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Cub Scout Leader and wild food enthusiast Austin Lill highlights some of the many wonderful foods that are available to the keen autumn forager.

Autumn is a great time to find foraged ingredients, including plants that are coming into season and others that are still going strong from the summer months.

Perennial staples

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Nettle tops. (Click on image to enlarge)

Good examples of long-lived plants include nettles and burdock. It is still possible to find usable nettles to make a great soup or as a spinach substitute. Look in shady areas like hedges for the tender top leaves.

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Burdock and nettles. Here you can see this year’s plants in the foreground and the spent second year plants at the back. (Click on image to enlarge)

Burdock is another perennial that has an edible starchy root. The root is tough to dig out, so ensure you have the landowner’s permission to do so.

Natural tonics

Two ingredients in nature’s larder that can be utilised to help keep away those autumn sniffles are coltsfoot and elderberries.

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Coltsfoot leaf. (Click on image to enlarge)

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Dried Coltsfoot leaves make an excellent tea. (Click on image to enlarge)

Coltsfoot leaves are not technically an autumn ingredient as they first appear earlier in the year, but they can still be found near rivers and other wet areas throughout September and October. It is a curious plant because the flower appears before the leathery leaves, which have almost ‘geometric’ edges to them. Coltsfoot leaves can be dried and used as a tea, or steeped in syrup (without boiling) to be taken as a tonic. It is an excellent remedy for chesty coughs, which is reflected in the plant’s Latin name, Tussilago farfara – Tussilago means ‘cough suppressant’.

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Elderberries. (Click on image to enlarge)

Another ingredient that is far easier to recognise are elderberries. They are high in vitamin C and can be collected, gently cooked in a sugar syrup, strained and bottled as a tonic. Alternatively, combine with jam sugar or pectin and make elderberry lozenges. Don’t over-consume them though, as they can have a laxative effect.

Tonics should be kept in the fridge, while lozenges can be left on parchment paper or lightly dusted with icing sugar and stored in an airtight container. Elderberries don’t agree with everyone, so be mindful of this if you intend to eat them. Indeed, this is sound advice that applies to all wild ingredients.

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Plantain leaves. (Click on image to enlarge)

A third natural ingredient can be used to help treat painful wasp stings. With so many sluggish wasps around at the moment, the odds of getting stung are heightened. If this happens, chew up a plantain leaf and place it on the site – it will help to reduce the sting.

Soft fruits and sweet treats

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Blackberry. (Click on image to enlarge)

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Hawthorn. (Click on image to enlarge)

Edible fruits are truly one of the joys of foraging in autumn. Blackberries (and their two tasty hedgerow relatives dewberries and raspberries), rosehips, hawthorns, elderberries, plums, crab and feral apples are all useful to the forager. An obvious use is to make jam, using the rough rule of 1lb (454g) of fruit to 1lb of jam sugar.

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Fruit leather. (Click on image to enlarge)

However, soft fruits (plums are ideal) also lend themselves to a slightly more unusual treat called fruit leather. This is essentially cooked and strained fruit juice and sugar, mixed together. It is then poured out thinly and allowed to dry to form a flexible, slightly chewy fruit sheet that lasts for ages.

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Foragers' fruit chocolate

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The fruit jelly filling. This example contains foraged raspberries, blackberries, crab apples, elderberries and a few pectin-rich haws, the fruit of the hawthorn tree.

You can also make a fantastic foragers’ fruit chocolate. Make a stiff fruit jam and allow this to set into jelly (a bit like thick, moist fruit leather). Chop this jelly into squares – you may find an hour in the freezer helps – and then try dipping into melted dark chocolate on the end of a cocktail stick. Set aside on baking parchment to dry.

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Jelly ear. (Click on image to enlarge)

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Chocolate-dipped jelly ear

Whilst on the subject of chocolate, there is an easily recognisable fungus that can be used to make an even more unusual treat. Known as jelly ear, it usually grows on elder trees and indeed looks particularly ear-like. Collect some and leave them to dry on kitchen paper for a few days. Soak in a flavoursome beverage and then cover in dark chocolate, using the same method as foragers' fruit chocolate. The result is a bit chewy, but the neutral taste of the jelly ear fungus means this idea works very well indeed.

CAUTION: Forage at your own risk. Do not consume any wild fruit, plant or fungus unless you can be sure of a 100% positive identification. The Scout Association is not liable for any illness, disease or death caused by wild foraging.

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