WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
September marks the peak of seasonal British food. The end of summer, the harvest is over - farmers have now cleared their fields, and started ploughing and planting new crops. Although harvest is mostly over for the farmers however, we're still reaping the benefit in Seasonal September.
While summer fruit and vegetables are still in their prime, they're also joined by incoming the autumnal fare, much of it wild; blackberries can be freely picked from hedgerows, mushrooms from woodland areas (but only if you know your fungi), and the ever decreasing season for the British plum is also upon us.
Blackberries are one of the few items of seasonal produce that are more commonly grown wild than cultivated. They are commonly found in hedgerows or the fringes of woodland, making them easy to pick for the not so adventurous types!
How can they be so popular? Blackberries are not consistent in their flavour, due to the wild variety of places in which they can grow, and the fact they vary throughout the season. They are fairly sweet, to make them appealing to children but also to adults.
Blackberries are in season from August through till November, but earlier in the season they are generally thought to be better; later on in the season, any frosts could damage their flavor. It is also suggested to only pick berries higher than waist height, to avoid any bad taste by any animals that could have cocked a leg over them!
Blackberries don't store well - a few days at most in the fridge, although this won't help their taste. Their poor storage capability is another reason not to buy expensive foreign imports. They are a versatile fruit if used correctly, and make excellent jelly, or pies and jams, along with the seasons' apples. They also make a good summer pudding.
Not often seen in the supermarkets, or even the greengrocers, elderberries can be seen everywhere in September. They grow wild in abundance, with large bunches of small black berries covering the bushes. They aren't often found in shops because they are highly perishable - easily crushed, heavy and bulky in quantity and quick to spoil, they're not easy for a supply chain to manage with, so if you want to try them, you're going to have to find them. Chances are, you may have a bush in the garden yourself, courtesy of the many seeds birds scatter every summer in their droppings. The bushes are quick to grow and if left to their own devices, they will grow large enough to fruit in a couple of years.
Failing this, go to any woodland area and you're bound to find elderberries, and it couldn't be easier to pick them; all that is required is some carrier bags or very large food tubs, and a pair of scissors, secateurs or a knife; you'll fill whatever bags you take along quickly. Only bunches of berries hanging down should be picked; those pointing upwards are not yet ready.
Elderberries shouldn't be eaten as you pick them - they contain a mildly toxic alkaloid (chemical) that makes them unpleasant when raw. When you get them home, carefully separate the berries from the stalks (easily done with a fork); this can take some time.
One of the most popular uses for elderberries is in making wine, although they are also good for making jelly, and pies. To use them as a filling for a shortcrust pastry pie, simply mix about 1kg of elderberries with 250g of sugar, and use as filling.
In Europe, the wild mushroom season is regarded with a much greater seriousness than in Britain; they are picked commercially to some degree, and in France, many rural pharmacies will assist in identifying which of your picks are edible and which will send you to accident and emergency! In Britain however, you'll find wild mushrooms available in speciality food shops and markets, but they are not cheap.
Mushrooms are more wildly available in Autumn due to changes in the entire environment of a forest. The forming of mushrooms depends on chemicals known as photosynthate, which is sugars and carbohydrates formed by photosynthesis. In the autumn, these chemicals are forced below ground by trees that produce them; mushrooms, with their root systems extending below ground and even into roots of other organisms, have better access to it now, and encourages the production of mushrooms, which are actually fruiting bodies.
Wild mushrooms are somewhat insignificant from a nutritional point of view, but they can be very tasty, with porcini regarded as one of the best. If you're going picking, make sure you only pick edible ones, for some are so toxic they can actually kill you. Therefore, to go picking with an expert, or even join a mycological/fungi society and become one yourself, are the safest options available.
PLUMS AND GREENGAGES
Ripe plums, sweet and juicy, are one of the highlights of the late summer, following on from the berry season. Considering they have such a short ripening season, plums and greengages grow very well in our climate. The British season runs from July to October, although they are available all year round in supermarkets, but as always these should be avoided. They are usually grown for size and cosmetic appearance, and usually picked early to transport, so never taste as good as they should.
