Source for this image here.
Today I have been finalising our menu for tomorrow and for the week ahead. We are having a special meal tomorrow evening in honour of the birthdays of myself and Papa Bear. Our birthdays are only a couple of weeks apart, so we like to have a special day that we celebrate together, as well as on the real day as well. Just like Royalty! Our food bill will be a little more expensive than usual tomorrow as a result, as much of what I am serving needs to be prepared fresh, so I haven't been able to plan very far ahead with purchasing the ingredients. But do you know, God has been very kind to us! There was a coupon printed in yesterday's newspaper, that was for the supermarket that we always use, which offers £10 off the cost of our weekly shop! I am sure this was meant to be - and so it means we probably won't have to spend very much more than we do normally - and we'll still be able to enjoy our special meal.
Counting the cost of our food bills is a concern for most of us - even if we have plenty of money to spend on our groceries, we still want to make sure that we are getting value for money. Here in England the supermarkets seem to compete every week to try to get us to switch our loyalty from one store to another. And they place adverts in the newspapers each week with the products that they have on discount, to encourage us to want to shop there. But I have noticed that these items are very often, for foodstuffs that are not very wholesome or healthy. Fresh foods seem to be discounted less often than things like crisps, candies, cakes and cookies. But did you know, that at this time of year, there are foods that are good for you that you can get for free?
Growing up as we did in the countryside, and coming from the culture that we do, Papa Bear and I are familiar with the bounty that nature provides us for free - especially at this time of year! Autumn has to be the best season for finding food for free - and it doesn't necessarily mean just in the countryside, either!
Here are a few foods that you can find for free, and some hints about how to find and use them ...
- Chestnuts - these pretty, shiny nuts, as pictured above, are easy to find lying on the ground in wooded areas, and even on city paths, having fallen from the tree in their spiky green casings. Although they are not as popular here in England as they are in Italy, they are very tasty and easy to prepare. They can be toasted in their skins, then peeled and eaten warm (they peel very easily). Their flavour is sweet and mild, and they have a pleasant creamy texture. You can in fact grind them into a flour but you'd need a lot of them to do this. In shops you can find them canned, pureed or candied, but truely they are nicest, I think, just as they come!
- Cobs (Kentish Cobnuts) - these are similar in size to chestnuts, but rounder, like hazelnuts. They have a lovely sweet taste and like chestnuts are easy to harvest and to peel. They look rather like rosebuds when they are growing, encased in a green husk, which peels back as they ripen and should be removed before they can be eaten.
- Berries - brambles (blackberries) are the commonest free berry that grows in England. All around the area where we live can be found bramble bushes, some heavy with the pretty, dark purple fruits. We prefer not to harvest city brambles but if we are out anywhere in the countryside, away from the traffic, we're happy to pick and eat them. To ensure they're clean and safe to eat, soak harvested blackberries in water for an hour or so. This will deal with any creepy crawly visitors that have hitched a lift into your home on the blackberries!
- Samphire - living near the sea (and indeed growing up near an especially beautiful part of the English coastline), the stringy green plant that looks and (probably!) tastes like seaweed, but is in fact a coastal annual plant that is best eaten lightly boiled. It has a fresh, salty taste that makes it especially suitable to be enjoyed with seafood. As children we were served this to eat alone, as a starter before a main meal. It's a little difficult to eat - a bit like asparagus - but I like it very much when it has been cooked properly and not over-boiled.
- Nettles - although nettles are considered a weed, in fact they are a very important plant that contributes not only a food source for a number of different animals, but also is reupted to have medicinal qualities. It often grows where horses live or have been kept, as it needs quite a nutritious soil. They need to be harvested and handled carefully as the leaves can give a nasty sting, but when cooked they have a taste a little like spinach. They make a useful and quite nutritious addition to soups, stews or casseroles, but of course cannot be eaten raw. An antidote to a nettle sting is a large dock leaf, held over the affected area of skin.
- Dandelions - in autumn these are beginning to die down, but can still be found before the first frosts. When picked and washed carefully, they can be used as a salad leaf. They're also a great addition to the diet of pet birds - our feathery family adore them! As with other city growing plants, don't pick dandelion leaves that have grown on roadsides - the fumes from the traffic or pesticides that have been put down to eliminate them, may make them unsafe to eat.
- Apples and Plums - these grow quite abundantly in some areas. Where I grew up were many crabapple trees and in autumn we use to gather them freely. Crabapples are small sour fruits that resemble apples but cannot be eaten raw as they are quite bitter. However they can be stewed and pureed like apples, or the cooked flesh strained and the juice used to make a jelly which is very tasty served with game food like pheasant. Mirabelle plums are the commonest plum that can be found growing wild (the larger dark purple Victoria plum is more often cultivated and needs more care and attention to flourish). These are also small sour fruits that are dark yellow and oval shaped, a little like a quince in appearance, but soft and fleshy with a small stone like their larger cousins. They make the most delicious jam, and can also be used in sweet dishes such as pies and crumbles. Their sourness makes them less popular as a fresh fruit, though personally I quite like them.
- Quinces - these pale yellow fruits look a little like pears, and are from the same fruit family, but are sourer and harder, never really seeming to ripen. They are often grown in gardens as ornamental plants, with gorgeous, peach coloured blossoms in spring, and the fruits have the most gorgeous fragrant scent. When harvested they are really best for making into a jelly or a jam, as they are not edible raw and very sour even when cooked.
And one to definitely avoid ....
- Mushrooms and Toadstools - in England, in wooded or grassy areas, at this time of year mushrooms and toadstools can be found in abundance. It's not a good idea to gather wild fungi to eat if you are not experienced in identifying them, as there are so many species, and some that are poisonous are very similar to some that are safe to eat. Some toadstools can make you very seriously ill - or even be fatal - when eaten. So personally, although I have eaten mushrooms as a child that were harvested by other family members and lived to tell the tale, I would strongly advise against eating wild mushrooms, no matter how delicious they may appear. They aren't expensive to buy in the supermarket, so play safe and stick to them instead.
Of course, at this time of year in most of Great Britian, it is also game season! And that means only one thing for us - pheasant! We love pheasant, but it's a little early yet to be ready to eat. I can't wait for our first casserole of the season! That's a frugal recipe I shall be very happy to share!