Today I’m excited to share a great guest post from a local foraging expert. I have been enjoying following Matt’s instagram feed, and love that I can tag him in a picture and ask for his help in identifying a plant or fungus while out foraging. This is a wonderful time of year to get out there and pick, and I enjoyed reading Matt’s top 10 things to forage in autumn.I’m often asked about the best things to forage in a given season. In Autumn, there’s lots to choose from, with berries, nuts and fungi of all types in abundance.
For me the ‘best’ things to forage for, as a beginner, are things that can be found, identified and prepared simply and easily.
Of course you have mushrooms like Boletus Edulis (Porcini, Penny Bun, King Bolete) which are delicious and expensive to buy. But if these are not common where you live, you don’t know where to look or how to identify them with ease, you can waste time and energy that could have been used to collect things that are common in your area.
Things you will need:
A pair of scissors, or a good pocket knife.
Some sort of container. I use a wicker basket, but a reusable shopping bag will do.
I would recommend sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves and pants (trousers) to protect from nettles, thorns and things like poison ivy/oak if you’re in the USA.
Optional: gloves, and a notebook for keeping track of locations and harvest dates. This can be invaluable for the following years.
Top 10 Things to Forage in Autumn
1. Hazelnuts. There are a good number of species of hazel which produce nuts, but for our purposes they are pretty much interchangeable. This is one you’re going to have to race the squirrels for, and many of you may find you’re too late and all that’s left is a bunch of chewed up shells. With hazel, you want to look for it as part of boundary hedging, in mixed deciduous woodland, or as part of amenity planting. Once you get used to seeing it, check under the branches for the nuts. At first glance a bush may look bare, but if you lift the branches you will often see that they’re laden. The nuts always grow under the leaves. You can eat them when the shells are still green, if they have a developed nut inside, these are really tasty, and sold as ‘cobnuts’ in the UK. You can also dry nuts in a dry dark place or in a dehydrator, then use them dry or roast them. It’s a bumper year in USA and UK which is good because world prices of nuts are up due to the failed Turkish harvest.
I really don’t know why anyone would buy an apple between late August and October. Once you’ve tuned in to what grows around you, you’ll notice there’s apple trees everywhere, be they parts of abandoned orchards, amenity planting on common land, and quite often seeded from apple cores. I often see good eating apple trees at the sides of roads and in rest stops that have seeded from discarded cores. Believe it or not I collected over 100 kilos (220lbs) of eating apples from within 3 miles of my house in just a day! Most will be destined for cider (hard cider), others will be eaten as is, or peeled, cored, chopped and frozen for future use.
With apples all you need to know is, if it tastes a bit sour and is quite large it’s probably a cooking apple, so save these for pies. If it’s tasty and palatable, it’s an eater, and if it’s small, sour and astringent, puckering your mouth, it will be a crab apple. Use these for making wine, crab apple and chili jelly, etc.
These are synonymous with autumn for many, and even the most inexperienced forager has probably had a go at picking these before. There isn’t really anything you can confuse it with, apart from Black Raspberries in the USA, which are also edible. Avoid picking anywhere where they may have been sprayed with pesticides, or next to very busy roads.
A little tip for checking if they’re actually ripe when the berries are black. Take the berry gently between thumb and index finger and rotate your hand 45 degrees turning your thumb down and inwards towards you. If the berry pops off, it is ripe, if not, leave it be. Many black colored berries aren’t at peak ripeness, so this technique saves getting too many sour berries in your pot. Berries go bad if not used the same day, so if you want to keep these, they must be processed into jams, chutney, wine, or simply frozen as they are for future use.
4. Blackthorn, Sloe berry.
The Sloe is the fruit of the Blackthorn bush (Prunus Spinosa.) This is common in Europe, naturalized and planted as boundary hedging, it’s also widely distributed in the Eastern United States and the Pacific Northwest.
