Follow our experts’ guides to sourcing a range of edible delicacies found growing wild among the hedgerows, woodlands, countryside and coasts this Autumn.
Nothing improves a good walk more than finding something to add to your evening meal. Most of us are familiar with blackberries, nettles, dandelions and, of course, common fruit such as apples, pears, and plums. This is, however, just the tip of the foraging iceberg as, especially during the autumn months, an abundance of mushrooms, nuts, fruits, seeds and berries can be found in the fields, hedgerows, and woodlands of Britain. Here are seven, easy-to-identify wild foods found during autumn.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, a thorny shrub with serrated ovoid leaves. Found in hedgerows they have plum-like, marble-sized black/blue fruits often with a slight whitish dusting. They can sometimes be confused with damsons or plums. Not only can you make sloe gin (look out for the recipe on ramblers.org.uk/blogs), but sloes also produce good jams, jellies and pickles. But note:
all will need sugar as they are very astringent.
Haws or Hawthorn berries
The hawthorn is a thorny tree growing up to 15m, with dark-green lobed leaves, growing alone or planted as a hedge. It produces masses of pea-sized, deep-red fruits called haws or hawthorn berries. Raw haws taste a little like avocados – they are, however, insubstantial and better cooked. I simmer them with apples, push them through a sieve and make into ketchup with spices, sugar and vinegar. The seed is poisonous so should not be eaten.
A small brown nut, which grows inside a serrated sheath. Look up to identify the tree and down to find the nuts. They fall from the tree from mid- September in southern England, a little later as you move north. Look in hedgerows or thickets, where they have been planted in large numbers. Avoid areas with a high squirrel population, as the pickings will be slim. Eat as a snack or toast the nuts and grind them with oil, sugar and cocoa powder to make chocolate hazelnut spread.
Growing to the size of a football, mostly on the base of pine trees, the cauliflower fungus is a white/cream mushroom resembling a brain or a sea sponge. It’s easy to identify but perhaps a little tricky to clean. The taste is mild and it can be made into a risotto, a delicious soup or served on toast.
So named for its hedgehog-like spines on the underside rather than pores or gills, this mushroom is found in most woodlands but favours pine forests. It has an uneven, convex, creamy yellow cap and a slightly downy stem which often grows off-centre. An excellent flavour, superior to many other mushrooms found in the autumn. They make an excellent risotto or showcase their flavour simply cooked with onion, butter and chives.
Himalayan balsam is a pink or white policeman’s helmet- shaped flower often found growing by rivers and railway lines. The flowers are good in salads. The black or white seeds taste like a cross between sesame seeds and walnuts. They can be toasted, added to breads, made into burgers, or simply eaten as a snack. As an invasive plant, every effort should be made to prevent the seed’s explosive pods from popping and spreading the seeds. I simply cup my hands around the largest pods and allow them to pop in my hands. Can sometimes be mistaken for jewelweed, which has orange flowers but can also be used in same way.
The cep or porcini mushroom is perhaps the most sought-after in Britain. It has a rich, musky, meaty or nutty flavour. Look for a mushroom with pores rather than gills, a brown, bun-like top and white lattice pattern on the top of the stalk. They taste fantastic in soups or simply fried in a little butter.
A pocket-sized mushroom guide, wild food guide, seaweed guide and wildflower book are all useful additions to your backpack. Also download one or preferably more mushroom and/or foraging apps to your smartphone and cross- reference between your apps and guides. Never rely on a single source.
Handy for cutting mushrooms, seaweeds and some leaves cleanly. There is a specialist type available with a little brush on the back.
Trug or basket
Very useful for keeping mushrooms fresh, unbruised and able to spread their spores, but can be cumbersome. Buckets and mesh bags are good for coastal foraging.
Plastic boxes and trays
Plastic takeaway cartons are lightweight and stack inside each other, making them ideal for berries or small hauls of mushrooms. Larger mushroom or fruit trays from supermarket-bought goods are also useful. I often take an oversized lunchbox, filling it with mushrooms once I have eaten the contents (which can mean lunch at 11am!).
Not very glamorous but infinitely practical. Plastic bread bags or carrier bags are lightweight, easily compressed in a backpack and the perfect receptacle for all kinds of wild food.
