Picking and eating wild food has become a bit of a new fad, but don’t let that put us off. It is a great way to get to know nature better, and why spend hours slogging away growing spinach on an allotment when there is probably a patch of nettles just nearby? Wild foods are often some of the most nutritious foods we can eat, supplying lots of important vitamins and minerals in quantities rarely found in our usual diet. Although lots of leafy plants are past their best in autumn, and winter can seem to be closing in, it is actually one of the most abundant times of year for wild foods. Berries, nuts and mushrooms prevail and I have listed here a few that are easy to find. With a little bit of work the fruits can be stored as jams, syrups and wines and the nuts and mushrooms stored dry saving you money over the rest of the year.
Everyone must have enjoyed picking blackberries at some time. They are one of the most abundant and delicious wild fruits and are well worth the thorny challenge of picking them. Their taste is sometimes not so good after too much rain but pick them at the end of a few sunny days and they will taste amazing. The best way to eat them is straight off the bush, pick ten at a time and then stuff them all in your mouth at once!
Blackberries can be found almost everywhere, in cities and in the countryside, in hedges, overgrown gardens and allotments, scrubland and on the edge of woodlands. They are usually ripe from August to October but the earlier ones are the juiciest and sweetest so get out there as quickly as you can.
There are loads of recipes for blackberries. They are commonly eaten in a pie mixed with apples or made into jam.
To make blackberry and apple jam, you will need around the same weight of apples as you pick of blackberries and twice that weight of sugar. Wild crab apples are best but any other tart or cooking apples are fine. First peel, core and slice the apples and simmer them in a little water and lemon juice (½ pint water and ½ lemon per kg of apples) till they are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the blackberries and sugar and simmer for at least twenty more minutes until the jam reaches a point where it will set. To test this put a spoonful on a cold saucer and cool quickly in the fridge. Then run your finger through the jam, if it appears to wrinkle it is ready, otherwise keep cooking and retesting. Clean jam jars thoroughly and dry them in a cool oven. Pour the hot jam into the hot jars (so as not to crack them) and seal immediately.
Blackberries also make one of the best red wines. You will need a few bits of equipment but it is not difficult and well worth it. For instructions on wine making there are lots of books in second hand shops or see: winemaking.jackkeller.net/blackbr2.asp .
A great source of vitamin C successfully exploited during the second world war when it was made into syrup. These are the orange-red oblong berry like fruits found on wild rose bushes. The seeds inside are quite irritant and kids have often used them as itching powder. It’s good to make syrup from them as this will strain out the seeds. To do this bring 1kg chopped rosehips to the boil in 2 litres water then turn off heat and leave to infuse for half an hour. You will now need to strain the mixture through a jelly bag or two layers of muslin in a colander. Collect the juice and put the pulp back in the pan with another litre of water, boil, infuse and strain as before. Combine the juice from both infusions and boil till reduced by half. Add 1kg sugar, dissolve and then boil hard for 5 minutes. Pour into warm jars or bottles and seal. This is delicious diluted as a soft drink, or you can use it in an alcoholic punch, or pour it on pancakes or ice cream.
Ripe at around the same time as blackberries these small juicy berries are not particularly nice eaten raw but are pleasant when cooked. Like blackberries they can be added to apple pie. They can be added to blackberry jam to substitute for any amount of the blackberries. They too make a fine wine by themselves or can be mixed in varying quantities with blackberries.
Rowan trees can be found in many places growing wild in woodlands and on heath. They have very distinctive orange berries which can be on the tree all winter but are best picked around October. They can be made into a jelly and a Latvian friend said they make a delicious drink when steeped in vodka for a few months and then strained and sugar added to taste.
These small tart black fruits of the blackthorn are like miniature plums (indeed they are a wild relative) and can be found in hedgerows everywhere. They are the extra ingredient for sloe gin and are best picked after the first frost. To make sloe gin, half fill or more a bottle with washed sloes each of which you’ve pricked with a pin. If you would like a sweetish liqueur, add about half the weight of sloes to sugar. For a drier drink, add less than this or none at all. Fill the bottle with gin and seal and store for at least two months, shaking occasionally. When done strain off the sloes which you can now eat, and enjoy the drink whenever.
Autumn is the time for collecting nuts and in times gone by these would have provided an important part of the diet of country people. However, since the introduction of the grey squirrel to Britain they are harder and rarer to find. In fact, in all my life I have never found a fully ripe hazelnut that hasn’t already been squirreled away. It is still possible to collect good quantities of sweet chestnuts and walnuts. Wait till at least October when they will be fairly ripe and dry. The way to find them, particularly walnuts, is to shuffle under a tree until you feel a bump underfoot and then bend down to pick one up. Sweet chestnuts will have a very prickly case so you may want to take gloves to help extract them. Chestnuts are of course best roasted over an open fire with a little slit in their skins to stop them exploding.
Mushrooms really come into their own in autumn. Walking in a meadow or a woodland you can stumble upon some of the most amazing looking fungi. Most people are of course rightly nervous about picking and eating poisonous mushrooms and you should only ever eat a mushroom you are 100% sure about. So what is written here is only as a guide to help you in the right direction. To be absolutely sure about a mushroom learn from somebody else or take a well illustrated field guide. When picking mushrooms, cut them at the stem with a sharp knife leaving the underground trails behind. Also if you carry cut mushrooms in a basket the spores will fall through as you walk around helping to spread the mushroom. Here are a few mushrooms you may come across which offer a good place to start.
These are like our cultivated mushrooms and generally appear in cut or grazed pasture or grassland. They have a white or off white cap with pink gills that turn brown as they get older. Any particularly large mushroom that looks like this could be a horse mushroom. Both of these are delicious and can be cooked like you would cultivated mushrooms. The only dangerous mushroom you are likely to mistake these for is the yellow stainer which has yellow streaks and patches, especially when bruised.
These are unmistakable and a real treat to find. They appear like white footballs in grass, hedgerows and the edge of woodlands. Make sure they are all white all the way through. As they get older they dry to a yellowy brown and if you kick one of these millions of spores will fly all over the place. The flesh should be firm and they are beautiful sliced into thick steaks, fried and eaten on toast. You can also use them as you would any other mushroom or for a real spectacular try stuffing one whole.
These grow near trees and are distinguished by their brown rounded cap and the creamy white sponge-like underside instead of gills. They are the most delicious mushrooms. Fry them sliced with a little salt until any liquid released is reduced to a sauce, then use them and the sauce how you wish.
You may be lucky to find a large patch of these beautiful yellow mushrooms in damp woodlands especially in Scotland. They have a lovely nutty flavour and can again be used as other mushrooms, but are maybe best lightly fried with a little garlic.
This is the only slightly odd mushroom I have included here. It grows on dead or dying trees and looks like a slimy gelatinous red-brown ear and not particularly appetising at all, but you should give it a go. It should be simmered or sauteed first to tenderise it, then added to sauces or other dishes.