Every walk this month takes us past the ingredients for a forager’s feast. As I stroll beside hedgerows daubed with mellow reds, oranges and yellows, my eye is constantly searching out the next crop of nuts, the biggest clusters of berries and the ripest fruit.
Nuts for foraging
More than any other crop, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts offer the taste of autumn in a nutshell.
Hazelnuts can be found in gardens, woods and hedgerows. The nuts have already begun to fall in our garden – I’m collecting a bowlful each morning to jazz up our muesli. Initially, the young nuts have a sweet, milky taste which matures as the month progresses.
But as every hazelnut forager knows, collecting the bounty means pitting your wits against the squirrels. Wait one day too long and you’ll wake to find the trees stripped bare by these opportunist arboreal acrobats.
Walnuts can be collected this month too when they have ripened and dried. They are most often found in gardens and parks in fertile, alkaline loamy soils.
Getting the nuts out of the shells is an art form in itself but once you have retrieved the kernels, the sweetness of fresh walnuts surpasses anything available in the shops and tastes delicious in homemade coffee and walnut cakes.
Another traditional autumn favourite – the sweet chestnut – is also at its best over the next few weeks. This is another parkland tree, often found growing in woods and copses, especially southern England.
Once the prickly shells have been carefully removed, the glossy nuts are ready to boil or roast (don’t forget to slit the skins if roasting to avoid explosions). We use the cooked nuts in chestnut and chocolate brownies or simply eat them roasted, straight from the skins. Autumn pleasure at its very best.
Foraging for fruit
In the hedgerows, the sloes are ripening quickly. Usually I’d wait to harvest these sour wild plums until after the first frost, but I might pick early this year, pricking the skins before I drown them in sugar and gin.
High summer saw our stocks of sloe gin run dry and last month we finished off the last of the quince gin too, so there’s a certain degree of urgency to this month’s sloe foraging activities.
Damsons are dropping from the trees along the school run path. In previous years we’ve collected them in groundsheets and buckets to stew with Bramley apples. Cooked damsons, like elderberries, turn stewed apple a deep-inky purple and add a rich depth of taste too. They can also be used to make aromatic jams and chutneys.
A damson tree makes a wonderful addition to any garden – try ‘Merryweather’ with its large sweet fruit or the compact, self-fertile ‘Shropshire Prune’.
The most decorative autumn fruit has to be the crab apple. Today’s walk took me past three different varieties – ruby globes of ‘Harry Baker’, smaller yellow crabs on ‘Golden Hornet’ and a tree with tiny red fruits that could easily have been mistaken for berries.
So easy to find in hedgerows and full of pectin, these tasty fruits make wonderful jellies with bright stained-glass colours.
Bringing home the berries
If I could only make one autumn preserve, it would be hedgerow jelly. Based on the crab apple recipe, this jelly blends whatever berries we discover in the hedges with a handful of crabs for pectin to help the jelly set.
With the delightful old name ‘cuckoo’s beads’, hawthorn berries or haws are abundant throughout towns, woods and hedgerows. Haws make a superb ketchup when cooked with vinegar and sugar, and they add a rosy glow to savoury and sweet jellies. The vivid berries produce a dark orange jelly that tastes fabulous with game. Rowan berries are best picked in October too.
Hedgerow fruits and berries can also be used for syrups, fruit leathers, sauces, Turkish delight and sorbet. Then, in a few weeks’ time, we’ll be passing the jelly and cheese, pouring a glass of sloe gin and enjoying the magic that autumn-foraged treats can bring.
Always ensure it is legal to forage, only collect when there is an abundant supply and leave plenty for wildlife and others. Use a good identification guide and if in doubt, don’t pick.