These small sweet berries are nothing like the familiar cultivated versions which derive principally from North American relatives. Our wild variety shares the same characteristic trefoil leaves, however and is locally common, particularly on chalky soils. It is shade-tolerant and often springs up in large numbers, particularly in woodland after felling has disturbed the soil. Its taste varies widely, however, with the sweetest reputedly coming from those growing wild among limestone rocks where the reflected heat helps ripening. Similarly, they are often found in large numbers along old railway lines where the runners straggle across the clinker, benefiting from the warmer microclimate.
Even the most confirmed urbanite will instantly recognise the heavy dense clusters of black berries hanging from hedgerows in early autumn. Elder is one of the commonest shrubby trees along canals, railway cuttings and on waste ground. Most people will also probably have tried eating a handful of the berries, only to find them a little bland and sour compared with the fruit on the brambles beneath.
Mention wild mushrooms and most people think automatically of autumnal dead leaves and the hint of frost to come. In reality, Keats’ season of mellow fruitfulness is the peak of a long fungal drum roll which kicks off now.
Most Britons are scared of toadstools, terrified of making a fatal mistake, but the parasol (Macrolepiota procera) is the perfect entry to the gastronomic paradise of wild fungi. This is one of Britain’s most delicious and distinctive mushrooms: common, unmistakeable and superb to eat.
Although ornithologists find the concept of a partridge sitting in a pear tree pretty ridiculous (they are not passerines – perching birds – but rather denizens of open country), but to my mind there are excellent culinary reasons to associate these little game birds with Christmas . . .
The fruit of the blackthorn is justly famous as a gin flavouring and the perfect time to pick these is after their skins have been softened by the first frost. Thanks to its hard needle-sharp spikes (they can puncture tractor tyres) blackthorn is one of the best hedging materials and is therefore one of our commonest small trees, likely to be encountered anywhere across the country. In former days its chestnut-barked wood was in high demand for walking sticks and riding crops, but today we are more likely to be after its fruit.
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