7th September 2020
This month’s blog in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild looks at autumn’s harvest including blackberry, blackthorn, a sloe gin recipe and the Horn of Plenty fungus.
This has to be my most favourite time of year. There is a buzz of energy, the hedgerows are filled with berries, birds are coming and going and the mushrooms are emerging en-masse from the woodland floor.
As ever, only ever pick something that YOU are 100% sure YOU know what it is. Always use a good field to confirm what you have found.
Foraging can seem like a daunting idea when just starting; there are many species of plants to learn and to avoid, but the humble blackberry is one that most people know and have even been out with the family and picked some to make a pie or crumble with.
Foraging is about starting with the basics and building your confidence so going out and picking lots of blackberries in the autumn is a great way to learn. The wild ones are also so superior to anything you could buy in the supermarket.
Brambles are a plant that can be encountered in many different environments, traditionally it is a plant of woodland, hedgerows and disturbed ground, though with many cultivars being planted for higher yielding fruit it can often be encountered in urban areas and parks and gardens.
The interesting thing about bramble is that there are many sub-species, in the UK alone there are said to be over 570 sub-species and micro species, each having their own characteristics, whether it is larger fruit, different colour flowers, different size of thorns on the stem etc.
Therefore when picking your fruit try every bush as although the berries can look similar, some taste more sweet, some are more tart, some keep their shape when cooking, others have smaller seeds etc. there are endless numbers to try.
However, all look like blackberry, a creeping shrub with thorns on the stem and small flowers (white, pink, purple, red). The leaves are oval and toothed, although some unusual varieties can have weird shaped leaves.
It is mainly the delicious berries that most people are interested in, versatile in what they can be used for - everything from jams and jellies, to pies, crumbles, syrups, infusions, teas and chutneys!
The leaves can be dried and used in loose leaf tea and wine can be made using the fresh shoots of blackberry.
Sloes are the fruit produced by the Blackthorn - a large deciduous shrub which can grow to nearly 5m - and in the foraging world we do not call them Blackthorn berries - always sloes. Trying one straight from the bush is interesting - they are acrid, drying the mouth very quickly and very, very bitter.
The sloes are one of the most sought after items in the foraging world to make one thing with - sloe gin (where the alcohol and sugar make them delicious!), but they can be infused in vinegar to make a delicious flavoured vinegar (just replace a sloe gin recipe with white wine vinegar for the alcohol).
The sloes (which are similar to very small plums) have a stone in the middle. They are rich in vitamin C, tannins and fruit acids. Dried sloes were used to treat kidney stones and bladder problems.
If you pick the berries after the first frost the bitterness is much less due to sugars being released during the thawing process. If you do not get a frost and the berries look ripe then you can always put them in the freezer overnight and this will do the same thing.
Blackthorn can be found in traditional hedgerows and also in open woodland, woodland edges and parks.
The much sought after sloes appear in the autumn and are about the size of a marble, are blue and can be covered with a light blue bloom (although this can be washed off in the rain or when handled). The branches are covered in long sharp thorns so care should be taken when picking the berries for this reason.
The Horn of Plenty is a stunning species, easy to identify and very, very tasty. It does have another name, Trompette des Morts (Trumpet of Death) dues to its black appearance; it is also hollow down the centre and with no gills at all, making it quite unique in the UK fungi world.
Some say that these little mushrooms are a way for the dead to communicate with us mere mortals (I love these kind of stories).
Whether they allow us to hear the cries of the dead remains to be proven, what is sure however is that they taste very good, indeed these are one of a group of mushrooms that actually taste better once they have been dried and then used in cooking by rehydrating. Once seen there is no real species you could confuse them with, their black appearance is unique but rather difficult to spot against the woodland floor.
There is one species, Sinuous Chanterelle, that could look similar but they are very small and not black, more a grey colour and are rarer, but they too are also good to eat anyway. Once found they can be abundant, growing in huge numbers in some areas, making it easy to collect some for the pot without impacting the amount that are there.
Beech and Oak are its usual favourite trees to associate with but they can be found in leaf litter with deciduous trees. Horn of Plenty is often served with white fish (presumably as a contrast in colour) but to be honest I throw dried ones into all sorts when I am cooking.
For this recipe you could use vodka if you really do not like gin and it will be just as yummy. This is one of those recipes that every forager will make, their own sloe gin. Take time to pierce the sloes before you put them in the jar, this will help the gin or vodka to infuse the flavour of the sloes more. Take care picking the sloes not to catch yourself on the thorns of the bush.
70cl bottle of gin or vodka
1 litre or 1.5 litre jar with lid
200g of sugar (or to taste)
This recipe can be adapted to all sorts, blackberry whisky, damson vodka, elderberry brandy the list is as long as your imagination! Just replace the sloes with another berry (or a mixture) and add the spirit of your choosing, sweeten to taste…it is that simple!