As the summer comes to an end natures larder supplies us with one last bounty before much of its flora begin to lay dormant for the winter months. Autumn is a time for harvest for both farmers and foragers alike. As the days get shorter and the nights become longer there is less light for photosynthesis to occur and so rather than fighting to get through the winter most plants reduce the energy they use until the light returns in the Spring. They give one last burst of energy to ripen their fruits in the hope to disperse their seeds far and wide for the following Spring.
This ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is an exciting time for the eager forager as there is much to find high in the trees and under the leaves. The list of treasures to be found is never ending and so we have included below some tips to help you get outside this autumn and reap some of rewards this season offers us. From nuts to berries, fruits to fungi, we hope to make you as excited as we are to adventure through the autumn foliage.
Blackberry ~ Many a berry can be found during the fall. One we all know and love is the blackberry, the burden of mothers globally that causes multiple stain covered children to come through the door with mischievous grins on their faces. Although blackberry stains can be a nightmare to get out of clothing they are just as enjoyable to collect and consume for adults as they are for children. Blackberry gathering is a fantastic pastime in the autumn to get the whole family outside and there are also many uses for them once brought back to the kitchen. Jams and jellies are some of the staples used in the past to help bring some sweetness into the winter months and were a great way to preserve these berries.
Frozen blackberries also keep for along time and can be pureed to make an instant sorbet to go alongside a blackberry crumble (another use). Some less pursued but just as rewarding uses for blackberries are there use in cordials, syrups and even beer and wine making. Simple recipes for Blackberry beer and wine can be found online and its really not as hard as it may sound, your friends will be super impressed when you pull a bottle out of the pantry to enjoy beside the fire! We love to make Blackberry lemonade, a winning offering at one of our Forage & Feast events.
Elderberries can also be found in abundance in Autumn. The elder is a hedgerow plant and so can be found in similar places to blackberries. Look out for small purplish-black berries hanging in clusters. The elderberries is also great to add to crumbles, jams, chutneys, syrups and sauces. As the autumn season rolls in so do the children roll back into school. This time of year is renowned for colds and flus and the elderberries can be a great natural remedy to help relieve those symptoms. Sambucol, a black elderberry extract, has been found to short-circuit flu symptoms, so elderberry syrup is a great concoction to have in the back of the cupboard. For a simple elderberry syrup recipe check out one of our blogs from last autumn:
Rosehips used as a replacement for citrus fruits during the second world war, were collected in abundance due to their high content of vitamin C. Same as most berries, they are used commonly in autumn jams and jellies, syrups and sauces. A few rosehips thrown into a teapot with some mint leaves makes for a tasty herbal tea bursting with goodness. Rosehip infused vinegar makes a great addition to any salad or can add some tanginess to veggies. Rosehips can also be used to make a super tasty wine that be enjoyed late into the winter and early spring. Also found in hedgerows, scrubland and thoughout country trails, the berries wanted to be harvested late autumn, when they are a deep redish-orange colour and soft to the touch.
Hawthorn Berries are in great abundance across the Purbeck Isle this Autumn. Hawthorn can be found in woodland, hedges, scrubland and on the heaths and downs. The spiny branches and glossy green leaves are home to small bunches of the round red berries (Haws). Haw berries are very high in bioflavonoids which are good for your heart. On their own, haws aren’t that interesting and taste a bit like under ripe apples. However, they can be used to make gins, brandies, jams and jellies and even make quite a nice ketchup with a tangy kick.
Hazelnuts are an autumn favourite. They can be a tasty treat as you venture through the woods on a woodland walk. The hazel tree begins to drops its nuts in abundance late autumn. They are a rich source of numerous essential nutrients and are particularly high in protein, dietary fibre, vitamin E, thiamin, phosphorus and manganese. If collected in large amounts they have numerous uses in the everyday kitchen. Once roasted they can be sprinkled on salads, deserts, into cereals and Smoothies. They can be ground down and added to flours for cake and bread making and also made into a paste for numerous confectionary making. Hazel nuts are a good all rounder and can make for a great days adventure in the woodlands for a keen foraging family.
Sweet chestnuts ~ Another plentiful nut associated with autumn is the sweet chestnut. Not to be confused with the horse chestnut (conker) which is inedible, sweet chestnuts can be a real treat as the colder weather begins to roll in. Unlike most other nuts the sweet chestnut mainly consists of carbohydrates and water (other nuts mainly consist of protein) and so were a staple diet for communities who didn’t have access to potatoes or grain as part of their diet. Once prepared chestnuts can go really well in soups and stews, cooked with bacon and cabbage or roasted on their own. If you want to keep them for adding to winter stuffings at a later date, collect nuts that have no wholes or cracks in the casing. Put them into a mesh bag so that air circulates through them and hang somewhere dry, any moisture on near them will make them rot quickly. Once boiled and peeled you can chopped them finely and they will make a great addition to your stuffing that also gives you a sense of achievement.
