It’s a scene that could come straight from the Middle Ages. A straggle of pigs emerges through the autumn mist, snuffling through the woodland of the New Forest. They’re on the hunt for nuts: acorns and beechnuts (known as common mast) which, over the following weeks, they will hoover up by the thousand. Not only will this diet give their meat a wonderful texture and taste; it also helps keep the beechnuts away from the cattle and ponies (for which they are poisonous).
Pannaging, as it’s called, is a tradition that stretches back to the 12th century (although archaeologists assert that its origins lie even farther back, in the Bronze Age). Locals, known as Commoners, have the ancient right to turn their pigs out on to the common land of the Forest. It’s heartening to witness a tradition like this being upheld. Heartening, too, to see an under-used and under-valued commodity being appreciated, albeit in a small way. For it often seems that the British nut really is Billy No-Mates. We fall over ourselves to gorge on foreign cashews, almonds, pecans and Brazils. Even worse, we import peanuts by the lorry load (and they aren’t even a nut, but a legume). Yet these isles are home to many a nut: hazelnut, beechnut, horse chestnut, sweet chestnut, acorn, walnut. So are we missing a trick?
“I find that the English have always been negligent and negative about nuts as food, unlike people on the Continent,” says Brigid Allen, food writer and author of The Nut Book (Macmillan). “As a child I used to eat beechnuts and would also pick up sweet chestnuts, though they were very small. As an adult I discovered the joys of picking hazelnuts and blackberries and making my own muesli.”
PASS THE COBNUTS
John Cannon also feels that the British nut is under-appreciated. But, then, I suppose he would, given he’s chairman of the Kentish Cobnuts Association. He tells me that we were once great connoisseurs of the cultivated hazelnut, otherwise known as the cobnut or filbert. During Edwardian and Victorian times, no dinner was complete without a dish of cobnuts proffered around at pudding. In the days when there was no such thing as a readymade panna cotta from M&S, fresh cobnuts, with their succulent milky white flesh, were just the ticket. “Cobnuts were a really important part of people’s diet,” says Cannon. “For instance, they were put on ships before a long voyage.” He believes that their decline in popularity came about simply because they were seen as old-fashioned. In 1913, 7,000 acres of nut plantations existed. These days that number has shrunk to a mere 200 acres.
However, there is a resurgence of interest in the British cob and demand now exceeds production. Some connoisseurs love to eat them green. But a major market is not to feed humans. “We supply a lot of hazelnuts for red squirrels,” says Cannon. “They mainly go up to Scotland and Cumbria. Hazelnuts are a natural part of a red squirrel’s diet. They wait until they are ripe before eating them, while the greys eat them when they are still seeds.” He appears not to like grey squirrels, but who does? “Greys have destroyed a lot of wild hazelnut trees,” he continues. “Reds are choosy and patriotic – they like moist British nuts and have been known to turn down hard imported ones.”
FRUITS IN MAY
Nuts have an infinite list of uses and are woven into the history and folklore of this land. Ancient Britons were said to enjoy acorns while drinking mead (a precursor to salted peanuts and a pint, perhaps), while the Romans used walnut shells to dye their hair black, a practice that is being resuscitated by makers of natural cosmetics. Some people remember acorns and oak galls being used to make ink and dyes. Various nuts were also pressed into action in the pre-Tesco olive oil age. In the Chilterns, cooking oil was made from beechnuts. Elsewhere, ground almonds were mixed with water to make milk or were churned with sugar and rose water for butter. In times of famine, acorns were ground up as an additive to bread flour. During the shortages of the Second World War, the food and wine writer André Simon was sent a tin of acorns that had been grilled and ground, as a substitute for coffee. “It was not in the least like coffee,” he wrote, “but when used with chicory root and served with lots of hot milk it made a tolerable breakfast drink.”
