Autumn can sometimes feel like a bleak time - the days get shorter, the air becomes cooler, and the woods are stripped bare, as the trees hunker down for the first winter frosts.
Fortunately though, there are still many wild foods available at this time of the year, which can be used to make jams, jellies, salads, and even a healthy substitute for your morning coffee. All you need to know if where to look, and some basic food preparation techniques.
Many of the most common plants can be consumed in a large variety of ways. Take the humble nettle: you can make nettle soup, nettle wine, nettle cordial, or even deep-fry its leaves to make a land-lubbers equivalent of crispy seaweed. Oh, and don’t worry – the leaves lose their sting when cooked.
Professional chefs have already woken up to the huge potential of wild foods, spurting a new industry selling foraged goods to restaurants. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his career with A Cook on the Wild Side, a television series that largely consisted of scraping roadkill off country lanes. In news that will come as a relief to any squeamish readers, recipes for pigeon pancakes or fox flan do not feature in our gallery of the best wild foods to collect this autumn.
Wild foods: where to find and how to cook them
Wild foods: where to find and how to cook them
1/10 Wild garlic
Look out for a lush green carpet of foliage in woodland and a garlicky smell. This can be harvested all year round, but the best time is from July to December when the bulbs are dormant. You can use this in the same way as normal garlic – in stews, stir-fries, or rubbed into roasted meat.
2/10 Wood sorrel
Wood sorrel, which is often mistaken for clover, grows in shady woodlands. Its leaves and stems have a lemony flavour, making them ideal for salads or as a garnish in sandwiches. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, blend the leaves with honey for a refreshing iced tea.
This scourge of gardeners is a gift to foragers. Dig out the roots, clean them, then grind and roast to make dandelion coffee. This is a caffeine free alternative that bears a resemblance to normal coffee in appearance and taste.
The fruit of the rose plant has been used by children for generations to make an itching powder, which is extracted from the fine hairs inside the hip. Don’t let that put you off though – you can blend dried berries with hibiscus to make a delicious herbal tea.
The smell of roasted chestnuts is synonymous with Christmas, but there is no need to go to the supermarket to get yours this year. The nuts are inside the prickly outer layer, and usually drop to the ground underneath the tree. Collect them now, and have them in storage ready for the festive season.
This evergreen shrub grows in all kinds of habitats, from windswept moors and coastal paths to urban commons and building sites. As each gorse variety flowers at a different time of the year, you can generally pick the vivid yellow blooms all year round. They can be added raw to salads, or used to make fruit tea.
Though sometimes known as the “Mountain Ash”, this deciduous tree grows in all sorts of places, such as parks, waste grounds and hedgerows. Rowan berries are very bitter, but can be used to make jelly, which goes especially well with game.
8/10 Hawthorn berries
These red fruits are surprisingly versatile in the kitchen, and can be used to make jellies, jams and even an alcoholic Schnapps! Just make sure you do not eat the seeds, as they contain cyanide.
9/10 Crab apple
This early relative of the commercial apple is perfect for making jams and jellies as it is fulll of pectin, a setting agent. Combine crab apples with a low pectin fruit such as rose hips or rowan berries.
You will find this hardy herb sprawled across forest floors all year round. To harvest, cut off the new growth at the top of the plant. It is highly nutritious, and has a mild flavour suitable for sandwiches, soups and salads.
For beginners, it is best to start in your local area, and make use of common plants that you are already familiar with. Fergus Drennan, aka ‘Fergus the Forager’, who runs wild food courses and has written for BBC Countryfile Magazine, offers some advice: “You should be led by the things that you see every day,” he says. “If you have a tiny concrete garden with just a couple of weeds you see growing in the cracks, the chances are there are lots of things you can do with them.”
If you want to expand your horizons beyond your back garden, it is a good idea to swat up on the law. Always ask the landowners permission, and respect the Countryside Code. If you are foraging in an urban area, it is important to know the former land use, as industrial contamination can make it unsafe.
Foraging can be incredibly rewarding, as you constantly discover new ways to use the plants you find. Fergus has been collecting wild foods for some thirty years, but still has a lot to learn: “What is really exciting about wild foods is the fact that people underestimate the amazing potential for a whole range of flavours, textures and nutritional profiles,” he says. “When you combine that with all the different methods of extracting, cooking and preserving, it can actually end up being pretty overwhelming.”
Increasing your knowledge of the culinary properties of various plants lends a new aspect to the experience of being outside. You look at the wild in a new way – as a source of sustenance rather than just a place of leisure - and forge an intimate connection with the passing of the seasons.
But as you become a part of the woodland world, remember just how fragile the ecosystem is. Every plant, seed or mushroom you collect is a source of food for insects and animals, and if you take too much this has a knock-on effect for the whole food chain. Gather things in small, sustainable quantities, and don’t get carried away.Reuse content