It’s been a very busy and eventful summer for us both in and out of the kitchen. We were honoured to be part of several fabulous garden parties and some simply stunning weddings this year which were, for the most part, celebrated in glorious sunshine.
However, autumn is now upon us. With hazy mornings and distinctly chilly evenings, the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has well and truly arrived. It has become extremely trendy to get out and about to take advantage of this fruitfulness; foraging along hedgerows, in meadows, woodland and parks. Foraging is not, of course, a new phenomenon; we’ve been gathering wild food as long as we’ve been eating and it wasn’t that long ago that it was part of day-to-day life in this country. There is food to be foraged all through the year but at this time, nature’s harvest does seem particularly plentiful.
Fruit and berries, leaves, nuts, fungi, are all available for the picking during autumn. Many have medicinal properties and were traditionally sought out as ‘food supplements’ and preserved in order to improve a limited diet during the winter months. Rose hips, for example, are known for their high vitamin C content and were commercially gathered during the Second World War as citrus fruit was hard to come by.
Foraging for mushrooms has become so popular in recent years that there are fears that it might lead to varieties being wiped out in places like the New Forest and Epping Forest so the message is to forage responsibly and sustainably. Pick only what you are going to use; remember animals and birds often rely on these foods for their survival. Be absolutely clear about what you are picking; carefully identify and double check, particularly when it comes to mushrooms and if in doubt, leave well alone! There are several deadly mushrooms in this country and several others that will make you very ill.
Below, we’ve listed some of the top foods to forage at this time of year with suggestions of how they can be used. There are countless other examples of wild food available for the taking but thinking gastronomically, it is worth remembering that the only reasons for using an ingredient is because it enhances your dish and tastes good. Just because it’s foraged doesn’t necessarily mean it should be served up for dinner!
Top foods to forage at this time of year:
Crab apples – high in pectin so ideal for jam or jelly and particularly useful paired with low pectin fruit/berries. Use as you would apple and purée, juice or stew the fruit, remembering they are usually very tart and you will probably need to add more sugar or honey. Make chutney ready for Christmas or try poaching the apples (with their stems still attached) in sweet wine and spices to serve with a creamy cheese as a first course.
Rowan berries – traditionally used with crab apples to make a jelly (it is low in pectin so crab apples are a good partner) but also used as a sauce for game (they have a slight bitter taste which works well with rich meats) or in a fruit or tea loaf. Like other berries, rowan berries are apparently sweeter when gathered after a sharp frost.
Rose hips – Traditionally cooked with sugar and strained through a muslin to make syrup, cordial or jelly, rose hips are very high in vitamin C and A. Rose hip syrup is delicious poured over pancakes and ice cream or pour a little into a glass of chilled Prosecco. Also try making rose hip vinegar.
Blackberries – one of the best known wild hedgerow food. Bramble jelly is a firm favourite at FFO for an autumn cream tea and who doesn’t like a blackberry and apple crumble or pie? Blackberries are also delicious pickled and served with cheese or try making a sweet, rich liqueur to enjoy at Christmas, if you can wait that long!
Sloes – another hedgerow favourite and packed into bottles of gin by enthusiasts all over the country! Also try making sloe and apple jelly.
Damsons/Bullaces – both types of plum make very good jams, fruit cheeses and tarts or make a sweet damson vodka liqueur as an alternative to sloe gin.
Elderberries – elderberry vinegar or wine are popular uses for these black, jewel-like berries. Elderberry jelly is an excellent accompaniment to venison. Remember elderberries must be cooked before they are eaten as they are poisonous raw.
Wild Garlic – can be harvested throughout the year. Use the leaves in a stir-fry or salad or to add flavour to winter soups or stews.
Mushrooms – September and October are key months for picking mushrooms. Always cut mushrooms at the base rather than pulling them out of the ground, this way the mycelium won’t be damaged and the mushroom will be able to regenerate.
Seaweeds – use to accompany fish dishes, in stir-fries or in risottos. Don’t take the whole plant when harvesting, leave something to grow back!
Nuts – a rich source of protein and energy. Delicious roasted, use as the base for a vegetarian bake or tossed into a stir-fry. Soak, pulse with a little water and press through a muslin to make a dairy-free ‘milk’ or extract the oil to use for frying and dressings. In particular, look out for sweet chestnuts, cobnuts and beechnuts.