Country Matters: Wild times in the city

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Tomorrow we shall be feasting on home-made blackberry and apple pie stuffed with freshly picked berries, even if the apples have to come from the local market. A little early in the year, I agree, for a dish that is as closely bound to the start of the school year as conkers and grazed knuckles. But the horse chestnuts, at least in central London, are already heavy with their spiked fruit, landmines waiting to explode, and we foragers for food beyond the damsons-in-December shelves of supermarkets must respond to seasonal whims. And the seasons are whimsical these days.

When I first gathered sloes in London some four years ago, it was on a wintry morning in mid November, a breath-snatching chill in the air, crackly with frost underfoot, and overhead a sky bluer than Blueberry Hill: in short, the sort of weather in which it felt right to be picking the purple-black fruit, lightly dusted with frost.

Last year, the harvest was brought in under a low grey sky, in sopping September. The sloes were perpetually wet with the latest rains, had to spend a night deep-frozen to acquire the icing that is said to be a prerequisite of good sloe gin, and came out virtual pulp. There wasn't much to choose, however, between Scrubs Vintage '96 and '98, both being sweet and intoxicating (the liquor even went down well, and rapidly, in the shires to which bottles were taken as presents), so I can only hope that this year's efforts will not be affected by the early-August harvest. At the rate the seasons are shifting, we really shall be gathering nuts in May soon. Perhaps, a thwarted desire for the natural order of the seasons apart, it really doesn't matter what month the darn things ripen in, as long as the ripening's done under God's own sun.

London seasons are, anyway, earlier than the provinces. With traffic, buildings, Tarmac and 8 million bodies generating a powerful heat, the city is always a few degrees warmer than its suburbs. Crops this year look to be especially good ones, presaged by the abundant spring blossom (getting on for late winter in the case of blackthorn). The local blackberries have never been more numerous. There should be enough for all the jam and pie-makers, in spite of the vandalism of an Irish flytipper who has dumped 50 yards of 6ft-high rubble mounds on top of one of the best stretches of brambles, and the enthusiasm of the Italian lady who has picked a bushel, or at least several bushes, every day for the past week. My theory is that she and her spouse serve authentic, delicious dishes, such as wild boar and blackberries, in a wonderful little trattoria hidden down a side street somewhere.

Come to think of it, it was a couple of octogenarian Italians who encouraged me to gather sweet chestnuts, a venture with which I had considerably less success than I've had with picking sloes. The blackthorn's 4in spikes are as nothing in comparison to the defence put up by the sweet chestnut's fruit.

Its casing resembles a spiny sea urchin, and its prick is as stingingly painful. Signor and Signora wore industrial gloves as they carefully picked over Richmond Park's windfall, explaining how to select the best and how to puncture the bottom of an old saucepan with holes, so as to roast the nuts over the gas flame for that really chestnutty flavour.

They left with bulging bags, shaking their heads at my gloveless attempts to collect a pocketful. Hours later, all thoughts of chestnut souffle or ice-cream banished by the searingly exquisite pain in every quick of my fingers (you have to peel them when still hot), I tossed the lot out and resolved to track down the excellent restaurant I just knew they ran.

Our Continental cousins are, by and large, much swifter to exploit the city's natural larder. There's a Polish delicatessen on Streatham High Road whose proprietors regularly pick mushrooms on Wimbledon Common, selling them fresh, dried and pickled to grateful expatriates. Mushrooms are, however, one wild foodstuff that I leave to the experts, for fear of committing Agatha-Christie-style mass murder of dinner guests, or at least making them very, very sick. I have certainly come across luscious puff-balls (lightly fried for the perfect breakfast), field mushrooms, and those flat beige ones that grow in tiers on rotting tree trunks, but I leave all well alone. (London also produces generous amounts of the magic variety, but no one seems to have noticed - or is it that their consumers all moved to wigwams in Wales in the Age of Aquarius?) And I shan't be fishing for the Chinese mitten crabs that are invading the Thames - the Chinese chefs from Soho are more than welcome to them.

Elderflower syrup, which mixed with mineral water and crushed mint leaves is one of the best long summer drinks that I know of, I also leave to professionals - but this is out of laziness; the best flower heads always seem to be at the top of the tree, or hanging over a forest of nettles. In any case the sous-chef at Kensington Place, a friendly west London restaurant, makes it so much better. But elderflowers there are aplenty for those keen enough to "trail" a few through a pan of bubbling, sweetened water. Where there are elderflowers, there are elderberries, for which I have to find a use, not being much of a jam-maker.

I do like honey, though. In tea, for tea, on chicken and with sausages. Not enough, perhaps, to keep my own bees, but enough to make me very happy that a lot of Londoners do. Ealing has its own Beekeepers' Association, as do many other "rural" boroughs, but some of the best London honeys come from balcony bees that forage in window-boxes and garden squares full of diverse and exotic flowers. One such was Bloomsbury honey - a one-off that I found in Spitalfields market - light gold in colour, fragrant, and a great deal tastier than many another product to bear that name.The king of London apiarists is probably James Hammill, whose Battersea shop, The Hive, is stuffed with all things apiarian, including lots of honey collected from his hives in Wimbledon, Tooting and elsewhere.

And now I must get those blackberries in before La Signora's family come along to help her.

I don't think she's spotted the plump little darlings on the wild plum tree yet, but it's only a matter of time - we gatherers can get very competitive.

Korona Polish Deli, 30 Streatham High Road, London SW16 (0181-769 6647). The Hive, 93 Northcote Road, London SW11 (0171-924 6233)

Duff Hart-Davis, Review Front

From Free Food ... To Free Drinks

Elderflower Cordial

(as made by Colin Westall, sous chef at Kensington Place, W8)

20 elderflower heads (pictured)

40g of citric acid (available from chemists)

900g of caster sugar

1 sliced lemon

Put all the ingredients in a basin. Add 500ml of boiling water. Leave to stand for three days, stirring twice a day. Strain through muslin or a fine sieve into clean bottles. If freezing, put into plastic bottles.

Constance Spry's Sloe Gin

Prick the skins of one-and-a-half pints of sloes [the dusky purple fruit of the blackthorn], put in a Kilner jar with three-quarters of a pound of caster sugar, a quart of gin (or vodka) and an optional few drops of almond essence.

Leave to stand for three to four months, turning over every week. Strain into bottles and keep for at least eight months. The longer, the better.