Much folklore was attached to nuts. William Cobbett commented on the saying that “a great nut year is a great bastard year”. Apparently this had to do with the fun young folk had while out a-gathering nuts. “I once asked a farmer,” he wrote, “whether he really thought that there was any ground in this old saying. He said that he was sure that there were good grounds for it, and mentioned one particular year, when there were four times as many bastards as had ever been born in a year in the parish before; an effect which he ascribed solely to the crop of nuts of the year before.”
Still on an amatory note, mention must made of the fortune-telling capacities of sweet chestnuts. Prior to being roasted the nuts would be given the names of eligible chaps in the village. The first one to pop would be the one who would first pop the question.
No discussion of British nuts is complete without the mighty conker, that glossy fruit of the spreading horse chestnut. Of course, Health & Safety edicts warn that conkers are the spawn of the devil and should be shunned by every sensible school. But lads who read The Dangerous Book for Boys under the duvet with a torch ignore such nonsense and happily rummage for the spiky casings with that promising glint of reddish-brown or hurl sticks up to dislodge the most succulent beasts. They are essential material for playground battles but they had another, more esoteric use, which persists.
“I heard it from a farmer’s wife that they could keep spiders under control,” says Linda London, who lives in the edge-of-Exmoor village of Brushford. “She told me that if you put conkers in the corner of each room then you wouldn’t get spiders as they hate them. And you know what? It works. I’ve hardly seen a spider since doing it.”
Apart from putting the wind up spiders, horse chestnuts were a staple in herbal medicines and are used today to deal with complaints such as varicose veins and haemorrhoids. They can’t be eaten, as most of us discover early in life, as they are laden with saponins, a soap-like chemical.
Some souls still use beech mast to flavour gin, while canny gamekeepers and poultry farmers feed it to their pheasants and chickens. Beech mast is said to be particularly good for finishing turkeys, giving the meat a delicious taste and texture. But don’t leave them solely to the birds: try them yourself. Alistair Vaan, chef and co-owner of Y Mochyn Drwg in Newport, Pembrokeshire, roasts and salts them to make a snack. “Absolutely delicious,” he says, but warns that you shouldn’t eat very many as large quantities can cause giddiness or headaches.
RIGHTS OF PANNAGE
Back in the New Forest I find out more about pannaging from Caroline Stride, Assistant Educational Officer at the New Forest Museum in Lyndhurst. “We have been turning pigs out on to the Forest for over 30 years now,” she says. “We also have a right of pasture that allows us to turn ponies and cattle out into the open forest. The rights are attached to your house or the grazing land you own or rent. So anyone can be a Commoner if the property they live in has the rights attached.” Unfortunately properties within the New Forest come at a premium, so it is nearly impossible for young people to buy or rent a place here, even those from a commoning background. “We are traditional Commoners from a family of Commoners going back generations and are very proud to be known as Commoners,” says Stride. “It’s a way of life, though the large urban areas that surround the Forest bring all sorts of recreational pressures and it is getting increasingly difficult to keep animals in the traditional way. The increase in paperwork is having an effect on the grazing and behaviour of our animals.”
The pigs are turned out into the Forest, usually from the end of September, and left there for 60 days, though this can be extended if there is a large fall of acorns. Then they are rounded up and off to market they go. Pannage pork, sold locally, is a delicacy said to taste like Parma ham. If you have pigs and a bit of oak or beech woodland, it might be worth trying it for yourself.
As we become more concerned about food miles and production, it’s time to regard a walk in the woods as a spot of ethical shopping. Besides, we must do our bit by gathering the nuts before the grey squirrel does.
Allens Farms, near Sevenoaks, Kent, seels green and golden (husked) cobnuts at £12 per kg, including p&p, tel 01732 812215, visit the website.
To pick your own near Lamberhurst call Sally Bingham on 01892 890758.
For other suppliers visit the Kentish Cobnuts Association website.
Among those who sell pannage pork in season are: James Greenwood, Southampton, tel 02380 813142; Keith and Heather Tillman, Edgemoor Farm, Ringwood, tel 01425 489004; and Daniel Bessant, near Lyndhurst, tel 07967 774192.