider how much sunshine they’re getting. Estimating when they might be ready to pick. Thinking utilising them in various cakes and pies and crumbles and planning to keep a few empty jars aside. This makes food exciting: the anticipation, the rarity value. The we-only-get-this-once-a-year feeling.
The actual gathering-in fulfils some deep instinctive need, too. The knowledge that you’ve collected what you need and in good time. You haven’t missed your chance. It’s similar to getting the washing in off the line just as the rain starts to fall. A sense of achievement, no matter how tiny.
I love to read about how people live seasonally and harvest and preserve. There’s something comforting about the whole idea of late summer and early autumn gathering-in. It’s beautifully described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, where pumpkins, nuts and cheeses were kept in the attic and neighbours would swap produce with one another and celebrate the seasons.
Over the next few months we’ll have some wonderful seasonal foods to go out and find: damsons, brambles, crab apples, the final wild strawberries and raspberries, elderberries, hazels and sloes. And for the more knowledgeable forager: fungi (wildfooduk.com has a great list of edible mushrooms, but always take an expert along with you).
Gathering in isn’t just about food. There are seeds to be collected from the garden and kept in readiness for planting and propagating. In late summer and early autumn I cut dried allium heads, honesty, teasels and hydrangeas to display in the house. Sunflowers too; I almost prefer them when their heads are full of dark seeds and the petals dried and papery.
So go ahead and pick, harvest, collect. Whether it’s a bilberry-picking trip on the moors or simply filling a paper bag with foxglove or poppy seeds, there are few things more simple – and satisfying – than gathering what’s ripe and making good use of it.