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Can a surburbanite enjoy foraging in Hertfordshire?

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This blog from local resident Terry Over takes his first steps in foraging, sharing links to simple recipes to try yourself, giving you a chance to join him, enjoying the fruits of nature, locally.

My interest in foraging started with a personal challenge to find a healthy, low carbon-footprint fruit that I would enjoy eating during the winter. 

That meant a decision to eat more seasonally and locally. My parents had done that, so had their parents and every generation before them but for many years we have cherished the variety of food grown in warmer climates and transported long distances to our shops in order to satisfy our desires and curiosities. I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint so food miles was a good place to focus some of my attention.

The easy choice would have been to eat British grown apples and pears but regretfully I have never been a huge fan so I yearned for something else. Maybe I could fill the freezer with blackberries to enjoy through the winter months. Previously a blackberry was an enjoyable snack on a country walk but that year it became the focus of my attention to harvest numerous tubs of the delicious wild fruit.

A first step: Blackberries

Over the August and September harvest season I gathered the fruit of the thorny Rubus fruticosus, commonly known as bramble, from various locations, always ensuring never to take too much from each bush so enough was left for my fellow wildlife foragers. Frozen individually on a tray, then bagged in bulk for the freezer, to enjoy in many dessert and baking guises thereafter. 

Each outing to gather blackberries was a rewarding encounter with the countryside, then in the eating, all the health benefits of this delicious berry were savoured. Local, free and healthy – what more could be better for my fledgling sustainability journey. I looked at nature more closely and all because initially I wanted a healthy home grown fruit for the darkness of winter; it was a simple eye-opening encounter for a suburbanite uncovering the treasures of nature.

If blackberries could provide this small lifestyle change then what else could the countryside on our doorstep share with our family? I read about foraging and learned more of the extensive culinary wealth within the British countryside. 

However in the chaotic busyness of family life and numerous other commitments it was about finding a few simple beneficial sources of health and enjoyment that could be stored for current and future use; which thus far has meant foraging to preserve…

Cordials and Syrups

Elderflower cordial is the result of harvesting the beautiful frothy white heads of Sambucus nigra, the elder tree or shrub that meanders through and delights many an English hedgerow from late May through June when the flowers can be harvested.

 It is a joy to make and whilst it is the most refreshing drink of summer, a few bottles always make their way into the freezer for tiding us over until next summer’s batch can be prepared. There are countless recipes on the internet but this recipe has worked for me.

Rose hip is known to be one of nature’s richest sources of natural vitamin C so we produce a syrup and granules from it. The syrup we freeze in bottles for hot drinks and cold remedies during the winter and the dried granules for making tea all year round.

They beautifully adorn our wild dog rose (Rosa canina) during the Autumn and Winter and the firm hips can be harvested at any time.

The recipe I use to make the syrup requires 1kg rose hips. We use sterilised small glass bottles, such as from tomato ketchup or olive oil, so we can freeze and bring out small quantities at a time to keep in the fridge. You can drink it diluted andI particularly love it as a hot drink mixed with some elderberry cordial. I understand it is equally delicious on pancakes, waffles, rice pudding, yoghurt or ice cream.

The Woodland Trust advise “It will lose flavour and vitamin potency as time goes by though, so it’s a good idea to use your autumn batch before spring comes around. If you have any doubts don’t consume it. Trust your nose, and leave it if it has begun to ferment”

Elderberry cordial production for me was initially the result of wanting to replace shop bought “squash” in order to avoid yet another source of single use plastic, namely the bottle. I am so glad I made the change for I simply love the taste of elderberry as a warm drink. The weight of evidence, even on a quick internet search, appears to suggest that there are also numerous health benefits. I collect the berries generally in September or October and use this simple recipe.

Conkers (for washing clothes)

Whilst poisonous and definitely not edible, using conkers for laundry has significantly helped to reduce our carbon footprint – no synthetic chemicals going down the drain and a source of laundry detergent right on our doorstep during the Autumn. 

We simply collect a good quantity of conkers from local horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum), discard the spiky shells and separate the brown coating from the white seed inside. This seed contains saponins and it is this that provides the soapiness and cleaning agent. We crush the seed, blend to small lumps then dry them so all moisture is removed; this will allow them to be stored and last for many months. When required we boil and steep overnight in water to produce a liquid detergent that can be used for effective low temperature washing.

A chart showing to harvest Elderflowers in June, Blackberries in August and September, Rosehips in Oct to December, Elderberries in September to October and Conkers in October and November.

These are just five items of local natural produce, but they have allowed me to reduce my carbon footprint, improve my diet and appreciate more deeply the amazing bounty of nature in our countryside.

It is very important that you do not eat anything if you are unsure about identifying the right plant. However, I believe anyone could adopt the above foraging treasures with a quickly learnt or taught knowledge of how to identify blackberries, elder, rose hip and horse chestnuts. If in doubt get yourself along to a guided walk or talk from a friendly local environmental group such as the Woodland Trust at Heartwood Forest near Sandridge or the British Naturalist Association – Hertfordshire branch where welcoming experts are more than happy to enthusiastically share their knowledge.


Health benefits of blackberries

Vitamin C comparison of various plant sources

Raw rosehip syrup: how to make and use

Elderberry guide: where to find, health benefits and recipe ideas

How to use horse chestnuts to wash your clothes | natural laundry detergent

Blackberry identification – Woodland Trust

Elder identification – Woodland Trust

Dog Rose identification – Woodland Trust

Horse Chestnut identification – Woodland Trust

Heartwood Forest at Sandridge – Woodland Trust

Hertfordshire branch of the British Naturalist Association

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