By Karen Seekings
The delights of foraging!
‘You can’t eat these – they’re poisonous!’ my walking buddy exclaimed, watching me sneak a hawthorn berry into my mouth while out with the dog in the forest one Sunday. While he was waiting for me to keel over – or at the very least start throwing up – I dug out an unused doggy bag and started picking the lipstick-crimson haws while wondering what other foods are easily foraged in early November while so much of nature is taking a bow.
Haws (are the perfect food to gather in late autumn. They don’t tempt you gluttonously as blackberries did back in September so it’s a lot easier to fill your bags and bowls for later processing. However, the raw haw is not to be sniffed at and the taste has been compared to over-ripe apples (albeit in miniature versions) hence my surreptitious berry munching. It’s not hard to identify haws as they grow in clusters along the thorny branches of hawthorn bushes but do not jumble them up with the twisting climber black bryony that looks similar but grows in long strings. As well as making tasty jellies, jams and chutneys, haws are an excellent herbal medicine and have been used for centuries to maintain healthy blood pressure and heart function.
Sloes (left) have been flourishing abundantly for much of this year enjoying the mild and wet spring – and these little lovelies show no sign of going away quickly. If you pierce the skin of the tiny purply berries with a thumbnail you should see green-flesh surrounding a plum-like little stone in the centre. Bite into a sloe and your mouth will pucker and be sucked dry of all moisture; they are inedible when raw but – like most things in life – delicious when combined with sugar and gin. Sloe gin was originally invented in the late 18th century to disguise the taste of low-grade home distilled hooch at a time when the government put a heavy duty on imported spirits.
Sweet chestnuts (right) are another early winter forager’s treat. Probably one of the first foods eaten by humans, they have lots of very prickly spikes on their outer shells and there are usually three or four nuts to a casing. In contrast, the mildly toxic horse chestnut (or conker) is not as spiky and only has one or two nuts to a casing. This is the only possible other nut you could mix it up with. They can look a bit similar out of their cases, but only the sweet chestnut has a little tuft of fur at the apex. Sweet chestnuts are versatile and can be baked, microwaved or boiled, candied or pureed or simply roasted. Fresh chestnuts should be cooked before use because of their tannic acid content.
Dandelions, the leaves of which were the salad of choice for posh Victorians, are also still abundant at this time of year. Dandelions found in woodland are particularly tasty as the shade discourages excessive bitterness. The gut feeling of many is to destroy this unsightly weed and enemy of suburban lawns but we can also harness the plant’s impressive edibility. You can eat the leaves and even the ubiquitous bright yellow flower of this plant and the root can be made into a coffee substitute, and the leaves into tea or added to burdock for a refreshing drink. In traditional medicine, dandelions are used to improve liver and kidney function as well as digestive disorders.
Dos and don’ts
If you decide to go foraging, be mindful of both legal and environmental issues.
- Be legal and only forage what you will use: The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that: “A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.”
- Be aware of the environment: There have been concerns regarding the foraging of fungi and mushrooms in forests bordering urban areas. Epping Forest, for example, is home to wild oyster mushrooms, which you can see en masse in the autumn growing in shelf-like layers on dead deciduous wood. Picking these delicious mushrooms can damage ancient trees – better to buy farmed oyster mushrooms in your local supermarket.
- Don’t poison yourself! Food that tastes sweet is Mother Nature’s way of telling us that you are not at imminent risk of death – a fact that aided our ancestors in choosing what to have for tea. If in doubt, check with a reliable source and compare pictures before you forage. And unless you are an experienced mycologist steer clear of foraging for easily mistakable mushrooms and fungi. There are smart phone apps that can help you stay safe but do be careful.
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Karen Seekings is a writer and educator. She has contributed to numerous publications as a music and travel writer and is currently involved in online education. When she’s not working, you can find her messing about on water or in woods.