Autumn was summed up perfectly by my granddad, Harry Frank Lodge, in his 1966 poem. He wrote:
The autumn sun was shining like a yellow globe of gold; the wind it was blowing it was icy bitter cold.
The tractor man was ploughing, the furrows were brown and dry, the seagulls they were screaming like vultures in the sky.
The autumn leaves looked pretty, colours of yellow, gold and brown; they seemed to whisper cheerio as they fluttered down.
The swallows and the martins along time had been gone. The autumn wind seemed to say winter won’t be long.
This is the time of year when as a child, I would go home with all kinds of things like rotting mushrooms and balls of moss in my pockets. Even then I was on the look out for wild foods to take home. My poor mum never knew what to expect. And several years later, things really haven’t changed all that much!
One sight that will stay with any forager is the giant puffball (Lycoperdon giganteum), which can be found growing in hedgerows and pastures from late summer to autumn. As a wild food, mushrooms have quite an intimidating reputation, but this is one edible mushroom that is hard to confuse with anything else. They can reach sizes much larger than a football, and as long as the flesh is still pure white throughout, they are safe to eat. For best results try cutting slices about half an inch thick, dip in a beaten egg, coat with bread crumbs and shallow fry for a couple of minutes. It is worth mentioning that occasionally they don’t agree with everyone, so only try a small amount at first.
One of the most famous but often forgotten wild foods is the hazel nut. The hazel nut is a big challenge to the forager, as try as you might the squirrels will often beat you to it. I always make sure I don’t take too many of these nuts as they are the vital food source of some species over winter. Now, some folk will bury these nuts in moist sand for several months before eating, but, I find them best straight from the tree. Simply shell them, dry roast them in a pan and then add some salt, and eat by an open fire. What could be better? And the same goes for the sweet chestnut, although once gathered these need to be roasted in their shells on an open fire or in the oven. Always remember to prick them before cooking; I always leave one unpricked as when this explodes from the heat, it signals the rest are cooked to perfection, a real treat on November the 5th.
Probably the best known and most popular autumn/winter wild food comes from blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The small black/blue fruits, or sloes, with a white bloom on their surface, are ready after the first hard frosts, traditionally in October. They have a very sharp taste, so be prepared. If used for eating only, they are good from September but, the most popular way of utilizing these little berries after the frosts, is to turn them into sloe gin. For Christmas drinking, make sure to pick them around October time.
Teacher of Bushcraft for Essex Wildlife Trust
Resident Bushcraft and Wildfood Specialist for Healthy Life Essex