Autumn is the time to get in touch with our hunter-gatherer roots, says Peter Marren. There is a wealth of fabulous free food out there just waiting to be collected

There is something satisfying about gathering food from the countryside - it is all fresh and it is all free, and foraging brings us into intimate contact with wild plants and fungi, with their intriguing range of colours, scents and flavours. And it's great fun.

NUTS, FRUITS AND BERRIES

Most of our wild nuts and berries are not worth a nibble and some are even poisonous. Acorns are eaten mainly by jays, and most hedgerow berries are swallowed whole by thrushes and starlings. The best nuts and berries we share with mammals like voles and badgers.

HAZELNUT:

Sweet, ripe hazelnuts are delicious, but too many animals agree. It is increasingly hard to find a nut-bush that has not already been raided - above all by grey squirrels, which plunder the hedgerow while the nuts are still green.

BEECHNUT:

Remember beechnut chewing-gum? Sweet but undeniably chewy, these small, triangular nuts sit inside husks that drop off the tree once the nuts are ripe. Though it takes a long time to gather even a cupful, beechnuts are always worth a nibble.

CRAB APPLE:

It would take a brave person to tackle our hard, sour native apples raw. In times past they were roasted, but most crab apples are gathered to make jelly, jam or wine. Crab-trees are often buried in old woods and are easiest to spot when they blossom in April. Pick the crabs after a windy night when the ripe fruit is fresh-fallen.

BLACKBERRY:

These berries reflect the weather: tight and sour in cold, dry seasons, swollen and sweet when it is mellow and warm. Traditionally they are not picked after Michaelmas (29 September). By then the juice has fermented and mildew formed. But even now you might find some in moist areas. The sweetest blackberries are the first ones to appear at the tip of the stalk.

ROSE HIP:

Rose-hip syrup is made from the ripe fruit, or hips, of wild dog-roses. They are high in Vitamin C and were a stand-by during the Second World War when imported fruit was unavailable. The sharp syrup still has devotees, though making it is laborious, involving repeated straining to separate the juice from the rough pips.

HAW:

The red, pippy berry of the hawthorn bush ripens in September and lasts well into the winter. Opinions differ as to its qualities as a wayside nibble. Some find in it the taste of unripe avocado, cooked yam or even caerphilly cheese. Others find it completely tasteless.

FUNGI

Dozens of common wild fungi are edible and delicious, but half of them have poisonous lookalikes - so never eat a fungus you cannot identify with confidence. The following are, with care, easy to recognise.

CHANTERELLE:

This orangey-yellow trumpet, also known as a girolle, has an unmistakable scent of apricots. It grows best on light, sandy soils under birch or pine. Chantarelles should be gently cooked to release the slightly peppery flavour, and are perfect with eggs, or in a mushroom sauce with steak.

CEP:

This fine, podgy toadstool has pores instead of gills and is about the same size as a bread roll. It grows on woodland banks, and where you find one there are usually lots. Ceps have a delicious earthy taste and are perfect for mushroom soup or for roasting. You can also create cep crisps after slicing them.

PARASOL MUSHROOM:

This tall, stately mushroom grows in grassy places near trees. The cup-shaped caps of young ones are perfect for stuffing with cheese, béchamel sauce or even sage and onion.

BLEWITS:

A chubby mushroom with a lilac stem and a sweet, perfumed scent a bit like Parma violets. It grows in late autumn when other fungi have finished.

HERBS:

Late summer is the time for herbs, but many persist into autumn.

WILD HORSERADISH:

We are used to horseradish sauce in jars, but how many know that the real thing is growing on waysides, waste ground and even as a weed? It has large, dock-like leaves and produces a mass of frothy flowers in summer. The strong-smelling, carrot-like root is at its fattest in autumn. For a roast-beef dinner with a difference, peel and chop wild horseradish, add dry mustard, cayenne and chilli vinegar and blend into a white sauce. (Under law a landowner's permission is needed to dig up wild plants.)

WATER-MINT:

There are several kinds of wild mint, all with different scents - some sweet, others dry or resembling eau de Cologne. The poet Geoffrey Grigson described this one as smelling like an unswept chimney where wood-fires had been burnt. The leaves taste pleasantly pepperminty and water-mint lasts well into the autumn. Experiment with peas, spuds and sauce.

SAMPHIRE:

This little succulent grows in muddy estuaries and is gathered at low tide (use scissors). In autumn it often turns fiery red, but is best gathered green. It has a crisp texture and a salty taste and can be cooked like asparagus. You eat it by dunking it in melted butter and then drawing the flesh off the stalk with your front teeth.

MARJORAM:

On warm, windless days in late summer the chalk downs are filled with the sweet, spicy scent of wild marjoram. Its neat leaves, the size of a 5p piece, can be eaten fresh, if you like the pungent taste, or dried, when they become sweeter.

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