What is better than enjoying the great outdoors and subsequently relishing nature’s bounty? It gives us the opportunity to feed our souls as well as filling our bellies. People have foraged for food for thousands of years out of necessity. Nowadays, we can benefit from seasonal gluts of fruits and nuts; eating them fresh, using them to concoct a variety of delicious preserves or by freezing them for later use. In the UK, the collection of fruits, flowers, foliage, and fungi is permitted, although digging up roots would need permission. So as not to have your stash of fruits confiscated by an indignant landowner, careful research should be conducted before foraging in your local area to verify if the land is truly public, or privately owned. The old English term to ‘scrump’ for apples (effectively stealing them from an orchard owned by someone else) should clearly be avoided here if one wishes to maintain harmonious relationships with one’s neighbors; however delicious that forbidden fruit is!
I hold very fond childhood memories of walking, early in the morning with an elderly Aunt and her Red Setter dog; the grass dotted with perfectly formed, beautiful, white mushrooms. My Aunt was well-versed in mushroom harvesting and species recognition; vital as some species can lead to sickness or worse. One might say, you’ll only ever get it wrong once! To air on the side of caution therefore, foraging for mushrooms with an expert, until you are confident with identification, would be advised. It may also lead to connecting with other people who hold the same appreciation for the hunter-gatherer days of old and enjoying what each season has to offer.
Foraging for food can inspire you to choose healthy options, eating in season and reducing your intake of refined sugars and unhealthy sweet treats. Why buy a pre-made pie, laden with sugar when you can make your own with fruits you have picked yourself? Foraged foods have not been mass-produced in vast mono-culture fields and polytunnels, they have not been sprayed with chemicals, are not wrapped in plastic and have not been transported halfway around the world. Foraging is the ultimate in eating locally-sourced food. Fruit salads, chutneys and ‘Hedgerow’ jelly take on a whole new appeal when you know exactly where and when the fruits were sourced. Savour that warm, wholesome feeling you get when you have the chance to gift natural produce to friends and family and let them share in the love!
Each season provides us with a variety of delicacies. Wild garlic can be found from late March, stinging nettles; a fantastic source of vitamins and minerals, should be picked in early spring, prior to flowering. Elderflowers, for cordial and wine, can be harvested from May to July as can wild strawberries or bilberries (a small, blueberry-like fruit) if you are lucky enough to find them. Blackberries, elderberries and, less commonly, quince can be sourced in the fall, the latter making wonderful jellies and a flavorful paste, known in Spain as Membrillo. Plums and their smaller, tarter relatives, damsons, can be found from July to September and make the most delicious, full-bodied jellies. Some may say, our most versatile fruit, the apple, can be harvested from the summer through to the fall, depending on the variety. Finally, a variety of delicious nuts including hazelnuts and walnuts are ready to be picked between September and November followed by the Christmas favorite, the sweet chestnut, the last to ripen, in December. The availability and emergence of the fruits, leaves, nuts, and seeds that are found in your local area will vary greatly. Here in the UK where four seasons can be encountered in a single afternoon, the timing of their availability can be changeable from county to county and year to year.
Recently, my foraging exploits have resulted in the production of sloe gin, although last fall I also branched out into blackberry (the berries making a sumptuous, boozy desert once removed from the gin at the end of the steeping period). Sipping on this syrupy tipple, I recall the warm evening sunshine, and the buzz of the insects which accompanied me while picking the berries. I am grateful for the harvest which warms me, my friends and family on wintery nights and am almost able to forgive the blackthorn bushes that scraped and cut me as I plucked the plump little sloes from their branches.
Nature is generous; providing delicacies to be consumed fresh, to be pickled, preserved or soaked in alcohol; allowing us to stock our pantries and eat and drink well for the year to come. We must, however, always remember to leave plenty for the wildlife who do not have the good fortune to stockpile as we do and who pollinate and distribute seeds to maintain this rich bounty.