September Fruit and Nut Harvest

By Terry John Calendar

September is traditionally the time for the Harvest Festival, when we give thanks for the successful gathering in of a bountiful crop…but it wasn’t just the corn that our ancestors harvested. There were plenty more delicious foods to be found in the woodlands and hedgerows and not just at the end of the summer, either.

One of my favourite memories of childhood is of going out into the countryside with my parents, uncles and aunts and cousins, all of us armed with walking sticks, bowls and screw topped jars. We spent hours happily blackberry picking, hooking down the overhead bramble stems with the walking sticks, ferreting into the lower regions of the hedges, cramming into the containers as many blackberries as we could manage - and eating a fair few as well - until our fingers and mouths were stained a deep purple. Of course, we got a few scratches and nettle stings as well, but we didn’t really care because we knew that when we got home there was blackberry and apple pie to look forward to, best served with hot custard so that the blackberry juice and the custard all ran together. Delicious!

The older members of the family could tell us children some interesting tales about brambles and their fruit. I remember being horrified to be told that the Crown of Thorns that was forced onto the head of Jesus was actually made of bramble stems and that the deep colour of the berries represented the colour of His blood.

We were also warned never to eat blackberries after 11 October, Michaelmas Day. That was the day on which Lucifer was forced out of heaven for his misdeeds. When he fell to earth he landed in a blackberry bush and spat on the fruit, so that every year on the anniversary of that event, the berries became squidgy and sour and were unsafe to eat. He was also said to return on St Simon’s Day, 28 October, and to tread a path around the bushes to ensure that no more blackberries would grow.

In Wales it was thought that a child suffering from rickets or who was slow to walk would be cured if it crawled under a bramble bush three times a week.

My father also spent hours clambering through the hedgerows collecting elderflower berries to make wine. I have never forgotten the taste of that home-made brew, much better than the commercial varieties you can buy today in the supermarkets. Nor have I forgotten the day on which the fermenting jars exploded in the pantry. We thought a bomb had dropped!

Dad also made a potion from the elderberries which he swore was good for his arthritis. Perhaps it was the spoonfuls of TCP and black treacle that he added to the mixture, but he said it was a well known country cure, passed down for generations in the family. I‘ve never had the courage to try it - the smell was enough!

We were also told never to fall asleep under an elder bush as that brought on nightmares. Cutting down an elder bush or tree brought bad luck and the wood should never be burned on the fire at home as that only brought trouble to the household.

We looked forward to gathering the strawberries and raspberries that had been carefully cultivated by our grandparents. We weren’t allowed anywhere near the bushes until Granny said the fruit was ripe, so we were always quite excited to find wild strawberries in the hedgerows.

There was a rich folklore about strawberries too, all of which was carefully related to us. The leaves were trifoliate, so represented the Holy Trinity. In Christian religious art, the fruit symbolised righteousness and spiritual merit and in Victorian flower language it stood for perfection and, because the berries are often found under the leaves, for modesty.

Raspberries were thought of as symbols of kindness. In medieval paintings, the red juice represented the blood that ran through the heart, which was believed to be the place where kindness originated. The berries and leaves contain many minerals such as iron, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium which help to enrich the blood, so it is not surprising that raspberry tea was, and still is, a popular herbal medicine. In the past pregnant women were advised to drink the tea to help with labour pains and the gargling of raspberry juice soothed sore throats. Rubbing joints with the stems of the fruit was thought to relive pain.

We children also used to gather hazelnuts when they were ripe. The ripening process was said to begin on 20 August, also known as St Philibert’s Day. Cultivated hazelnuts, as opposed to the wild variety, became known as filberts in honour of the saint. In the past children were given a day off school on 14 September to gather the nuts and in some areas of Britain Nutcrack Night was celebrated sometime in November, when the stored hazelnuts were opened. A vicar whose sermons were thought to go on too long would not look forward to Nutcrack Night; on the following Sunday parishioners would bring the nuts to church to crack them noisily during the sermon.

Hazelnuts were often ground up and added to flour to be made into bread. This was a way of prolonging the supplies of flour, particularly after a bad harvest, but it also provided some tasty loaves.

The wood of the hazel tree lent itself to a variety of uses. It could be made into the staffs carried by pilgrims, as shepherds’ crooks and as walking sticks. It readily splits lengthways and is easily bent into a u-shape, which made it ideal for holding down thatch on roofs. That suppleness also meant that it made excellent fencing or as a framework for medieval house walls, when it could be daubed with mud and lime - the original wattle and daub walling. The young shoots can be woven into baskets and the leaves, which are the first native ones to appear in spring and are the last to fall in autumn, were fed to cattle as fodder.

More importantly, the hazel tree was regarded by our ancestors as the tree of knowledge and wisdom. It was said to have the power to cure many illnesses, including fevers, diarrhoea, coughs, toothache and snake-bite.

In Wales, hazel twigs were woven into ‘wishing caps’, which granted the desires of those who wore them. Hazel hats were also worn by sailors, who considered them to be a protection against storms.

Another fruit of the hedgerows that was eagerly gathered in were the sloes produced by blackthorn bushes. On their own, they are acrid tasting, but when the berries are picked and soaked in gin, they result in the delicious sloe gin. One old lady in our street went foraging every season and brewed an incredibly powerful alcohol from the sloes. It was known locally as ‘time bomb gin’ because, whilst you might be a bit unsteady after drinking a few glasses, the next morning you felt as if your head had been blown off.

Categories:Autumn, Environment, Food and Drink

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