Hungry for hedgerows? Here comes the tastiest autumn yet for wild harvesting, says the Eden foraging gardener Emma Gunn
A mild winter, wet spring, hotter than usual summer and moody August has produced a bountiful wild harvest in the fields, trees and hedgerows in and around the Eden Project and across Cornwall.
Eden’s own foraging expert Emma Gunn says she has never seen such abundance in late August, especially among blackberries, apples and elderberries.
“Autumn has definitely come early to the British Isles and in particular here in Cornwall,” said Emma. “Our winter, spring and summer weather this year was the perfect formula for growing and means that many plants are producing bumper crops right now.
“For people like me who like to forage for all kinds of wild food, there has never been a better time to get out there and gather some of the rich, healthy produce that is on offer.”
Emma, author of a new foraging guidebook Never Mind the Burdocks – www.nevermindtheburdocks.co.uk - said that when it comes to harvesting, common sense is the most important attribute.
“You should not uproot anything because we want the plant to continue to grow year after year and to keep providing food,” she said.
“If you want to harvest the roots of a plant, you need the land-owner's permission and make sure the plant is prolific, for example burdock.
“Leave plenty of food for wildlife to eat throughout the winter months or before they hibernate. Collect from a clean source and if the area you are foraging from is a dog-walkers hotspot, then pick above leg-cocking height and wash your wild food before you prepare it.”
Safety is vital. If foragers have concerns as to whether they have correctly identified the plant, they should always consult a good foraging handbook or an expert.
“If in doubt, leave it out,” said Emma. “This is especially important when it comes to fungi and the carrot family (Apiaceae).”
Visitors to Eden can learn more about the art of foraging when Emma does a wild food demonstration at the Harvest food festival on Friday September 12 where she will show what is available to harvest, and how to cook an autumnal foraged delight.
Having published her first book on foraging in springtime, Emma is currently working on a winter edition. Summer and autumn guides will be published at a later date.
Here is a run-down of Emma Gunn’s top ten favourite edible autumnal plants
1. Blackberries – you can't go wrong with blackberries. Stew them, sieve keeping the juice and use to make jam, ice cream, sorbet, coulis, fruit leathers...
2. Elderberries – pick them off the corymbs with a fork and cook to avoid stomach upsets. Elderberries make excellent hot cordial, vinaigrette, cupcakes.
3. Crab apples – great source of pectin for jam making, some are sweet enough to nibble on but my favourite is to caramelise them to make mini toffee apples.
4. Rose hips – an excellent source of vitamin C for the autumn and winter months. The most common rose hips are dog rose (Rosa canina) and Ramana's rose (Rosa rugosa). Make sure to remove the itching-powder seeds by passing the stewed fruit through muslin, then try making cordial or syrup.
5. Plums and damsons – many different varieties to make anything from jam, wine, liqueur or to just eat raw.
6. Hazelnuts – join forces with the squirrels and collect what you can reach, leaving plenty for wildlife. When ripe, crack open the shell and toast. Hazelnuts work well in both sweet and savoury dishes, including hazelnut liqueur – one of my favourites!
7. Sloes – everyone knows about sloe gin, that great simple combination of sloes, gin and sugar! Why not save the fruit after you've drunk it, remove the stones and dip in chocolate to make sloe truffles.
8. Burdock – as autumn and winter approaches, the plant builds up the sweet starch in its roots, making it an ideal time to dig them up and roast in the oven, provided you have the land-owner's permission to do so! The seeds can also be sprouted like alfalfa sprouts.
9. Fungi – at the end of summer we can find field mushrooms and horse mushrooms, then we will start to find shaggy ink-caps, common puffballs and even the stunning amethyst deceivers. Getting to recognise fungi is a slow process but a rewarding one. Make sure you have a good field guide or go with a fungus expert.
10. Watercress – this plant takes us through the winter months providing vitamins such as A, C and K. Gather it from a clean source as this plant grows in water where liver fluke can be present. Picking the tips and cooking the plant eliminates the risk. Watercress salad with pears and deep-fried camembert or watercress soup with crusty bread are delicious!