Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Wild foods in the cemetery, just for you ghouls and ghosts! Please come with me and discover what wild foods you can find in my cemetery during any innocuous autumn family walk. My neighborhood cemetery is top notch grim ripper stuff, perfect for Halloween enthusiasts. It’s a listed Victorian cemetery with Gothic angels, ancient trees and a catacomb promenade. Who knows if the cemetery’s resident Victorian egyptologist, suffragette leader and mysterious society woman don’t roam the overgrown alleys at right? Possibly. Maybe. However beyond being the final resting place, that west London cemetery is a royal park planted with tall trees, where you’re as likely to see people riding their bikes or reading books on benches as squirrels stuffing their cheeks with sweet chestnuts. What better place to forage for wild foods around Halloween? I say, let’s give it a go.
As you walk through the gates, the imposing main alley carves a logical path to the catacombs but if you were to make a right turn and follow narrow alleys, here are some of the wild foods you might find along your route. Adjust your cloak, hold your kids’ hands and follow me.
Let’s start with my favorite.
What would life be without sweet chestnuts? Oh, it would be dreary as hell and I would drag heavy chains through the cold season, unable to roast chestnuts on an open fire. Fortunately, sweet chestnuts are one of the bounties of autumn and I just love to stumble upon a sweet chestnut tree, rummage with my shoes through spiky cupules to spot plump nuts and pop them open to shove them into my pockets. Once roasted on the stove, chestnuts are my oldest daughter’s favorite after-school snack – and they smells delicious. They also make a fantastic sweet chestnut and butternut squash soup.
The next wild food, you know as a Valentine symbol but have you ever thought about it as food?
Rose hips are the fruit of rose bushes, red and orange buds that form after pollination in the spring and summer. The Valentine connection is rose flowers, of course. Now, I’m not sure that I understand the fascination with rose hips as a wild food (taste-wise), but I do know that they’re super high in Vitamin C (50% more than oranges) and that they have a mean anti-oxidant content. Sort of a superfood byproduct of rose bouquets. Knowing this, I’ve been known to forage rose hips at their prime, only to make rose hip syrup at home and when faced with a few free hours, to make pistachio baklava with wild rose hip syrup from the most excellent cookbook called The Wild Table.
The next wild food is as popular as rose hips and as much a pain the butt to cook but yum, oh so delicious.
Crab apples, don’t they look darling? My friend Sue introduced me to crab apple jelly in California and I’ve been fascinated with the red clusters ever since. In London, crab apple trees thrive in my neighborhood parks and streets but nobody picks them. I’ve often seen the miniature trees rotting on the sidewalk, it’s a shame really. Crabapples are quite tart and can be made into jelly, which is what I did last year. I harvested a pocketful of crabapples from my local park, brought them home and made jelly. Nicely labelled, they are still sitting untouched in one of my cupboards, awaiting their culinary destiny. Definitely a good wild fruit to know, though, because it’s so common.
Next, there’s an oddity that’s quite popular in the south of France where my family comes from. We call them arbouses but in English, it’s more like this.
Spiky, full of small seeds, strawberry tree fruits are very pretty but nobody knows how to handle them. A friend of my father near Beziers turns them into jelly each winter, when they are red and ripe. She’s in her 80s, she must know what she’s doing. plus, I like a contrarian fruit that ripens in winter. Strawbeerry tree fruits supposed to taste like apples and if you don’t mind the seeds, you can eat them raw. The fruit was also used in the Middle Ages to flavor hard liquor or make a fermented alcoholic drink. The tree’s got more tricks to it as its leaves can be used in herbal teas and its bark can be used to tan leather. Who knew?
In the Mediterranean category, we also have the…
Medlar fruit, ever seen one? They’re hard and green when ripe (in the winter) but can’t be eaten before they’ve half rotten which, in colder climates, comes from storing the fruit indoors in sawdust until it turns brown, soft and sweet. Weird, eh? Medlar trees are another common yet barely used wild food tree and if you have one in your neighborhood, you should seroiusly consider making at least one jar of jelly. From what I understand, it tastes like quince jelly, one of my all-star autumn favorites.
But hey, that’s not the end of it. Last but not least, for you wild west pie lovers…
However, these little guys are big fans of the following wild food, which only people with superhuman determination will leach for days on end to render edible.
Yay, acorns! Oh, how I admire those of you who bury them on riverside banks for a year before roasting, or those of you who grind acorn meats with stone mortars and go through the painful leaching process. I haven’t done any of that yet but I’m not ruling it out completely. Such a challenging food source has to be quite unique, otherwise native Americans would never have bothered.
That sums up the wild foods in my cemetery, at least the ones I can identify.
I encourage you to go out in your neighborhood parks and streets and see if you can spot any wild foods this season. It’s great fun to find edible fruits that nobody sells commercially, it’s like finding hidden treasures. And you can dress as a vampire as you do so, since a lot of them pop around Halloween.