Season of plenty

From roseships and sloes to safely sourced mushrooms, now is the time to get out and find your own food

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John Keats praised autumn as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. While some lament the onset of rain and the fading light, for foragers it’s one of the most exciting times of the year.

Blackberries, sloes, elderberries and rosehips are ripening in the bushes, and beech, hazel and sweet chestnuts dangle temptingly from the trees. In our woodlands and fields fungi can lie dormant underground for years, then mushrooms spring up overnight like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

As the pandemic encouraged more people to explore their local environment, interest in foraging has grown. Gathering our own food taps into something primeval that becomes quietly compelling and intensely rewarding. It’s a great way to get a bit of exercise, learn about your environment and notice details in nature. It’s a fun activity to do with children, in groups, or on your own and if you’re lucky you’ll bring back a basketful of food to share.

“There’s something lacking in our normal lives that comes out with foraging,” claims Jesper Launder, who runs foraging courses in Hebden Bridge and Manchester. “It’s like coming home. I don’t know anyone who’s got into foraging who’s put it down. Eventually it becomes a lifestyle choice.”

During the pandemic Launder ran an online course for men’s mental health to encourage them to go out and pick their own foods in nature. “People found the content really valuable. They got outside, looking and engaging with spaces in a different way.”

Beginner foragers often start with blackberries but there are also many other fruits and nuts that are easy to identify. Rosehips, sloes and elderberries are dangling on hedgerows through September and October. If you’re lucky you might find some wild raspberries or wild strawberries in deciduous woodland. Look upwards in the native woodlands of beech, hazel and sweet chestnut to spot tasty morsels hanging from the trees. Some nuts and fruits continue into the winter months too.

Spring is another time of plenty for foraging, with a growth spurt of edible plants such as wild garlic, nettle and jack by the hedge. There are also numerous species that most of us dismiss as common weeds, such as hairy bittercress or three cornered leek. In summer look out for edible flowers such as wild rose, honeysuckle, lime and elderflower.

More experienced foragers often get hooked on the mysterious and intriguing world of edible mushrooms. Fungi are the sprouting fruit of an intricate underground web of mycelium, which has a symbiotic relationship with trees. They are more challenging to identify and find than plants, but endlessly fascinating due to their unpredictable ways and forms. Just because you find mushrooms in a field one year doesn’t mean to say they’ll be there the following year. If they don’t need to fruit one year they won’t.

“One week it could be a colourful tapestry and magical fairyland of mushrooms,” says Launder. “Then a week later there are very few. Fungi aren’t consistent but that’s part of the fun. It’s like one species has a party one year and you may not see them again for another four years.”

Beginner mushroom gatherers should go out with an experienced guide first and build up their knowledge. Most edible species have a similar-looking inedible version, so it’s important to gather as much information as possible. “There are many more mushrooms than plants – so ID is more difficult and encompasses all the senses,” says Launder.

Many types of mushrooms grow next to trees, particularly birch, beech, oak and conifers. He recommends choosing one type, such as the more easily identifiable boletes, and get to know them well before eating anything. “Look at the habitat, and use smell and taste the fungi, then spit it out to give you helpful clues.

He adds: “Your ID has to be 100 per cent perfect to go ahead and eat something. It’s best to find something four or five times before you eat one. If you eat something you’re 99 per cent certain about, that 1 per cent of doubt is what you worry about.”

Much of the delight of foraging is about eating it. Lisa Cutcliffe, who runs foraging walks in Yorkshire and blogs about cooking with foraged food, says: “Elderberries are massively anti-viral and high in vitamin C. They help the immune system to fight disease. We often use the flowers but most people don’t use the berries.

“I cook elderberries to make a sorbet or ice cream sauce. I also make vinegar, which is quite sweet and sticky. I put it on everything and I rarely get ill.

“With rosehips I make a cordial. You have to stew them down and sieve them to strain out the hairs inside. Rosehip ketchup is also lovely.”

Her recipe for nettle soup is a delicious vibrant green and packed with nutrients. “There is often fresh growth in autumn so you should use the young tips.”

Like Launder, Cutcliffe’s real passion is fungi such as chanterelles, which are “delicate, peaty and egg yolk yellow, with wrinkled, folded gills”. But novices can get tripped up by their non-edible lookalike – the false chanterelle. The hedgehog mushroom however, has no particular lookalikes. It’s “meaty and nutty”, she says. “It’s a great beginner’s mushroom. It looks like little puddles of cream in the leaf litter.”

But she warns that mushroom gathering knowledge can only be built up with time and patience. “You need to be cautious and methodical. You can’t just rush out and get loads of stuff for dinner. If it’s the wrong thing you could get very ill.”

As our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew, foraging comes with responsibility too. Sometimes a walk may not yield a basketful of food. Even if you do strike wild food gold, it’s important not to take everything from a site to allow it to regenerate afterwards.

“Never take all of anything”, says Cutcliffe. “See how much there is and know which species are rare in your area. If I saw chanterelles in Leeds I wouldn’t pick them as they’re rare round here. It’s not your right to come home with a basketful of stuff. We need to be mindful of whole ecosystems.”

Foraging is about much more than food, says Launder, so it’s important to let it go.

“I’ve encountered new foragers who’ve come back with a half-full basket feeling deeply disappointed. We live in such a commodified world so it’s understandable that we try to get stuff out of nature. But don’t expect to get a full basket as it denies you experience of being out and enjoying that space in nature. I can happily come back with an empty basket.”

For more information the Woodland Trust is a great resource for beginner foragers. They have a seasonal guide to help you forage for species all year round. Jesper Launder is running mushroom gathering events this autumn: 

What’s on the wild food menu now?

Rosehips  These are the red and orange oval berries on rose trees that make various delicious sweet or savoury sauces and syrups. All rosehip varieties are safe to eat but the UK native wild rose (or dog rose) has a good flavour and colour. They should be picked when fully red and ripe. Rosehips have a fleshy covering that contains the hairy seeds, which are an irritant and should be removed (see right).

Sloes  These small round black fruits grow on the blackthorn hedge. Well known for their use in flavouring gin, the acidic fruits can also be a good addition to vinegar or jam. Look out for them from September to December. Wait until the first frost or freeze them after picking to help soften the skin and release the juices.

Hedgehog mushroom  Often recommended for beginners as it’s difficult to mistake, this mushroom gets its name from spines that grow on the underside and down the stem. Its cap is uneven with creamy yellow to pale pink flesh. It grows on the ground in most types of woodland. Check with an expert and always be 100 per cent sure before you eat any mushrooms.

Rosehip ketchup

1 litre rosehip purée
200ml apple cider vinegar (use less if you’re planning to reduce the ketchup down really thick, as it gets too intense)
250g sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the puree 

De-stalk, wash and cook rosehips in enough water to cover them until soft, smoosh as much as you can through a fine sieve to remove the irritant hairs around the seeds. Pass it through the sieve twice to be sure it’s smooth. The puree can also be used for syrup and juice.

Cook the rosehip purée together with the vinegar and sugar. Bring to the boil, reduce to desired consistency (remembering it will thicken slightly on cooling) and sample it. Season to taste and add whatever spices you fancy, a little at a time. Keep stirring and tasting until you’re happy with the flavours. The resulting ketchup is liquid and glossy.

More recipes and info 

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