Orache is a coastal relative of spinach and quinoa that thrives in seaweed deposits just above the high tide line. There are a few different varieties around the UK. All are good to eat and can be recognised by their distinct leaves shaped like a goose’s footprint or like a spear point. The tender leaves can be used just as you would spinach – in salads or cooked.
There are more than 700 species of seaweed found in UK waters. And all live seaweeds, still attached to rocks, that can be picked on foot from clean coastal areas are edible, and many are highly nutritious. Provided you follow these rules, you can freely taste any seaweeds you come across without fear of poisoning. But that isn’t the same as saying you’ll enjoy eating all of them! Sea lettuce and sea spaghetti look, and can be used, just how their names suggest.
Many seaweeds are past their best for eating by the end of summer, but dulse is still good, with a meaty flavour that is like vegan bacon. It’s much better for you than bacon, containing a rich array of vitamins, minerals and proteins. Dulse is a reddish seaweed that grows in flat, shiny lobes to about the size of your hand. Find it attached to rocks or other larger seaweeds, especially kelp, when the tide is at least three-quarters of its way out. Eat it raw in salads or cooked as a vegetable. It is excellent eaten dried, too.
There are a few species of razor clam around UK coasts, only subtly different, and all equally delicious (Ensis magnus and Ensis ensis are the most common). Easy to recognise by their cut-throat razor-like shells which are a common sight on tidal sands, though unlikely to be occupied unless you time your trip for a very low tide around the Autumn or Spring Equinoxes (22 September 2020, 20 March 2021). Would-be foragers need to check tide tables to see when low tides occurs in their area, and plan a trip carefully, being aware that tidal flats can be dangerous places.
At the lowest state of the lowest tides, as far out as you can go on foot, look for their oval-shaped burrows in the sand. As you approach, look for a small spout of water confirming that they are lurking beneath the surface (it’s for this reason that in Scotland they are known as ‘spoot’ clams). Trick them out of their burrows by quickly tipping some salt down the hole: the clam will reverse its dive, and slowly emerge from the hole.
Back on dry land, briefly steam them open. The prime eating is in the muscular ‘foot’ that propels them through the sand. This has a taste and texture, somewhere between squid and scallop, and can be used in similar ways – stir-fries, marinated, chowder etc. But be careful not to overcook them, as they can soon turn from deliciously succulent to distinctly chewy!
It is legal to pick mushrooms, leaves, seaweeds, shellfish, nuts and fruits for non-commercial gain almost anywhere in Britain, as long as you are not trespassing. However, in certain areas, such as the New Forest, restrictions have been put in place for mushroom foraging. It is illegal to dig up any root in the UK without the landowner’s permission.
You should never pick more than you need to, especially if there are few examples of the plant or fungi. Over-picking (with the exception of invasive weeds) can upset the natural balance of things and cause wildlife to go hungry.
It is also wise to never pick or eat anything unless you know for certain what it is and to leave things growing close to the ground due to dogs and wildlife being able to reach them.
Top foraging books
Food For Free by Richard Mabey
A classic comprehensive guide to plants and mushrooms of the UK. Pocket-sized editions are available, perfect for a hike.
Mushrooms by Roger Phillips
Another classic book with detailed pictures, descriptions, and possible lookalikes of almost all the fungi found in the UK. Despite the weight of this tome, I would recommend packing it on a hike.
The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright
John Wright, foraging expert at River Cottage, is deeply knowledgeable, very dry and a touch cynical. All this makes for a very entertaining and well-thought-out foraging guide. Highly recommended fireside reading.
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons
Although an American book, most of the plants cross over with those found in the UK. With tales of the author tapping birch on camping trips and filling his pockets up with fruit on hikes, this book seeds the idea of foraging adventures.
The Hedgerow Handbook by Adele Nozdar
Expertly written and beautifully illustrated, The Hedgerow Handbook is more of a recipe book than a field guide. With entries such as Chamomile Panna Cotta, Chestnut Brownies, Damson Vodka and Elderflower Cheesecake, the recipes are wonderfully indulgent.
Family Foraging by Dave Hamilton
An entry-level guide to 30 of the most common and easily identified plants and fungi found in the Northern Hemisphere. Well illustrated, with photos, maps and mouthwatering recipes, a must for any first-time foragers looking to add to their foraging repertoire.
Find out more
Read all about wild food and foraging laws and etiquette on gallowaywildfoods.com and look out for some foraging recipes on our blog.