How to go foraging

Anna Walker

Leaves crunching under foot, baskets filled with squeaky mushrooms, inky sloe berries and a meal made from ingredients you gathered by hand. Is there anything more satisfying than an afternoon spent foraging?

Sweet chestnuts

Nothing spells the coming of Christmas like chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and foraging them is remarkably easy. First brought to the UK by the Romans, Brits have been harvesting sweet chestnuts for thousands of years—simply by keeping a keen eye to the floor.

To reap your own sweet chestnuts, you simply need to find a well-established chestnut tree, and scour the ground around its roots. Look out for their distinctive green, spiny shells—though of course, it’s the shiny dark fruit inside that’s the real prize.

Be sure not to confuse the sweet chestnut tree with its cousin, the horse chestnut tree, whose bounty is wonderful for conker contests, but poisonous to consume. The green shell of the horse chestnut bears small lumpy points, rather than the spines of the sweet chestnut.

Where to find them: Throughout Britain, most populously in the South of England.

 

Hawthorn berries

With a gentle, appley taste, Hawthorn berries make an exciting addition to any autumn larder. Best used to make hawthorn jelly or the traditional hawthorn leather candy, there are plenty of tasty options for this often-overlooked native berry.

Despite being remarkably common, hawthorn berries are classed as a super food, offering an abundance of nutritional and medicinal benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, aiding digestion and reducing anxiety.

Britain’s most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, where legend dictates Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground, where it spouted and grew into a hawthorn tree. Though the original no longer remains, its alleged offspring can still be found growing on the same hill and would make for a particularly theatrical foraging backdrop.

Where to find them: Look out for hawthorns in thickets, at the edge of areas of woodland and in hedgerows. The county of Oxfordshire boasts a particularly bountiful crop.

 

Horseradish

Easily mistaken for dock leaves, horseradish grows wild virtually everywhere in Britain. If in doubt, rub a leaf against your palm—if you’re greeted by that distinctly pungent, mustardy horseradish scent, you’ve found your mark. Horseradish plants are best discovered at first frost, when their leaves will shrivel and turn brown, and harvested upon second frost, when the root is easiest to access.

To unearth your plant, use a garden fork to dig into the ground close to its base and then loosen the earth, so that the root comes loose. Give it a tug, and you should have in your hand a large, creamy-coloured horseradish root, not dissimilar in appearance to a parsnip.

Where to find it: Banks, hedgerows, uncultivated wastelands and the edges of ditches are usually good places to start.

 

Sloes

Gin-lovers rejoice, November brings with it peak sloe season and the abundance of blackthorn bushes growing across the UK, from country to city centre, means there are plenty of berries ripe for the picking. The best time to pick these wild miniature plums is at first frost, but if you can’t wait that long, be sure to freeze your haul. This will cause the berry to split, enabling the gin to pick up their full flavour.

To create the perfect sloe gin, fill a jar or bottle halfway with sloes, and top up with gin and 250g of golden caster sugar. Seal it and give it a hearty shake every day for the next week. After that, it needs rest, so pop it in a dark cupboard for between two and three months to allow the flavour to fully mature.

Get picking now and you could have a delicious bottle ready for your New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Where to find them: Look out for sloe bushes in hedgerows and along footpaths. London’s Hampstead Heath is surprisingly abundant with sloes.

 

Oyster mushrooms

Also known as “the lungs of the forest”, mushrooms make for the most satisfying foraging bounty, though proceed with caution, as they’re also the most dangerous. For beginners, the oyster variety is a great place to start—they’re fairly easy to identify and grow in abundance, which is lucky, as they’re one of the world’s most highly consumed varieties.

Oyster mushrooms can be identified through their namesake appearance—they grow on dead deciduous wood in shelf-like layers which give them the appearance of a cluster of oysters. Their gills should be white and hairless, their stalks squat and their scent distinctly liquorice tinged. Using a good knife, harvest the more mature growths, which should measure 10cm or more in diameter.

Be sure to take a trusted mushroom guide with you and never eat a mushroom if you’re in doubt of its variety.

Where to find them: Almost any damp, wooded area in the UK will be home to oyster mushrooms, but Goblin Combe in Somerset boasts some particularly impressive growths.

 

Bladder wrack seaweed

The benefits to foraging this shiny, slimy snack go beyond your appetite—burst one of the distinctive bubbles and rub it into your hands for a shot of hydration. Back in the kitchen, the younger tips make a delicious addition to salads. To add an intensity of flavour to any seafood-based meal, line a pan with nutrient dense bladder wrack and butter and cook your fish on top.

When foraging, look out for brightly coloured weeds, as those are fresher, and set out at low tide, when the yield will be higher. Be sure to harvest from the sea, where the weed is still alive, rather than gathering dead weeds from the beaches.

Where to find it: Northern Irish beaches offer a rich bounty of fresh bladder wrack, but the weed can be found in most British oceans. Aim to gather from unpolluted tides.

 

Crab apples The fruit of the crab apple tree is tenacious, clinging onto its branches until as late as January. Part of the rose family, these apples are ready to eat when their green or red colour takes on a yellowish hue.

In November, you’ll find an abundant crop for picking, and these tart apples are delicious with pork or added in chunks to a hearty bread-and-butter-pudding. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, the web offers plenty of recipes to create your own crab apple whisky.

Legend has it that throwing the pips of a crab apple into a burning fire while saying the name of your lover will reveal their fidelity. If the pip explodes in the fire’s heat, your lover has been faithful. If it burns silently, they’ve been untrue.

Where to find them: Britain’s wild apple trees are in decline but look out for them in woods and hedges. Curiously, a wood will commonly home just one crab apple tree, so keep your eyes peeled while hunting down mushrooms and hawthorn berries.

 

Important safety rules

Before you even think about stepping out to collect some natural goodies, take a look at our fundamental rules for foraging responsibly:

  • Don’t pick anything unless you’re absolutely certain what it is, especially when it comes to mushrooms. Mistaken identity can lead to deadly mistakes. For extra caution, invest in a pocket foraging guide.
  • Always seek permission from the landowner, or ensure you’re foraging on public land. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
  • Respect the land around you and forage no more than you need. Try to stick to abundant plants that will quickly recover from your pickings. It might be tempting to leave with an armful of your discovery but be sure to leave behind food for other foragers, and to ensure nature can continue to thrive.
  • Be mindful of areas subject to pollution, including roadsides, industrial estates and dog walking territory.

Visit woodlandtrust.org.uk for a full set of foraging guidelines and tips.


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