Foraging in Autumn

Local author and naturalist Tiffany Francis shares her top tips on enjoying autumn's bounty

There’s nothing more rejuvenating than the swing from August to September. The chaos of summer - of breeding and courtship, greenery and endless heat - fades, and suddenly the wind blows cooler, the woods swell with decay, and with each shortening day we begin our repose into autumn.

This is my favourite month to go out into the countryside and forage wild food from hedgerows dripping with nuts and berries.

Juicy autumn berries

Elderberries are one of the best fruits to forage at this time of year. They can be found everywhere in Britain, but often grow around rabbit warrens because rabbits eat the berries and help germinate the seeds. The berries are small and deep purplish-red, ripened from leftover elderflowers in spring, and although they can be eaten raw in small amounts, they’re better fermented in mead or simmered into jam and jelly. This year I’ve been making sticky elderberry buns with sweet lemon icing, the perfect treat for an afternoon in with a pot of tea.

See Tiffany's recipe for elderberry spiced buns below.

Elderberries in Chalton Hampshire

Elderberries © Tiffany Francis

With its blood-orange berries, the rowan tree has long been associated with magic and witchcraft, found throughout Britain but particularly common in the north and west.

Also known as the mountain ash, its old Celtic name was fid na ndruad - the wizard’s tree - and its silver-grey bark was thought to ward off evil powers from other worlds, and even stop milk from curdling. As the days grow shorter, gather a few scarlet berries to make jelly for a boost of vitamin C.

Rowan berries in autumn

Rowan berries © Tiffany Francis

Earthy nuts

It isn’t just berries that are ready to gather in autumn. Look down and the forest floor becomes speckled with hazelnuts and sweet chestnuts, all of which are bursting with the rich, earthy flavours of the season.

The sweet chestnut is a familiar childhood tree, producing hedgehog-like cases filled with reddish brown nuts that fall to the floor in their hundreds. Try roasting them over the fire, or boil, peel and eat them with sprouts. They can also be pureed and added to soups, stews, stuffing, or swirled into chocolate yule log at Christmas.

Sweet chestnut in Chalton, Hampshire

Sweet chestnut opening © Tiffany Francis

The hazel tree is a common species found in both unmanaged and coppiced woodlands. Mustard-coloured catkins fill the canopy earlier in the year and by September the tree is laden with pale nuts encased in a crown-like husk.

While it may be tempting to pick them as soon as they appear, I’ve learnt from experience that trying to eat an unripe hazelnut will result in at least half an hour of chewing. On the other hand, leave them too long and they will disappear into the paws of hungry squirrels. Delicious raw, they also make a fantastic addition to granola, salads, cranberry bread and fruit cake.

Hazelnuts in Chalton, Hampshire

Hazelnuts © Tiffany Francis

How to forage well

A good forager is an ethical one. Pick only the amounts you need to ensure plant populations remain healthy, and leave plenty for the birds and wildlife with whom we share our wild food.

Remember to keep to public places and steer clear of private land, and avoid searching along the edges of large agricultural fields which have often been treated with chemicals. Similarly, watch out for popular dog walking routes.

The golden rule is that if you’re not 100% sure of a species, don’t pick it. When carried out sustainably and respectfully, foraging is a natural and ethical way to source your food - when I scoop a thick blob of blackberry jam onto a piece of toast, my mind fills with recollections of misty autumn walks, and the kitchen cupboard is transformed into a scrapbook of delicious memories.

Tiffany Francis

Tiffany Francis

Author

About Tiffany

Tiffany is a writer, artist and environmentalist from the South Downs, Hampshire.

In March 2018 her first book Food You Can Forage was published with Bloomsbury, and her second Dark Skies will be published next summer, a nature memoir exploring our connection with the landscape at night.

Read more

Tiffany's Spiced Elderberry Buns

Spiced elderberry buns

Spiced elderberry buns © Tiffany Francis

Tiffany's spiced elderberry buns are a perfect treat for an afternoon in with a pot of tea.

This recipe is from Tiffany's first book Food You Can Forage (Bloomsbury, 2018) which is available to buy now online and on the high street.

For the filling:

200g fresh elderberries

75g demerara sugar

2 tsp mixed spice

25g unsalted butter

225g icing sugar

2-3 tbsp lemon juice

For the dough:

500g strong white flour

Pinch of sea salt

7g dried yeast

300ml whole milk

50g salted butter

1 medium egg

Method

Sift the flour, salt and yeast together in a bowl and make a well in the middle using a spoon. In a saucepan, heat the salted butter until it has melted and add to the flour mixture, as well as the milk and egg.

Using your hands, stir the whole mixture together until it forms a soft dough; you may need to add a little flour or milk depending on the consistency.

Sprinkle a little flour onto a clean surface and spread out to create a non-stick area, then tip your dough mixture out.

Knead the dough for five to ten minutes (depending on arm strength - it takes me ages) until the consistency is smooth and elasticated, but no longer sticky. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a teatowel, then set aside at room temperature for an hour.

Meanwhile, pour the elderberries into a preserving pan with a little water and simmer until the berries have softened to a juicy mush. Remove from the heat, add the sugar and mixed spice and stir well. In a separate pan, heat the unsalted butter until it has melted and leave aside.

Once the dough has risen to twice its size, lightly flour a surface and tip the dough out. Roll out into a rough rectangle around ½ cm thick and brush the exposed surface lightly with the melted butter. Then tip the elderberry mixture onto the surface and spread out evenly across the rectangle.

Carefully roll the rectangle into a sausage so that the elderberry mix forms a spiral through the middle and, once secured, slice the sausage into 4 cm slices.

Place each slice on its side onto a greased baking tray and cover them all with a teatowel. Preheat the oven to 190°C and leave the slices to rise for 30 minutes.

When risen, bake the slices for 20 minutes until they are golden brown and transformed into swirly buns, and leave to cool.

In a separate bowl, mix the icing sugar and lemon juice to form glacé icing, and drizzle over every bun until well coated.

Food You Can Forage, by Tiffany Francis

Food You Can Forage, by Tiffany Francis

Food You Can Forage

A new guide to foraging for families and amateur naturalists, full of information about natural habitats and where to find food in the wild.

Organised into woodland, grassland, farmland and coast, the book allows readers to engage with whatever natural landscape they find themselves in and helps them understand why things grow where they do.

More