The Secret Cevennes - articles by Samantha David
I'm not much of a walker. Most of the year, if I make from the front door to the car I reckon I've done my bit for the day.
But autumn in the Cévennes is different. Naturally the leaves are doing their beautiful rainbow act, but there are other attractions out on the hills. Under that fresh blue sky, bathed in woody scents from the earth, lurks a veritable treasure trove of edibles. For anyone as greedy as me, it's irresistible.
Armed with a neat pair of leather gloves, a series of little bags or other containers and either a gardening knife or a pair of secateurs, during a couple of long afternoon walks you can stock your larder for the coming winter.
First up are the blackberries - and it usually isn't too difficult to find some apples from an abandoned orchard to go with them. But alongside the blackberries you can usually find grey-blue sloes, too hard and bitter to eat. I always gather a good big bagful for sloe gin. It's simply a matter of washing and drying the fruit, shoving it into a large bottling jar and covering it with cheap supermarket gin. You then add a snowdrift of sugar, to fills the bottom third of the jar. You then put the whole lot in a dark cupboard and wait for a month or so. It's vital not to be too exact with proportions because half the fun is tasting and adding more sugar and/or more gin. The aim is to have reached a satisfying balance between the two by Christmas, when you strain the fruit out and pour the gin back into the bottles, this time adorned with homemade sloe gin labels.
If you're lucky you might even find a quince tree whilst out on your rambles. The rock hard fruit is another candidate for the kitchen. Quince chutney is fab. You can follow any chutney recipe off the web, but essentially, you hack the fruit up with a chainsaw and boil it up in vinegar with sugar, onions, garlic, ginger, a little salt and whatever other spices take your fancy. Again, quantities aren't particularly important as you can taste and add things until you're happy. Bottling chutney is a piece of cake because the jars only have to be clean rather than sterile, and you don't have to seal them. (The same treatment works for green tomatoes, unripe figs, apples and anything else you can get your hands on.)
Around us there are nut trees and the fruit is green and waxy. Not that tasty, but the neighbours soak them in wine with lemon and sugar, which makes a great little snifter for a cold winter's evening.
Then there are mushrooms and, as everyone knows, you should take your haul to the chemist to have them checked out before you eat them. All French pharmacists will do this for you, and at least that way you won't be one of the select club of people who poison themselves with toadstools each year in France.
If you want to go really native however, wait until it rains and get out there with a bucket collecting snails. Preparation is easy although time consuming: you’ll need to purge them by keeping them in a damp bucket somewhere cool on a diet of dry bread for 2-4 weeks, before thoroughly rinsing them, salting them, rinsing again, boiling for 15 minutes, rinsing (this is all to get rid of the snail slime) and finally removing the snails from their shells, using a pin, toothpick or small fork to twist the tails free of the shells. You then cook them in chicken stock or water for 40 minutes, put them back in the shells, plug the hole with garlic and parsley butter, cover with bread crumbs and bake the whole lot in the oven for 15 minutes. Yummy.
And by the way, once you’ve boiled the snails, you can freeze them if you don’t want to eat them straight away. Try serving them in pastry vol-au-vent cases with a garlic cream sauce, if you want to confuse and bedazzle your guests into thinking they are mushrooms.
If dealing with creepy crawlies is just a degree to rustic for you, then you could perhaps confine your hunter-gathering to chestnuts. It's perfectly acceptable to gather whatever falls on roadside verges, or even in the national park. At home, drop them into boiling water for eight minutes and then peel with a sharp knife before packing them into plastic bags and freezing them for turkey stuffing at Christmas. Or having skinned them, cook them again in sweetened milk to make the classic autumn dessert, Mont Blanc.
Alternatively, if you gather a lot of chestnuts and can rope in enough neighbours to help and chat, you can make chestnut jam - although this is a bit labour-intensive for someone of my lazy tendencies.
Still, it will soon be time to hibernate and then all this walking and culinary activity will be over for another year.
Next column will be uploaded around 1st Nov.
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