Nature’s larder: autumn foraging

It’s time to gather up the hazelnuts and blackberries – if you get there before the squirrels

Syrytsyna Tetiana. 

Yes, it’s that time of year again. A time when our trees and hedgerows herald the dawning of autumn with a bright feast of berries and nuts for birds and small mammals to fatten up on before winter arrives. From berries that rid you of warts to nuts that give you wisdom, let’s look to nature’s larder to keep our hearts and bellies full over the darkening months…

Blackberries, Rubus fruticosus
Ah the bramble bush – the bane of bare legs or wooly cardies on a country walk but a delectable smorgasbord to gorge upon come September.
Blackberries appear in August but it’s best to wait a few weeks for larger, juicier, sweeter berries to pick for a classic blackberry crumble or blackberry vinegar, which makes a tasty salad dressing. The leaves make a nutritious and refreshing tea, too. It’s said the first berry of the season is a cure for warts, but be careful not to pick any after 11 October – or ‘Devil Spits Day’ – as legend has it when the Devil was cast out of Heaven and landed on a bramble bush, he spat on the fruit and turned it mouldy.

Hazelnuts, Corylus avellana
The Celts believed eating hazelnuts gave you wisdom and inspiration, so there’s no harm picking a few if you’re having a bit of a mental slump. If you’re lucky enough to find them, that is – squirrels are mad for them, too.
You’ll recognise the hazel tree for its roundish leaves with serrated edges and pointed end. The nuts grow in clusters of two, three or four, and it’s best to wait till October to pick them for a more mature, oily nut. Whizz up into a pesto instead of walnuts or scatter them on top your blackberry crumble before popping in the oven.

Bilberries, Vaccinium myrtillus
You’ll find these wild berries growing in peaty, acidic soils north and west of Britain, where they’re fed on by grouse and other moorland birds. The small, many­branched shrubs with oval leaves produce single or paired berries, rather than clusters. The berries look similar to blueberries, being dark blueish purple and globular with a flat top. They are closely related to them but have a more intense, sharp flavour that tastes better cooked in pies, tarts, jam and even bread and butter pudding.

Rowan berries, Sorbus aucuparia
Although often referred to as ‘mountain ash’ because of its prevalence in high areas and leaves that are very similar to the ash tree, you’ll find the rowan tree on many a suburban street, too, brimming over with bright orange-­red berries from August to November. The raw berries are very bitter and can cause stomach upset but once cooked they’re far more palatable, particularly in rowan jelly, a lovely accompaniment to game. For something different, why not try brewing rowanberry wine, referred to by an 18th-­century writer travelling through Wales: “…by pouring water over them (berries), and setting the infusion by to ferment. When kept for some times, this is by no means an unpleasant liquor…”

Always take a reputable wild food guidebook with you when foraging, and if you’re not sure, don’t pick it!

For more wild food to forage this autumn, click here.