Humans have been foraging for food since we lived in caves, and the practice was common until the convenience food boom of the mid 1950s. Whilst it can often seem like the days of picking your own produce are consigned to the past, for many of our grandparents it was a necessity in relieving the strain of rationing. With only 50% of Britain’s food now being produced domestically and supermarkets considering discontinuing the sale of many home grown favourites we risk losing some key flavours of our cultural history.
The benefits of foraging
It’s a sad fact that in today’s world we have largely lost our connection to nature, but in severing that connection we do harm to ourselves. The rise in obesity rates and in the numbers of those suffering from mental health issues can both be traced to the societal changes of the post-war period. Is foraging the answer to all these problems? No. But being outside has measurable benefits to both physical and mental health and through foraging you can diversify your diet for free.
Successful foraging has two basic steps: Identify and pick. These steps are the key to the whole thing and cover your bases in all situations. Identifying things in the wild can be made much easier with guides like Food For Free or Harrap’s Wildflowers, but even then things like mushrooms are best entirely avoided by beginners. The general rule of thumb is: When in doubt, leave it out.
How much to take
It is key to remember that it’s not just you who is after wild food. Always be respectful of local wildlife and try and stick to the 30% rule and only take a third of what’s on offer.
Where to forage
In general, foraging is completely legal in the UK as long as you are doing it on private or common land for personal consumption. You may begin hitting restrictions when it comes to foraging on public land. In general Royal Parks will not allow you to forage in order to protect local biodiversity, and it is best to always check the policy of a public park beforehand just in case. It is likely that you will be foraging for personal consumption so try to avoid picking foods close to busy roads or in farmed land to avoid pesticides and other pollutants.
When to forage & what to bring
Autumn is the best season to be out collecting, you can go out anytime of the day and fields remain stable for most of the season, only declining when the frost start to set in. Just try and avoid foraging immediately after rainfall since the extra moisture can cause rot and mildew in fruit. The basic foragers toolkit is simply: Guide book, wellies, basket (or carrier bag) scissors and gloves, if you begin collecting mushrooms it may be beneficial to get a mushroom knife but beyond that, you can kit yourself out with items found around the home.
What to forage
Now for the fun bit, here is a shortlist of some of the best things to forage this autumn and some ideas of what to do with the bounty you collect.
The damson is a type of plum with dark blue flesh and yellow-green flesh. It can be identified by the slightly pointed fruit. The flavour of a damson will vary by variety, but a good guidebook should be able to help you there. You can usually find damsons growing in hedgerows and border hedges, to pick just gently twist them off the stem. Damson can be used to make a wonderfully tart jam or thick wine.
A key ingredient in herbal teas, the rosehip is an accessory fruit of the rose plant. They can be found on a rosebush and are best harvested in the late autumn, just after the first frost. To pick them, make sure you wear gloves, grab an entire clump at once and gently pull from the stem. A ripe rosehip will come free easily. Fresh rose hips make a wonderfully tangy tea and are the key ingredient in Nyponsoppa, a Swedish soup.
Common to hedgerows across the country, the crab apple is a sharper tasting version of the apples we are used to and is best used as a cooking apple. Crab apple trees are a common sight and are best harvested in late summer/early autumn. They are as easy to pick as just pulling from the tree. Because of their high pectin levels, they are ideal for making refreshing jellies or as a setting agent in items made with low pectin fruit.
Oak trees are the most common woodland tree in the UK, and are a common fixture of British folklore. The oak tree produces acorns in the early autumn at a high rate. The acorn is a great source of protein, starch and fats. Acorns are best harvested once they have naturally fallen from the tree, just before to check them before collecting to make sure they are OK. Before cooking with or eating acorns they must be leached in order to remove tannins and other bitter flavours.
The nut of the hazel tree is a favourite of many with a sweet tooth, the key ingredient in both praline and many chocolate spreads. The hazel tree is relatively easy to identify and the nut itself is ready to pick as soon the outer husks have yellowed (usually mid-autumn). They are best picked directly from the tree or shook off onto a sheet. The nut itself is very versatile and can be cooked in many ways.
The elderberry is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world, often cited as a supplement to treat cold and flu symptoms. These small black berries are ready to pick around early September, as soon as the cluster starts to droop due to the weight of the fruit. To pick, gently remove from the stem. You MUST cook these berries before eating. The elderberry is quite often used in home brewery and can be used to make port, wine or beer and is a versatile ingredient to cook with.
Commonly known as the stinging nettle, these plants can found almost anywhere in the wild and are often thought to just be weeds. But we have been using them in cooking for thousands of years. In Cornwall, they are used to make Cornish Yarg cheese, and they are the main ingredient in some Nepalese curries. Nettle tea has anti-inflammatory benefits and acts as a natural antihistamine. To pick nettles, you should bring scissors and gloves with you. Cut an unflowering nettle and the base of the stem. When you get home wash them in hot water until they wilt to remove the sting.
We often think of these plants as weeds, but they are in fact herbs. They grow throughout the autumn and can be found in most places. You only need to pick the flowers from the top of the stem. When you get them home dry them out in the sun. Dandelions have a peppery taste and can be ground up to make a pesto and are great with eggs.
This is a basic list of things for the beginner to look at foraging for in the next few months. It is best, when starting to collect wild food, that you start slowly and get comfortable with your skill in identifying and harvesting before moving on to other items. With a good guidebook and a few months experience, it won’t be long until you are picking a wide variety of foods for free. For more ideas on how to cook with natural ingredients check out our Autumn Harvest Cookbook
Gary works in the Primrose product loading team, writing product descriptions and other copy. With seven years as a professional chef under his belt, he can usually be found experimenting in the kitchen or sat reading a book.