Foraging - sharing nature’s autumnal bounty

Foraging is about searching for food in the wild. Birds and animals do it all the time, of course. For us, it’s a marvellous way to reconnect with nature, get out into autumnal sunshine and gather some of the fruits of the hedgerows and woodland. The pleasure is not only getting food for free, but also the opportunity to engage our senses of touch, smell, sight and sound, and then produce something that great to eat. Puddings, jams, jellies, soups, syrups, cordials and wines - there’s lots of potential for creativity!

Foraging responsibly  

It is wonderful to harvest from nature and we want you to enjoy the experience, but let’s remember to do it in a responsible way:

  • Pick what you know. There is much that is good, but there is some fruit which may result in an upset tummy or worse. If in doubt leave it or take a good wildlife guidebook with you.
  • Go where there’s plenty and only take what you plan to eat. Choose hunting areas where the trees are laden with fruit, and do leave some behind for others and wildlife to enjoy. Remember many birds and animals depend on this food to survive through the winter.
  • Minimise damage to the environment and yourself. Select bushes where you can reach the fruit easily and wear protective clothing, especially gloves if there are thorns. Please don’t trample down the vegetation and do wash all picked fruit thoroughly. 

Seek out blackberries at Abinger Roughs

This is the ultimate autumn food of the hedgerow. The berries ripen in August and September to be black, dimpled, plump and luscious. They grow on brambles commonly found in woodland, scrubland and hedges. They are thorny so do wear gloves. Mix them with apples or other fruit in pies and crumbles, or make jam to eat throughout the winter.

Crab apples in the Orchard in September at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria

Gathering crab apples

This small native British tree was traditionally planted by smallholders in the past for its high volume of fruit. It is the ancestor of our cultivated apple trees. The small round apples are red-orange-yellow and taste tart when eaten raw. When cooked, they have a lovely tangy apple flavour. High in pectin, they can be used with other fruit to make jam or used alone in crab apple jelly for cooked meats. Try them as an alternative for toffee apples for Bonfire night or Hallowe’en, or marinade them in gin or vodka for a yummy Christmas winter warmer.

Elderberries at Coughton Court, Warwickshire

Wine-dark elderberries

The clusters of small fruit sparkle like jet earrings on the trees found in hedgerows and woodland edges. They are slightly toxic if eaten raw, but delicious when cooked, similar to blackcurrants. They are packed with vitamin C, so add them to jam, crumbles and pies, or be more adventurous and create wine or syrup for drizzling onto porridge, yoghurt, pancakes or ice-cream. Mmmm.

Claire Thomson's Hazelnut and cocoa spread on a crumpet

Gathering nuts on Leith Hill

You will need to be quick to harvest hazel nuts - squirrels lov’em. Pick the fruits when green and you can ripen them in a warm dry cupboard. Remove the outer shell and eat either raw or roasted in an oven. Hazel trees can be found as coppiced woodland, such as Frank’s Wood on Leith Hill or Nut Wood at Gatton Park. Eat them simply as a nut snack, or mix with chocolate for home-made chocolate spread.

Rosehips are a valuable food source for our small residents

Bright and shiny rosehips

These bright red oval berries shine like jewels on the leggy stems of wild rose bushes, found in scrubland and hedgerows. Beware the thorns. Rosehip syrup was a famous World War 2 recipe providing vital vitamin C at a time when citrus fruit was in short supply. Its floral flavour is still delicious today when poured over plain yoghurt, pancakes, drop scones, or simple good quality vanilla ice-cream.

Sloe berries can be found across Bookham Commons

Magnificent sloes

Blackthorn is typically the first bush to bear showers of white blossom in spring. Mark the spot and come back in autumn to gather the fruit. Be aware the thorns are long so come well armed. But it’s worth it. The small round, purple-black berries are ready to be picked when they are squashy to touch and beginning to drop to the floor. They are traditionally harvested after the first frost, but you may not wish to wait that long. As with other fruit, they can be made into jam, wine and syrup, but the best way is to marinade them in gin for a couple of months. Sloe gin is the perfect winter warmer for Christmas - tangy and mellow.

Fruits of the Forest (Sweet Chestnut)

Versatile sweet chestnut

Look for the prickly green nut casings scatted underneath the tall woodland trees. Use your foot (with shoe) to roll and split the casing revealing the cluster of four glossy brown nuts. They can be roasted for munching by the fireside in the wintertime, but they are more versatile than that - include them in stuffing; add them to the Christmas sprouts or parsnips; blitz them into flour for baking cakes.