‘We went into the forest, scavenging the trees in search of the perfect hazelnut’

Family Fortunes: We were feral, hunter-gatherers living between ground and air

Hazelnuts were the prize. Photograph: iStock

Hazelnuts were the prize. Photograph: iStock

 

At the first blush of autumn’s palette, my sisters and I went out into the hazel wood, not because a fire was in our young heads but because we had read the way the days began to lose light, and scented on the wind that hazel shells were already bronzed, hardened and had turned nut-brown.

Our mother, wise in her negligence, put no stop on us as we tumbled over the cinders of yesterday’s fire dumped in the back garden. We sent the hens clucking up onto the roof of the shed as we scaled the stone wall of our everyday into the forbidden world of the other.

We lived between ground and air, feral, hunter-gatherers that stripped brambles of their purple-nippled fruit, threaded ghostly mushrooms onto long filaments of grass, and gnawed the flesh off claret-ripe haws as if juicy apples. But the hazelnut was the prize, the one that we had come to forage. Knowing nothing of the tree’s lore, only the magic of its abundance.

The diviner’s rod within us found them out. We scavenged tree after tree, all the way to the edge of the lake, our instinct sharp in its knowing about those that were ripe and those that were not.

We studied each branch, debated the way the cobs hid themselves under the covert of saw-toothed leaves, three, four, the magic of a five-star cluster. Ripeness proving itself in the flick of a thumb against the bract that surrendered a perfect mahogany kernel from its sheath, gracefully.

When we had pilfered all that we could reach, like small wood animals, we settled on the cushions of moss beneath the trees, a perfect stone in the crucible of our palms. Then as the sounds of shell cracking drove the pigeons from their croodling, we eased out each perfect kernel. And, oh, the taste of it, the bread of angels, as we gorged on each one, no need to go home for dinner, a midden of shells mounting at our feet.

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