Going for a walk in autumn is a great way to start foraging for healthy food for free. Get out and enjoy the autumn colour - put a few carrier bags in your pocket and you are ready to start foraging. Then go to the recipes section and try out some of the recipes sent in by our Tree Wardens.
Here's our guide to the best pickings to be had on an autumn walk.
Everyone recognises blackberries - dark purple, juicy, knobbled little fruit that are a joy to pick, whatever your age. Blackberries are best picked from September onwards, found on bramble bushes until the first frosts of winter. Tempting as it to pick those found at the roadside, don't - the car fumes do impair their taste. They grow best at the edge of woodland areas, so try your local park for a good spot. There are dozens of things to do with your free bounty once you've picked it: try blackberry and apple pie or blackberry crumble. If you've picked a few too many, freeze them for later.
Sloes are little, blue-black fruit with yellow flesh, about the size of a 5p piece, and you'll find them in abundance in hedgerows throughout autumn. They're the fruit of the blackthorn tree and if you've ever had the misfortune to eat one from a bush, you'll know why birds never touch them: they taste absolutely horrible when raw. The raw fruit is bitter, acidic and has large stones with little flesh, but they do hold a secret use that makes them worth picking: sloe gin. If you like making your own cocktails, homemade sloe gin is a must - sweet, almond-and-berry scented and utterly original.
Be careful picking sloes as the branches they grow on are very sharp and prickly. Country lore has it that they are best picked after the first frost, but after this summer's heat, they are likely to be worth picking before then.
Hazelnuts and Sweet Chestnuts
Fruit isn't the only thing worth picking: a bag full of hazelnuts or sweet chestnuts is also a prize worth having. Available in early autumn in clusters of two or three, hazelnuts (also known as cobnuts) can be eaten straight from the tree whilst they're still green. They have a lovely, late-summer flavour and crunch nicely in your mouth. Eaten early, you're also more likely to pick more - squirrels have an unerring sense of when these nuts are ripe.
Sweet chestnuts come later in the autumn, from mid-October onwards as the leaves fall off the trees. They're easily recognisable from the densely spined, pin-sharp shell that encases the nuts - open with care. There are usually two or three chestnuts within the shell, but it's only really worth keeping the bigger, plumper ones for roasting. You can eat them on their own with a little salt, or roast them whole and add them to autumn recipes such as Jamie's divine roast squash, sage, chestnut and pancetta risotto.
Apples and Pears
Also keep your eyes peeled for apple and pear trees on your walks too - they often 'escape' from gardens and can be found growing at the edge of country roads. Check your local park as well: they're a favourite with councils when choosing trees to plant, but the fruit is rarely harvested.
Look out for other fruit like rose hips, rowan berries and elder berries that can all be used in jams and jellies - again see our recipe section.
Do's and Don'ts
If you do plan a walk with hedgerow harvesting in mind, there's a couple of things to remember to ensure you stay safe and on the right side of the law:
- Don't pick anything from hedgerows at the side of busy roads - it's just too polluted.
- Make sure that the trees or shrubs you're picking from don't obviously belong to anyone. Even if the fruit is hanging over a pavement or a wall, if the tree or bush is on someone's private property the fruit belongs to them.
- See if you can find a curved stick when you're out - they make a great hook for getting to fruit on higher branches.
- If you're crossing fields, watch for cattle and close any gates behind you.