Grey, rainy days are becoming more frequent, lashing back at the long, hot days we enjoyed in June and July. As ever, the rhythmic wheel of British seasonality is revolving again, shuttling us from summertime and into blusteriness and speckled frosts of autumn. Gone are the runner beans from the garden, the fragrance of British strawberries and opportunities to drink Pimms at seemingly any opportunity. However, do not mourn the loss of summer's bounty too soon. A changing climate does not necessitate a begrudging adaptation to our new environment. Rather, autumn, in fact any new season, should be thought of as a new opportunity; a new assortment of delicious offerings to be foraged, cooked and enjoyed. Damp conditions are perfect for an assortment of British favourites to abound in hedgerows, cover fields and ripen on the trees.
Foraging is a pastime enjoyed by, sadly, fewer and fewer people. Perhaps because people are leading busier lives, or simply are not confident what to pick, when and where. Foraging satisfies something quite primal within me. I find it almost a comfort to be picking apples in September and October as rural peasants would have in the days of the Normans. In a fast-paced age of information overload foraging can provide an opportunity to reconnect with nature, leisurely picking the contents of Sunday's crumble. It's an opportunity for socialising (teamwork makes for fast work), as well as an excellent way to familiarise children where food comes from and for them to appreciate seasonality. Most importantly however, foraging is fun! Hunting for the best spots, meeting other foragers and engineering ingenious methods to reach the largest fruits (usually just a big stick) are all part of the excitement.
In autumn, the best things to forage for are, of course, the dynamic duo of blackberries and apples. It is difficult to go on a walk in a local park, woodland, heath or even coast and not come across the sprawl of blackberry brambles laden with juicy black fruits. They simply grow everywhere. It is always a good idea to stuff a plastic bag in a back pocket just in case you come across a good spot. Blackberries seem to be very early this year, with my first picking having been in early August. However, bushes don't tend to ripen all their fruit at once so they should still be plentiful in September. When picking blackberries, look for well developed fruits with lots of segments but without being too big and over-ripe. In my experience the biggest blackberries often have the least flavour and will make for a runny jam due to natural pectin degenerating with ripeness. Blackberries are excellent for freezing for use in crumbles, pies and sauces throughout the winter. I recommend freezing them in a single layer on a tray before bagging them in sandwich bags. This prevents them clumping into big, black ice cubes making them easier to pull out as and when needed.
Apples can be slightly harder to come by in nature, however the Suffolk countryside seems to be littered with apple trees, possibly harking back to our strong cider making tradition. When out for a walk, keeping an eye on what's hanging from the trees above you can often lead to new discoveries. Woodlands and dense hedgerows often offer the perfect conditions for apple trees, with plentiful ground water and dappled sunshine producing large, tasty fruits. The most common to find whilst out for a walk seem to be green, sour cooking apples, perfect for crumble, tarts and apple sauce. Cooking apples break down a lot more than eating apples (usually more of a blushing pink or red colour, such as the Cox or Worcester Pearmain). Again, apples freeze well although I recommend peeling and slicing them before again freezing in a single layer and then bagging them up for later use.
Whilst apples and blackberries commonly take centre stage in the autumn, there are some other honourable mentions which you can look out for on your rambles and dog walks. Firstly, a few plums are often still bejewelling the trees into early autumn. With their honeyed taste and elliptical shape, nothing is better than an English plum. They don't store well however, so be sure to use them within a few days of picking. When foraging them be careful of insects as their high sugar content attracts lots of other creatures which enjoy them as much as we do, namely wasps, so avoid picking near rotten or over-ripe ones. Another good foraging find are hazelnuts. Commonly found adorning hedgerows in their squat, tear drop shaped shells and fuzzy jackets, picking your own for free can save a lot of money as, like most nuts, they are expensive in the shops. Make sure the shells have turned brown and they will store very well in a dry, airtight container.