Mushrooms can be found in abundance this time of year and if you have a basic knowledge of what you are looking for they can be a great addition to any meal. There is a lot of uncertainty around mushroom foraging and because of this many people tend to shy away from them. Because of this we are becoming more and more disconnected with harvesting the bounty of fruits fungi offer us, developing more anxieties towards them. However, if you follow a few basic guidelines to mushroom foraging created for the complete beginner, they can be just as safe and fun to forage as anything else found during the autumn.
Here are some basic guidelines to get you started as a beginner:
1. Never collect mushrooms with gills - These mushrooms look like they have lines drawn with a ruler underneath their caps. Although most mushrooms we buy in the shop have gills, in the wild these mushrooms have a lot of lookalikes. So unless you can get an expert to confirm the species, never collect them.
2. Only take mushrooms with tubes, spines and ridges - These mushrooms have tubes, spines and ridges underneath their caps, not gills. They have almost no lookalikes in the UK and are safe to collect even for a complete beginner.
3. Only eat mushrooms which you have clearly identified displaying all the correct identification marks - There is an array of books which may help you with this but it is best practice to get some advice from someone who has knowledge to help you until you are certain, the best way to learn is from someone who is a qualified expert in their field.
4. If a mushroom smells rotten, it is rotten - Avoid harvesting mushrooms which clearly look like they’ve past the use by date. It is the same as harvesting fruit off a tree that is clearly not salvageable. Go with your sense and only pick fresh.
5. Never eat wild mushrooms raw - Plenty of wild mushrooms can be eaten raw, but to avoid any uncertainties cook them before you eat them.
6. Look at them before you cut them - There is no point cutting a mushroom and then realising it cant be eaten. If you’re unsure about something you have found, leave it in the ground.
7. Always bring a basket or mesh bag - Mushrooms like to breath even when picked. Don’t put them into plastic bags and suffocate them as they will go bad quicker. Also using a mesh bag or basket while foraging encourages them to drop their spores, which means more could pop up in that area the following season.
Following the basic guidelines shown above, here are some marvellous mushrooms you may find while walking through the woods on an autumn day. Hedgehog mushrooms are a great mushroom to first identify. These fungal fruiting bodies contain spines on there underside and are the only mushroom with spines. Once you’ve found a mushroom with spines on the underside, you have yourself a hedgehog mushroom. Thrown into a pan with some butter or olive oil, hedgehogs are great on their own or as a side dish to any meal. They go great with omelettes and quiches, added to pies and casseroles and add a meaty texture to almost anything.
Chanterelles are next on our autumn foraging list. These mushrooms are renowned all over the world and usually accompany seasonal dishes in most high end restaurants. You can pay a pretty penny for just a kilo of them which makes it even more exciting when you find them for free in your local woodland. Their underside ridges make them distinguishable from any other mushroom and any lookalike will have gills underneath. Both the chantrelle and trumpet chantrelle can be found commonly amongst deciduous woodland. They go great with any pasta or meat dish, are superb in casseroles and risottos or be be just as taste cooked on there own in some butter.
Next up are the bolete family. These mushrooms have pores on the underside and can be found in abundance throughout the autumn. There are many different species that all taste great. The key to avoiding unpleasant boletes is if they have any red pigmentation leave them alone. Also if they bruise blue when sliced open avoid them too, this will mean you will lose out on some edible varieties but will keep you safe when foraging. Birch boletes, bay boletes, larch boletes, ceps and penny buns are all super tasty varieties. To get the most out of their flavour they are best served in risottos and omelettes. Once they are cooked they are quite mushy but full of flavour so they really complement an autumn risotto, casserole or sauce to have alongside some meat.
All of the above fruits of autumn can be collected by the novice forager. Some you will know already and have probably been collecting since you could walk. Others that are less familiar just need a bit of time put aside to get acquainted with. If you are ever uncertain about anything make sure you head out with someone who can supply you with the basic know how before you head out on your own. Once you have familiarised yourself with all the treasures above, be sure to take some time out in the autumn months. Because once the leaves begin to fall off the trees, you will find yourself and your family becoming giddy with the excitement that comes with autumn foraging. You’ll see the outside world around you in a new light, find numerous excuses to head out with the kids and interact with the environment, and be able to make all your autumn dishes that little be tastier.
Schwab, A. (2007). Mushrooming without fear (2nd ed.). Shropshire: Merlin Unwin Books.