The British plum is largely considered to be one of the finest cultivated fruits in Britain, cultivated to what some consider to be near perfection. However, due to increasing commercialization of fruit, many of the varieties once available are no longer, although 350 of these are lovingly preserved in the National Fruit Collections at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent, of which only two or three varieties are sold anymore. As if that wasn't enough, climate change is causing further damage still; due to warmer spring weather, the trees are flowering earlier, and are susceptible to later frosts which can destroy the buds and therefore the harvest.
Raspberries have two seasons - first in June and July, for the summer varieties, and then again in September until the first frosts for the autumn varieties. Borne on different types of plants with different growing and fruiting habits, both types of raspberry are well adapted to the British climate, curiously for fruit favouring a cold climate. About 60% of the British crop is produced in Scotland, because they mature slowly and don't need hot weather, but do like long hours of daylight.
Juicy and sweet, raspberries are similar to blackberries, but easier to pick, with the fruit coming off the central receptacle when they are picked; when they are over ripe, they will sometimes even fall off the plant without being picked.
Raspberries can be expensive in shops even when in season, and will not last long - they are one of the more perishable fruit available. Therefore, if you have space to grow your own, as with any fruit and veg, it's more ideal and you can pick them when they are perfectly ripe. When picked, they will have a storage shelf life of approximately 2 days at best. You can also quite easily find wild raspberries, in woods, heathland, and hilly areas.
Sweetcorn, along with two other crops, wheat and rice, is one of the three most important staple food crops in the world. Surprisingly then, sweetcorn is not a major part of our diet, probably because we are at the northern most reach of the area in which sweetcorn will comfortably grow. In Britain, sweetcorn and maize in general are grown as animal fodder, primarily for dairy farms.
Sweetcorn requires plenty of sunshine to mature, and is slow to develop, ripening later in the year. Like peas, the fresher the better for sweetcorn - the sugars in it will start converting to starches as soon as it is picked. The freshest way to grow them therefore is in the back garden, when they can go from plant to pot in a few minutes. One way of eating them is lightly boiled until tender (5-10 minutes), then eaten with butter and pepper. Another excellent way is to wrap them in aluminium foil, and drop them on the barbeque until they just start to burn, then eat straight off the cob.
Once again, tomatoes are one of the things that really needs to be eaten fresh, and coming from a supermarket that just isn't going to happen. Fresh tomatoes are packed with flavor, perfectly balanced between sweet and sharp, full of goodness and vitamins. Ripened by the sun, tomatoes can be one of the most flavoursome fruit around (yes, they are a fruit, since their seeds are on the inside).
However… and it's a big however… tomatoes are available all year round, not due to fantastic sunny weather all year round - unfortunately, many tomatoes cultivated commercially nowadays are grown indoor, in a controlled atmosphere, in soil-free hydroponic conditions. Using these artificial methods, cosmetic conformity can be achieved more easily than growing them properly.
Why then, if given the perfectly balanced growing conditions, do commercially grown tomatoes not taste as good as naturally grown ones? Contrary to what you would think, tomatoes prefer to be outside; they originally come from Mediterranean climes, working hard in the strong sunshine to slowly ripen. Therefore, as you would expect, outdoors they have a short season in Britain, from July to October. Under glass they can last longer, from March to November, but they don't taste as good.
So where to get these wonder tomatoes? You don't have long - during a three month window in late summer, market stalls or farm shops are the best places to get them, or to guarantee they are outdoor tomatoes, growing them yourself is the best. Tomatoes are perfectly suited to growing yourself, on a small-scale, all they need is a pot, a sunny position, and plenty of water.
Squash, pumpkins, cardoon, cabbage, celeriac, celery, chicory, parsnips, medlar, quince, apples, chestnuts, damsons