Every autumn, my father would load our family of five into his already ancient 1928 Morris and set off from our home in Portsmouth. Laden, as we were, with baskets, boots, crooked walking sticks, gloves and Elastoplasts, we were off blackberry picking. Apart from annual trips to collect cockles from the mud of Langstone Harbour, I loved those early autumn days more than any other. Unlike school, early-1960s television and just about everything else, they felt so very real; not just a thing to do but the thing to do.
Looking back, I think that we were revisiting the lives of our distant ancestors for whom foraging was an instinctive communal activity, one that nature rewarded with a sense of fulfilment and joy, and, in this instance, blackberries. Now those blissful days are mine every week, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends and family. However, it is still autumn that I yearn for – its sloes, crab apples, sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, misty mornings and mushrooms.
My interest in foraging was a development of what I can only call an irritation with the natural world. I would find something on a walk and have no idea of its name, where it fitted into the world and, eventually, whether or not it was edible. I see this curiosity in the people that accompany me on my walks. Rust fungi, lichens, plant galls, earthstars, tree burrs and fallen beech branches mysteriously covered in matt-black “paint” (fungal pseudosclerotial plates, don’t you know) – all prompt questions. It is the slow, observant process of foraging that brings such marvels to their attention. “A walk will never be the same again,” is something I have heard a hundred times over the years – I always hope that it sticks.
Such days, such interest, are of course available to anyone sufficiently mobile and motivated. But where to go? Autumnal urban foraging is certainly possible – new-growth stinging nettles that have been cut back for the fourth time this year, plus the ubiquitous chickweed and hairy bittercress. There is also the occasional parkland sweet chestnut and always the abundant rose hips found on rose bushes of every kind.
But it is urban mushrooms that can shine. I have picked horse mushrooms in a London cemetery, fairy ring champignons in Edinburgh and parasols in Leeds. Old lawns can also provide a feast. Still, for abundance and variety, one must search out wild food in an appropriately wilder setting. My own haunts are now in West Dorset, its chalk downland, lowland pasture, hedgerows, small woods and the splendid coast. But I travel widely in the autumn, from the Channel Islands to Inverness. Wherever you are, old, well-grazed pasture and edge habitats, such as wood edges and clearings, hedgerows and pathways, are more productive than overgrown or new pasture and dense woodland.
The seasons are paramount for the forager, and represented by a palette. In spring we have the greens of edible leaves; in summer it is the bright colours of raspberries, strawberries and rose petals; and in autumn it is predominately the browns and purples typified by mushrooms and nuts, bullaces and blackberries. Even within seasons, fruits will come and go – the hazelnuts of early September, for example, and blackberries are now fading fast. You will know these and more, so I will describe a few that are slightly less familiar, one of which you will need to remember for next year – sea buckthorn.
Sea buckthorn, although unsurprisingly found by the sea, has also been planted along roadsides by beneficent highway authorities. In full orange fruit, this willow-like shrub is easy to spot, but the berries that cluster densely around the twigs are impossible to pick – they burst. Cut the clusters whole on the twig, freeze, then knock the berries off. Simmer for a few minutes and sieve out the juice. The juice is sufficiently acidic to make your teeth fizz, but the taste can be acquired, and it is good for you.
Hawthorn berries (“haws”) brighten the countryside in September, but despite their vast numbers they are difficult to use, so go for a gin infusion or a fruit leather (a thin, oven-dried puree). The statuesque sweet chestnut is at the north of its range, and it fruits disappointingly small. Nevertheless, they can often be found in great abundance and occasionally the size of their continental sisters. Do make sure to remove the nuts from their fiercely defended jacket with your boot.
The bullace is a type of domestic plum that has naturalised in woody edge habitats. It looks like a large sloe. If comparative size is insufficient to assure you that it is a bullace, just taste one. If your mouth dries out and your cheeks shrink inwards, it’s a sloe.
The first-year biennial roots of wild carrot and wild parsnip, plus the perennial roots of horseradish, burdock and dandelions, are available for the more determined, though you should only harvest roots while the plant is still recognisable from its leaves as several wild roots are deadly. Also, permission is required from the landowner to uproot anything, though most wild fruit, foliage, flowers and fungi are legally fair game on almost any land – even if you are trespassing, which, of course, you shouldn’t be.
Down on the beach, the thick, dark green leaves of sea beet are in great condition in autumn. Sea beet is related to and very much like spinach, excepting that it is more succulent and sweeter. Seaweeds too are in fine fettle. Boiled carragheen can set a panna cotta, and the thin, brown, membranous fronds that is laver, can, when boiled for up to 10 hours (really) turn into a sticky paste that tastes halfway between olives and oysters. Mix it with oats to make small, fried cakes for breakfast – superb, especially if bacon is in the mix.
It is still autumn that I yearn for with its sloes, crab apples, sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, misty mornings and mushrooms.
And then there is dulse. This dull red, thin, cutout of a hand is the most versatile of the seaweeds. It will steam nicely in 20 minutes, resulting in what you would expect if your cabbage had just spent two weeks on a beach. Mix it with sea beet in a fish quiche. I dry and blitz a nutritious stock powder out of dulse every year and sprinkle it in and on everything. Best of all is flour-dusted dulse deep-fried into crisps. Seriously, do try this if you can.
Then there are the stars of the autumn show, the mushrooms. There is a great sense of adventure to be had when mushroom hunting. Spotting a dark ring of grass on the other side of a valley might, on closer inspection, reveal a ring of mushrooms, or the fizz when entering a woodland clearing and finding 20 perfect penny buns. One might find an old friend that has proved elusive for years, such as the superb horn of plenty. And then there are those fungi that are inedible but still fascinating – the scarlet caterpillar club, earthstars and the blood red and frankly stinking devil’s fingers come to mind.
There is a great sense of adventure to be had when mushroom hunting, such as the fizz when entering a woodland and finding 20 perfect penny buns
Most edible wild plants are exceedingly common, with restraint by the hungry forager required but rarely. The same can be said for British fungi, with the added encouragement that the main part of the fungus is underground or within wood and no amount of gentle picking will harm it. But I am still very cautious about the mushrooms I collect, giving them the benefit of any doubt and allowing any fungal gnat larvae (maggots!) to develop. There are an astonishing 574 British species of fungal gnat, so there is every chance that an endangered species could end its lineage as breakfast. Should you end up with maggots despite best efforts, then use them in a risotto. No one will notice …
The Observant Walker: Wild Food, Nature and Hidden Treasures on the Pathways of Britain and The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvests, both by John Wright, are published by Profile Books. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copies at guardianbookshop.com for £17.60 and £11.82, respectively
Mushroom hunting: how to stay safe and spot the good ones
There are 12,000 or so species of fungi in Britain, but you really don’t need to learn them all. Instead, I suggest learning two or three edible species each year until you have a dozen that you are happy with. Here is a list of suitable species characterised by being easy to identify, good to eat and common: parasol, field mushroom, horse mushroom, fairy ring champignon, hedgehog mushroom, chanterelle, trumpet chanterelle, penny bun, saffron milkcap, bay bolete, shaggy inkcap, oyster mushroom and cauliflower fungus.
Of course, you will need to identify a species in the first place, but these species are very distinctive, so you should have no trouble.
Do buy a good guidebook or three, and make sure everything in any photograph or description matches your specimen perfectly. Never jump to conclusions.
Grassland species, such as the first four on my list, are generally much safer than those found in woods, provided you keep away from any hedges. Also, you should check that your field or horse mushroom does not instantly turn chrome yellow where you scratch the cap edge or stem base. This will save you from the very common yellow stainer and two horrible days confined to quarters.