The price of food has gone up: not just the monetary price, but the price that is paid by the planet for its ever-intensive production, and the price paid by farmers who often grow at a loss so that big buyers can make an ever-increasing profit. But this time of year is a reminder of what is provided by nature, free of charge, if we are willing to take the time to learn what is there, and how to use it. As well as that, any food that we grow for ourselves is a massive bonus: fresh, local and free.
So few people seem to be aware that this bounty exists, much less be willing to forage, harvest, preserve and enjoy. On our last open day, we offered free containers to visitors so that they could pick the huge crop of blackberries at the woods: there were no takers. Blackberries are ripening in the hedgerows along the road, along footpaths, by schools and churches, and in waste ground. In the small park near our house the brambles are heaving with berries, but there is no evidence that any have been picked. Apples in the community orchard fall to the floor, uneaten.
I have spent the last few weeks digging and foraging and picking. We have racks of apples grown at the woods. We have many jars of bramble, crab apple and hedgerow jelly. Sloes are due to be picked for sloe gin. I have over 30 jars of tomato chutney on the shelf for our own use, as well as for gifts, and there is more to come. I have sacks of potatoes. I have large pumpkins ready to eat and for making jam. Our crab apple tree is being raided for their brilliant properties in making jams and jellies. We look forward to the forthcoming crop of parasol mushrooms. We are preparing to plant some of our garlic to give another crop next year.
The sad fact is that many people really don’t know where food comes from, and are suspicious of any food that doesn’t come with a label telling us what it is, and a use-by date. Do people eat toast and jam any more? Do people really prefer eating chemical-laden ketchup in favour of fresh, unadulterated and much-more-delicious chutney? Are people unsure of their ability to identify a blackberry, never mind what to do with it once picked? Do people know how to make jam or preserve fruit to last the year round? Do they need to, given that we can get any fruit all year round, freighted in from around the World.
Nature’s harvest is an annual miracle. Most of it is a matter of life and death for the birds, insects, spiders and mammals who depend on it, and we leave most of it for them to enjoy. But we also rejoice in taking a small, sustainable quantity for ourselves. This food IS free – no price has been paid by farmers forced to sell at a loss, by workers in developing counties living on subsistence wages, or by the environment suffering intensive use of chemicals to allow intensive cultivation. It is free and it is beautiful. We hope we are not the last generation to enjoy it.