The berries resemble small round plums, and are part of the plum (Prunus) family. The fruits are very astringent, and not good to eat raw. However their virtues are best realized in their use in making Sloe Gin. This is made simply by adding sloes which have been pricked, or slit (or just frozen and thawed) into an empty container to the half way point, topping up with cheap gin (you can also use vodka), and adding a small amount of sugar. This is left for around 3 months, shaking the jar occasionally and then decanted and strained for the end product. It can be sweetened further to taste once it’s matured. The leftover fruit can then be pitted easily and used on ice cream, in pies and Christmas puddings, or my favorite, as centers for Sloe Gin Chocolate Truffles.
5. Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa)
The European Chestnut is, as the name suggests mainly prevalent in Europe, but is present in the USA as an introduced species in some Eastern States.
This has to be my favorite edible food at this time of year. The trees are large and have very distinctive waxy green, highly serrated leaves, and spiky nut casings. Immature trees will drop their casings early, with undeveloped nut casings inside. Look for large established trees, which will drop their nuts around October. They can be scored, blanched and peeled, to be frozen or used fresh in cakes, and stuffing etc. My favorite way is simply to score and roast, in fact I have them for breakfast with a good pot of coffee for weeks in season.
6. Beech Nut (Mast)
The Beech tree produces a nut referred to as Beech Mast. This nut is one of the more underrated of our native wild foods. Beech trees produce nut casings every year, but only have ‘full’ nuts every 3-5 years, so you may have to search a bit for these, when you find them they will be abundant.
They can be fiddly to process, which is probably why they aren’t as popular as they should be. Simply dry roast these in an oven in the shell, then place between two tea towels and rub them to shell. They’re similar to pine nuts in size and fat content. They can be cold pressed to extract the oil if you rake up large quantities, it’s a popular oil in France.
7. Giant Puffball (Calvatia Gigantia)The puffball is of the easiest of fungi for beginners to identify. It’s common in Europe and the USA. This large white round fungi can resemble a soccer ball. It’s quite soft, and is edible as long as the insides are solid white in color. They grow in fields and hedgerows, and can’t really be confused with anything else. Simply fry up slices with butter and garlic, or fritter them in a seasoned batter. They also freeze well.
8. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)This large, fleshy bracket fungus grows mostly on dead or dying oak trees, sometimes on cherry and other deciduous trees. It’s bright and distinctive in color, growing in yellow/orange shelves from the tree. As the name suggests, it has the texture and some say flavor of chicken. I tend to use to it in risottos and stews where I want firm texture and to hold onto any flavors added.
A word of caution: A small amount should be tested before large scale consumption, as a very small minority may experience a reaction to this fungi. I’ve not met anyone who has, but this is the warning in the books so best to be cautious.
9. Rose HipsRose hips are one of the highest Vitamin C per weight fruits you can forage. They’re the fruit of any rose variety, and it’s the flesh of the fruit you use, discarding the irritating seeds. They were collected in the UK during the war to make a traditional rose hip syrup, to prevent scurvy in the population. Syrup or jelly is the way to go with these, and either wild dog rose varieties, or the commonly planted Japanese Rose (Rosa Rugosa) will work for this. A good nutrition packed pick-me-up on a winters day.
Elderberries are one of the quintessential sights of the season, with the dark purple almost black clusters of berries drooping under their own weight being a welcome sight for human and animal foragers alike. Look for a medium sized tree or shrub with distinctive rough bark, mid green colored pinnate leaves with 5-9 leaflets.
Matthew is a Foraging and Wild Food guide based in the North West of England. He has been foraging since he was a child, and took inspiration from the herbalists and foragers in his mother’s family. His Great Great Grandmother Annie Tallet was a prominent herbalist and healer in the Midlands for many years. After focusing on foraging as a passion for the last 10 years Matthew set up Eden Wild Food in 2012 and started offering both public group courses, and private foraging classes.
Thanks for all of these great tips, Matt! And happy foraging to all of you! I hope you can get out there and find some wonderful foods!
Common Sense Caution: Don’t go around eating plants you are not familiar with. Do some research first to make sure you know what it is. Google image search is your friend! I have a good collection of foraging books to help me spot edibles and avoid toxic plants. Here are a few I recommend: Food for Free, Foraging and Feasting, The Forager’s Harvest.