Saddle Up and Savour the Wild Harvest

Ride along and learn about foraging on horseback in the hills.

September 16, 2016 | | Leisure

If the predictions of Nostradamus prove to be correct, the 25 years or more I’ve spent riding horses throughout these hills will stand me in good stead.

If Armageddon happens, I will know how to survive – as long as it happens between May and November. In other words, during those glorious and abundant months when nature has thrown off the mantle of winter and provides for us living creatures. Now, I like to travel on horseback, but if you are a hiker with a knapsack on your back, you too can be the beneficiary of this life-giving sustenance.

Sound a little ridiculous? Well, maybe, but ride or stride along with me and learn how nature has our welfare in mind.

Who has not plucked an apple from a hedgerow? Just one bite, and if it is not sweet enough… a few more strides and you may have an array of alternatives. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins.

Who has not plucked an apple from a hedgerow? Just one bite, and if it is not sweet enough… a few more strides and you may have an array of alternatives. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins.

When my horse and I take to the fields and byways on trail rides or when we’re trying to keep up with a pack of foxhounds, we have plenty of opportunity to appreciate the local countryside. A regular cornucopia of fruits and vegetables is available to sample as you please – much of it conveniently delivered to you at saddle height. You can just reach out and enjoy.

Who has not plucked an apple from a hedgerow? Probably a variety whose origins go back a hundred years or more. Just one bite, and if it is not sweet enough or is home to some small, wriggling creatures, a few more strides and you may have an array of alternatives varied enough to challenge the display in your local supermarket.

Apples are only the first course. Other delicacies are there for your pleasure, albeit perhaps not as conveniently presented to you. If you are careful to avoid the thorns, I can guide you to a secret place close by the hamlet of Mimosa in Erin where, with a little bending and reaching out from the saddle, you can have your dessert of blackberries from a thicket of brambles. You just have to remember which farm lane will lead you there.

Just like gone-wild apple trees, there are places near Belfountain where wild “deer pears” can be found. It seems those deer know a thing or two about succulent treats. Wild pears can be “as hard as a witch’s heart” and a hazard to anyone with dentures or a loose tooth. Risky, but worth it for the sweet taste when they’re ripe.

In Mono’s Blithe Hill country and in many other locations, there are fast-food pit stops where you can enjoy red and black raspberries. With a touch more testing of your flexibility and Velcro-like attachment to your saddle, these sweet delicacies can be gathered at minimal cost compared to the local farmers’ market.

Wild grapes are likewise around in abundance. Small dusty blue fruit, more pip than flesh, they grow in raggedy little bunches not unlike the domesticated variety, but less succulent. Wild grapes are not for the faint-hearted, unless you happen to have brought a pound of sugar along with you.

Also available from the saddle are the fruit of nut trees. Hazelnut trees, or perhaps we should call them bushes, are in many hedgerows, though not easily identified as you pass them at a trot. Timing is important with hazelnuts. Too early and the kernel is too white and soft. If the shell is empty, Nutkin the squirrel got there first.

You’ll also find black walnut trees in many areas. The green fruit, while on the tree, is reachable from the saddle but not worth the effort. The green casing has to turn yellow before the nut is ripe, and by then the nut is on the ground and unreachable from horseback. In any case, the dark walnut stain on your riding gloves is there forever. If you do gather ripe-looking walnuts from the ground, put them in water before you waste your time cracking them open. Many will be empty and float. The ones with nuts in them will sink and be keepers.

Gleaning is a word you don’t hear spoken much lately. It refers to the gathering of farmers’ crops from the fields after the harvest is over. This was an accepted rite of autumn among villagers in years gone by. But even today many of us take advantage of the practice.

In late fall I have ridden with friends in what we term “potato country” in the Redickville area. Once modern machinery has harvested the tubers, there are always a few spuds that have escaped their intended destiny. Lying there naked and gleaming white on the well-tilled black earth, they cry out to be rescued before the fall frosts turn them to mush. A couple of good-sized bakers have sometimes found a good home, but be sure not to pick up those taters tanned by the sun and turned green – they have increased alkaloid levels and may not be good for the tummy.

Then there is the corn throughout our townships – nutrition provider for human, beast and automobile. Whose horse has not stolen a bright yellow cob as it passes by? Since the snatch-and-run usually occurs on a headland next to the bush, your horse has simply denied a meal for the local raccoon family. As the string of horses emerges at the end of the row, many a rider has been seen desperately reaching forward to extract a three-foot length of filched cornstalk as her horse shakes his head to detach the cob. It becomes a contest between rider and horse. The horse inevitably wins.

Although most of the bounty of the land is available only in the fall months, in May and June there is a particularly aromatic plant to be found in the shade of the woods. I could direct you to these treasures close by the village of Alton or near the hamlet of Cataract. After a posse of horses has passed through a bed of wild garlic, the air reeks of this highly valued culinary ingredient. The crushing by iron-shod hooves on this delicate little plant is enough to transport your senses to a bustling cuisine in Montmartre or a cucina in old Napoli. The pungent aroma can linger for days, marking the passage of the cavalry long after the horses have passed.

And, ah, the wild strawberry. Such a tease-pot of a plant. On a sunny bank in late May, its yellow, pinky-white flowers promise such a delicate feast to come. Pay a visit to that same bank a month later and you will be hard pressed to find its miniature fruit under the leaves of the grasses grown up to hide the little earth-hugging plants. Although those spring flowers probably did produce fruit, chances are field mice and other denizens of the deep foliage have claimed first rights to the sweet offerings.

But there are even more indulgences. There is a farm lane in Mono where I could lead you to some wild asparagus. Its flavour questions the right of the store-bought variety to bear the same name. If your palate is partial to spicier foods, horseradish can be found growing along many a fence line in Hockley Valley.

The delightfully peppery taste of watercress is another early summer favourite of mine. The hills of Mulmur, with their freshets tumbling down the hillsides into the Boyne and Pine river valleys, provide an ideal location for this edible delight. Gathered from a fast-flowing stream, watercress is a cooling snack at any time. However, before you pop it into your mouth, be sure to check upstream to make sure no cattle have been standing in the creek. Clear-looking water is no guarantee of its purity.

Finally, dare we mention it? There is a plant in high demand in some circles – a plant likely to hide out in obscure places and move on to different sites each year. When you roam the countryside on horseback, you are able to reach remote corners where official vehicles and prying eyes are unlikely to be around.

On several occasions, my fellow riders have been surprised to come across that valuable plant known in legal circles as cannabis sativa or marijuana. Hidden in seldom-visited backwoods and with plants scattered hither and thither, it is clear human hands have been at work. Yes, we should inform the local authorities, but when your horse requires your full attention, there are more pressing things to do. At the end of the day it is usually difficult to recall exactly where this chance encounter occurred. Memory can be a fickle thing.

It is unlikely you will ever have to literally live off the land, but if you really had to, you would have been well prepared by the gastronomic knowledge acquired while riding across such fields of plenty.

Bon appétit.

About the Author More by Derek French

Derek French, countryman by heart, is never happier than when on the back of a horse or with his hands in the soil.

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