Stuart Bullen: Free Autumnal food

Stuart Bullen EMN-140110-162841001
Stuart Bullen EMN-140110-162841001

Autumn is nearly here.

The low sun on the horizon flickering like a strobe light through translucent leaves the colours of medieval stained glass. The cinnamon and rosemary scent of the barks mixed with the decaying mushroom smell of the soil. Hawkbit flower heads exploding into furry cushion seed heads. The miniature helicopter sycamore seeds twirling down earthbound and leaves swept up in mounds in the park. You can almost pluck autumn out of the air. All that’s missing is that invigorating cold snap that makes walks that much more enjoyable after the heat of summer. The signs are there that the seasons are changing over.

Autumn is probably my favourite season. It’s not hot but not numbingly cold like the depths of winter. Rainfall in this part of the world is, at this time of year, comparatively low, so walking is not particularly muddy. There’s a new variety in the countryside to enjoy too; such as the autumn rut. On an early morning walk the sound of braying and clashing antlers in the smoke like mist is very likely to be heard, maybe even catching a glimpse a pair of duelling stags silhouetted against the sky. Fields newly harvested or ploughed change the visual look of the landscape; stubble in the shorn acres reminiscent of coir doormats. The trees laden with jewel like fruit and nuts. The list goes on.

One of my favourite things about autumn is that you can almost eat it. At this time of year nature provides a big free harvest to gather in for anyone who wants it. Looking around our local countryside you don’t have to look far. Even the park has food for free. But for the most part this bounty passes us by, going to waste.

Foraging sounds like hard, unnecessary work. Why bother when you can get it at a supermarket? To others there is an element of plebism about it. But this is to miss the point of foraging. It’s not a food replacement scheme but another way for us to enjoy our countryside. For one thing it can provide a destination for a walk. On another level you get a cheeky sense of satisfaction from having got a free meal. An element of fun can be shared with friends and family gathering in something to enjoy together.

But what’s out there now to eat? Let’s start with the most visible and plentiful: rosehips, blackberries and sloes. Blackberries can found virtually anywhere; a two minute walk out of town and you will come across straggly untidy brambles alongside the path. There are 320 species but some botanists think it actually could well over 1000. The blackberries are easy to gather but can stain clothing easily – so bring something to wipe your hands. Old folklore says you shouldn’t eat the berries after Michaelmass, which is the September 29, as that’s when the Devil is said to have spat on them. This story may have come about because late on in the year fungus and yeasts start to form on the skins of the berries (actually blackberries aren’t berries at all – they are what botanists call drupes) and can, while not being fatal, make you ill. You can see the last of this year’s Red admiral butterflies flying around these bushes; they are reputedly easier to watch as they get “tipsy” on the fermented juice in microscopic holes made by wasps who have feed on them.

Sloes are the distant relatives of our garden plums, though, when you eat one you wouldn’t think so. They taste very acrid. But don’t let that put you off. 500 grams of pricked sloes mixed with some sugar and then marinated for several months in a bottle of gin makes a winter liqueur that makes great cocktails. Be careful when picking, the savagely sharp thorns that cover the Blackthorn trees endear it to farmers up and down the country who use it in hedging as a cattle proof fence. A sort of natural barbed wire.

The fragrant flowers of wild roses have now developed into hips. These can be easily found in woods, along roadside hedges and in parks. Easy to pick (watch out for thorns) and simple to prepare. Rose hip syrup has been used as base for pie, tart and cake fillings since medieval times. It’s simplicity itself to make. Look online for a good recipe. Just be careful to remove the prickly seeds in the middle as they are an internal irritant.

The most exciting food to be foraged in my opinion are nuts. Usually found on park or woodland floors, nuts are fairly easy to gather up. So far on our walks we have managed to find walnuts, hazelnuts and, particularly this month, sweet chestnuts. Hazelnut trees are very abundant in Bourne woods. This year the nuts developed quite early; we came across lots of the creamy white lampshade like clusters in early August. A recent trip proved to be a fruitless – no pun intended – as no hazelnuts could be found. Obviously the squirrels had got to them first.

Walnut trees are a bit more of a challenge to find. There are not many of them around, due to it being technically a non-native so not naturally found in woods, only arriving with the Romans and more often than not being planted in big parks. In recent years the rising price of walnut wood for use in carpentry has encouraged landowners to sell them off. One particular tree I knew was sold for £10,000. The fruit which contains the nut can easily be mistaken for a spineless conker which makes it easy to overlook. The tree has a grey fissured bark with leaves that look a cross between willow and lime leaves. Considering how uncommon walnut trees are, the Bourne area has a surprising number to find.

Sweet chestnut trees have a beautiful corkscrew effect bark. The lime green fruit husks look like sea anemones and just as prickly. Unless you enjoy being stabbed, wear gardening gloves when peeling away the husk. Inside go for the rounded nuts rather than the flat ones. A real flavour of autumn – one of the few truly seasonal foods the supermarkets rarely sell - chestnuts epitomise this time of year. Roasted or boiled, used in stuffing for roasts or ground into flour to use in baking or homemade pasta, chestnuts make an interesting addition to dinner time.

There are plenty of other foods at this time of year – beechnuts, apples (Stamford apple day October 4), pears, quinces, service fruit (an ancient fruit that has to rot before being eaten – tastes like apricots and tamarind), elderberries to name just a few. Get yourself a good guide book or download a foraging app, and you will be amazed how much you can find.

Autumn foraging can add greatly to a morning’s dog walk or afternoon stroll. The great American naturalist Thoreau wrote in the mid 1800s: “you cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it”.

That still holds true today.