Time to take a container for those brambles on your rambles

We’re in the midst of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and as MOIRA O’DONNELL suggests, it’s the perfect time to discover the pleasures of  foraging for free food

It has been a good summer for blackberries on brambles in open spaces right across Croydon

As a child, one of my greatest joys was a walk in the Scottish hills scouring the wayside eagerly for anything edible.

Wild raspberries, strawberries and blaeberries (bilberries) would all be pounced upon and devoured on the spot. In the case of blackberries, some would be eaten and then the rest gathered and taken home to be turned by my mum into apple and blackberry crumble or pie.

A special treat were the fresh young leaves of wood sorrel, the oxalic acid making my taste buds pop. As an adult now living in Croydon, I still get a sense of enjoyment from finding something edible while on a walk, either to eat there and then, or take home with me.

You might think that living in Croydon the opportunities for foraging are few and far between. Not so. Throughout the year there is always something to be found.

In the spring for example, ramsons (wild garlic) can be found in lots of our woodlands, and used to make a delicious pesto, while elderflowers can be harvested to make a delicious summery cordial, far superior to that which you can buy in the shops.

Elderflowers, plentiful in spring and early summer, are the main ingredient for a terrific cool drink

Now that we are moving into the autumn months, Croydon’s many parks, woods and commons are groaning with an abundance of easily found and foraged fruits, nuts and berries. The following are just a few of the things that can be foraged at the moment, and some ideas of what to do with them.

Blackberries, or as I tend to call them, brambles, are one of the most obvious berries at the moment, and can be found all over the place. They are easily identifiable and since this year seems to have produced a bumper crop, you should not have any difficulty finding some.

Try to pick from a park, woodland area or somewhere else away from the road, so you are not ingesting too many nasty chemicals from exhaust fumes. If you don’t have your own cooking apple tree, see if you can scrump some from friends or neighbours. Failing that, just buy some.

You can find plenty of recipes for apple and blackberry crumble or pie online. I have already made three crumbles this year. The more adventurous among you might like to try making bramble jelly, to help give you a taste of late summer right through the dark winter months.

These damson-like fruits of the blackthorn are an essential ingredient for sloe gin

Sloes are another fruit that is quite easy to identify.

The sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn and they look like small damsons.

I have found them in the hedgerows and woodland edges of Hutchinson’s Bank, in South Norwood Country Park and Happy Valley, and I have no doubt there are many other places they can be found.

The sloes seem to have ripened quite early this year so I have already harvested mine from Happy Valley for this year’s sloe gin, which is very easy to make and is a fantastic seasonal drink. It makes a great Christmas gift, too, if you can bear to part with it.

Elderberries are a juicy fruit that are a staple of the forager’s autumn kitchen

Purists say you should wait until after the first frost to pick your sloes, but putting them in a plastic tub in the freezer has the same effect. Here is my favourite recipe for sloe gin.

The elder is a great tree for foragers, producing fragrant creamy white “umbrellas” of flowers in the spring that can be used to make cordial or even a kind of “champagne”, to be followed in the late summer by their juicy, black berries. These can be made into jelly or wine, but this year I am trying elderberry liqueur, using elderberries and vodka.

Elderberries are easily recognisable by their red stalks and large clusters of small black berries, and can be found all over the place in Croydon – in hedgerows, on waste ground, woodland edges and gardens. Two of the many places I have found them are Croham Hurst and Happy Valley.

Haws: the fruits of the hawthorn can go from this…

Again, try not to harvest from the roadside, and remove the stalks from the flowers and berries before using them, as they are slightly toxic.

Also abundant at the moment are haws, the fruits of the hawthorn tree.

They can also be used to make jelly or wine, but something I tried last year and am going to try again this year is haw-sin sauce, a delicious sweet and sour ketchup which tastes great with lots of different foods.

Again the hawthorn is widespread in Croydon’s hedgerows, woodlands and parks and is easily recognisable.

… to this, haw-sin sauce

If nuts are more your thing there are plenty on the hazel and sweet chestnut trees in many of Croydon’s woods at the moment.

Hazelnuts should be fairly easy to recognise (if you can get to them before the squirrels), but take care not confuse sweet chestnuts with the poisonous horse chestnut – the conker. Click on the links for more information on gathering and eating these nuts.

There are hazels at Hutchinson’s Bank and Littleheath Woods, and sweet chestnuts are common in most of our woodlands.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should be totally sure of your identification of the plant, its berries or nuts, before eating anything, and get the identification double-checked if necessary.

Hazelnuts are one of the traditional nuts of an English autumn – if you can get to them before the squirrels

An excellent fold-out guide to edible plants, how to identify them, where to find them and what to do with them, is produced by the Field Studies Council.

It also has a helpful “Poisonous box”.

Foraging is legal so long as you are gathering for your own use and not uprooting anything or using it for commercial gain.

So if you’ve not indulged before, why not have a go at foraging this autumn. For the advanced forager who knows where to look, Croydon can also provide such exotic finds as figs and almonds.

  • Moira O’Donnell, pictured right, is a Shirley resident who enjoys botany, Bach and baking blackberry crumbles. The photographs that accompany this article were taken by O’Donnell on her regular rambles around Croydon’s parks and commons

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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