Monday, 25 November 2013

Nutting


Nutting as we referred to it, was of course, our annual nut collecting activities. These fell into two different areas, on the one hand Hazel nuts and on the other Chestnuts. Each had its own location and different method of collection. Hazel nuts were collect, for the most part, from the north and north west of the village. The edge of Alice Holt Forest, the woods known as Stephenfield Copse and its surrounding hedge rows, the hangars at the northern edge of Kingsley Nurseries and the hedges to the right and left of the old lane at its top end towards the junction of the road which goes back through the nurseries towards the Straits. All of these areas had large numbers of Hazels in the woods and hedges and many of the trees were large and, no doubt, quite old. As with most crops, the nut harvest varied from season to season but some years there were huge amounts of nuts to be collected. 

The trick was to judge when the nuts were ripe but not too ripe. If they were over ripe they dropped out of their husks and fell into the grass, ditch or brambles, which ever happened to be around. On the other hand there were some areas with little or no vegetation beneath the trees where it was possible to shake the branches vigorously and pick the nuts from the ground. But for the most part it was better to pick the nuts from the trees before they began to drop. This could be achieved by grabbing a branch and holding it down as low as possible whilst the nuts, still within their husks, could be picked. Since our nut picking activities were usually conducted in small groups we had enough people to share the branch bending and picking without a problem. In some cases,where branches were high and well loaded with nuts, it was worth climbing up a tree and along the branch in order to swing it down to enable the nuts to be reached. This was done in a similar manner to our Birch tree swinging activities but care had to be exercised as the Hazel was not nearly as pliant as the Birch. 

There were two other problems associated with this activity which were gypsies and squirrels. On the one hand the gypsies would strip a whole area of its nuts and the squirrels would empty large numbers of husks of their nuts thus making it pointless going to the trouble of swinging down branches. I imagine the gypsies sold the nuts in local markets as they did snowdrops and wild daffodils when they were in season. But, none the less,it was a complete pain to arrive at a favourite nutting place only to find the gypsies had beaten you to it and all of the nuts had gone. As far as the squirrels were concerned they were less of a problem but even they could make a considerable dent into a nut crop. It is worth noting, that during my early childhood, there were still Red Squirrels in the area. But with the introduction of the Greys they soon disappeared. 

By contrast, chestnutting took place to the south of the village in Oxney woods and to the right and left of the Bordon road where the road, which crosses from Fir Hill, and the A325 meet at the top of Broxhead Common. There were large numbers of Chestnut trees in that area but the size of the nuts they produced varied greatly. There were only three or four that produced really big nuts and,of course, they were the ones which received the most attention from us. Unlike the Hazels, the Chestnuts could not be swung down to enable picking. They were both far too big and far too brittle. A Chestnut branch will snap quite easily and without much weight. It was, therefore, necessary to apply a different method of collection. This took the form of a large broken branch which was thrown into the branches where the nuts were. The branch in question had to be as big as could be thrown into the best of the nuts and long enough to cover a reasonable sized area as it hit the branches containing the nuts . If the aim was right large numbers of nuts could be dislodged in this way. The only minor problem was the fact that one stood beneath the branches which were targeted and what goes up has to come down. Too many enthusiastic branch throwers, more intent on hitting as many nuts as possible, and not very concerned as to where their branches would fall to earth, could make things a little bit hazardous. I don’t remember any serious injuries as a result of this activity, the odd bruise being the usual outcome. 

Having got the nuts to earth they then had to be extracted from their prickly cases. This we did either by using a stick to force the casing apart of by pressing the complete case into the ground with one foot and scraping the sole of the other foot across the trapped case which would, if done correctly, result in the case coming in half and revealing the nuts inside. Although the squirrels had their share of the Chestnut crop the gypsies didn’t seem to bother with them. I can only imagine the effort in obtaining a worthwhile haul was just not worth the trouble. The generally accepted wisdom, passed down to us, was that the chestnuts were better when they had been through, at least one frost. This, it was said, made them taste much better. You pays your money and takes your choice !

The other bonus in collecting the chestnuts from the area mentioned was the presence of the mushroom Bay Boletus. Also known as Boletus Badius or Sticky Bun, this mushroom is a chestnut to deep brown in colour and has a sticky top. When cut the flesh turns a dark blue colour and whilst this may not look very appetizing, it is a delicious mushroom to eat. In my opinion, it has a musky flavor not dissimilar to the Truffle. In the days of which I write it was possible to fine quite large numbers of these fine fungi all around the Broxhead area. 

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