There has a been a definite change of the season in the air the past few weeks, transitioning from summer’s end to autumn. The rains fell and then they fell again. Next came storm ‘Ali’. We felt the strength of the storm coming off the Atlantic, with gusts of over 60mph and all of a sudden the green edges of the woods were wind burned; curled and crisp on the peripheries.
The mackerel (Scomber scombrus) shoals arrived on calmer days in the seas of Loch Indaal and for a few weeks at least one soul was to be seen; stooped over, hood up, on the end of Bruichladdich pier. With rod in hand, they waited to catch their dinner or bait for their creels.
The island’s hillsides were swathed in purple in the ever brief but glorious heather flowers. As quick as it comes it seems to go again. The ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) was gathered for the season but not after concern over weather from James. However, he managed all he needed in good time and even now, there a few spots still in healthy bloom.
The last of our 22 gin botanicals to be harvested for the season was bog myrtle (Myrica gale), having one of the longest growing seasons. It may remain green for several months yet but best picking is when it is fresh green and waxy, James looks for the fullest looking sprigs. On a trip to ‘bog myrtle alley’ the difference between some plants to others was obvious…but only once pointed out. It takes an expert eye.
The Elder tree (Sambucus nigra) berries came thick and fast this year. After a hot, lengthy summer with a wet end, they seemed to ripen and plump up in no time. Driving past a favourite spot for picking it was a race to gather some for this year’s batch of elderberry vinegar and elderberry wine. 2017’s elderberry wine has never taken off as we hoped and what sits in the demi-johns is likely to change direction and become vinegar. Solutions as to what to use the unreactive elderberry wine for are most welcome.
As to midges, this year, there was an unusual third hatching
That classic Autumn activity, bramble picking. A first childhood foray in to foraging for many, the picking of blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) is an activity full of taste nostalgia and scratched forearm memories. One afternoon the family ‘bramble ramble’ was rapidly interrupted by the worst midges of the season and a hasty retreat was made back home.
As to midges, this year, there was an unusual third hatching. In a normal year the midges hatch only twice but in 2018, a late first hatching due to a cold year’s start and prolonged warm conditions thereafter made for the extra flurry in September rather than in nine months’ time (read more here). What a joy.
One of the most lovely autumnal foraged flavours is the burnt orange and tangerine smells of hogweed seeds (Heracleum sphondylium). September and October are time to fill a jar or two for use into the next year. Having been introduced to them as a baking spice by Mark Williams this is mostly how they are used at home. However, there have been experiments here with hogweed sherbet. Something nice to rim a cocktail class with. As ever, be sure to identify this member of the carrot family with care as close relatives can be very toxic.
Another classic Autumn forage are sloes from the Blackthorn tree (Prunus spinosa). Most commonly associated with the home experimenter’s sloe gin, sloe vodka or even sloe whisky they are oft prized and picking spots coveted. This year it seems to be that they are in much greater abundance certainly more than the previous three years.
The rusty, coral seed heads of the dock (Rumex obtusifolius) were wildly eye-catching home. The contrast against the cream yellow of the grass below was astounding. Part of buckwheat family, dock seeds can in fact be dried and used like buckwheat, read more on this in Jane’s previous article here.
The hazel (Corylus avellana) trees are starting to turn in the woods. Not just from wind burn but the temperature has taken a noticeable run down the thermometer. After a couple of big gales the windfall from the hazel trees has been good for the occasional pocket of hazelnuts to take home and crack by the fire of an evening. While a troop of us may have a pocketful each we made sure to leave enough for the woodland critters to gather for the winter.
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