Nowadays picking blackberries is about the only foraging that most people do, and even the numbers picking blackberries is far, far fewer than in the past. Whilst restaurants are making a big deal about foraged ingredients many people feel that this is just an excuse for a hike in prices and that any worthwhile ingredients have by now been cultivated. This is patently not true. For example, despite the fact that some fungi that were once only found in the wild have now been cultivated with success, the holy grail for fungi hunters and gourmets alike remain boletus edulis (the cep) or the springtime Morel, both of which remain resolutely immune to any attempts at cultivation. Foraged food usually has deep cultural links and this is certainly true of Whortleberries in Somerset which, after fungi, are my favourite foraged food.
They used to be an important source of income for poorer country people, many of whom remember spending the majority of their school holidays picking “worts” or “hurts” as they are generally referred to in the local dialects. They were used not just in pies and jams but also for dying cloth, notably the RAC uniforms during the Second World War. The income from a month’s picking typically clothed a family for the year.
Picking whortleberries is, however, hard work as the bushes are very low to the ground and the berries small. Some people made “combs” with wooden or metal teeth. This makes the job quicker, although the berries then need to be separated from leaves and twigs that have also been combed from the bush. These combs are more easily found in other countries where bilberries grow – Alsace in northern France is one such, I bought mine in Italy, although it is German made. More recently Lakeland has begun selling something similar.
There is also some danger in picking as whortleberries only grow on the acid soils of moorland which unfortunately, in the south at least, is also the exact habitat favoured by the adder. In addition, ticks are now a major hazard, so no matter how hot the weather it is necessary to keep well covered and wear walking boots or wellies.
After all this effort it is a very honoured guest indeed who will get to taste a slice of whortleberry pie. It is not just me who feels this way – The Castle Hotel in Taunton now only serves this delicacy on the occasion when the Australian Cricket team is playing there. It is a tradition they keep despite the fact that finding foragers is now quite a task.
I should say that it is not only in Somerset that the whortleberry is held in such esteem but wherever it grows, although moorland itself is now a rare habitat. The various names by which this fruit is known include Blaeberry in Scotland, Whimberry in Wales and Bilberry in the North of England. In France is called Myrtilles Savages, which I have used when naming my tart as it is made in the style popular there. See August’s recipes.