Wild food and wildlife (If this is autumn… part 2)


So as I was saying, the autumn roadsides are ablush with ripe hawthorn berries, which appear to be non-toxic but still entirely useless as a foraged food. The wild rose bushes, however, which are also widespread, are laden with fat scarlet rosehips, and these are useful. (Remember, we’re operating on an if it’s free, we’ll eat it basis.)

Completely shredding a pair of rubber gloves and getting myself thoroughly scathed in the process, I pick kilos of rosehips and, inviting choruses of ‘wanker!’, Facebook pictures of my freshly-bottled rosehip jelly and syrup. Frankly, the destalking, boiling, pulping and straining process turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth, though the yield is delicious, and I do get my Martha Stewart moment.

I’m given some quinces, fragrant but inhospitably rock-hard, which turn out to be amazing baked in sugar syrup – a revelation, and possibly my new favourite thing to eat. We also forage hatfuls of walnuts from the huge tree in the school grounds until the day we’re busted by the school caretaker, who claims they’re needed by the school ‘for fundraising purposes’. We slink guiltily home and enjoy our contraband cracked straight from the shell, in salads, stuffing and some particularly satisfactory banana muffins, before squirrelling the surplus away for winter.

I also harvest a crop of marvellous-smelling brown-gilled mushrooms by the woods above the cemetery, but after carefully ascertaining via Wikipedia that they are at least 90% likely to be edible, am disappointed to find them riddled with maggots. (The mushrooms smell so good I consider frying them up anyway, but am discouraged by uncomfortable memories of a similar episode in Tuscany when, in the case of some not inexpensive roadside-stall mushrooms, we came down on the side of ‘bah, what’s a few maggots’ and forced ourselves through bowlfuls of cautiously chewed dark-brown pasta, queasily inspected forkful by forkful for signs of residual wriggling. An appetite suppressant.)

We encounter a hunter on his way to slaughter hundreds of pestilent bunnies on the high country farms and beg for a few rabbit carcasses, but, disappointingly, we’re told that the 1080 renders them inedible. Really, how bad can it taste?

We had good reason to bay for bunny blood: rabbits haven’t yet been exonerated as suspects in the Great Easter Egg Theft of 3 March. At some time in the small hours my carefully set egg hunt was laid waste by Something, seemingly with opposable thumbs, which replaced my trail of marshmallow eggs with carefully unwrapped – scarcely torn, but resoundingly empty – squares of Easter foil. The Easter Bunny’s badass cousin? His nemesis, the evil Easter Possum, who stalks him around the world, depriving good children of their seasonal just deserts as well as indulging in a little native deforestation?

Whatever it was, it was a slow learner, since it clearly didn’t like marshmallow, leaving its own Easter trail of sticky lumps of partially chewed brownish goo. Which, given the nutritional integrity of marshmallow, was probably a fairly evolved response. Other suspects include rats, the occasionally glimpsed feral cat and the neighbours’ children, though admittedly the latter were unlikely to have access during the 10pm to 6am crime window.

One morning early in our time here I found a single mouse turd on the kitchen bench, which explained the mousetrap I found at the back of a cupboard. The boys were all for catching the mouse until I explained that that meant killing the mouse actually dead, which they weren’t at all in favour of. We debated the ethics for a minute and agreed that as long as he wasn’t nibbling packets and leaving lots of poos around, we were happy to cohabit with the mouse. Was that our mistake? Were we victims of our own liberal compassion? Did we release it from its gateway crime of shitting on our bench, only for it to reoffend on a much graver scale?

Whatever, we’re left in no doubt that, here in the badlands of Hawea, we’re only ever one small step away from the wild.

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