Autumn Foraging in a Mast Year

hawthorn processing

hawthorn processing

It’s a great year for Autumn foraging! In the woodlands of Sussex and many other parts of Britain, we are experiencing a mast year.  Mast years are those years when trees produce fruits or nuts in great abundance.  Mast years are probably caused by a complex combination of natural periodicity, climate and weather conditions.  For foragers, both human and animal, they are a rewarding time and provide an opportunity to store up for lean times ahead.

Last weekend in Sussex we saw large numbers of chestnuts, acorns, hawthorn and crab apples as well as edible fungi. Fungi-wise, in a single  meal we mixed slender puffball, penny bun, shaggy ink cap, beefsteak fungus and parasol mushroom – delicious!

Amethyst Deceiver

Amethyst Deceiver

basket of chestnuts

basket of chestnuts

Nuts and fruits also made a tasty and nutritious addition to our evening meal of spit-roasted rabbit.

Sweet chestnuts, (not to be confused with the toxic Horse Chestnuts aka conkers) taste best when roasted by the fire.  They are also quite good eaten raw, once dried out properly.  Sweet chestnut is a great timber tree, often grown for fence posts and shingle tiles for roofs.  Although naturalised throughout the UK, it was originally brought to us by the Romans.

Acorns are another plentiful resource this season. I really enjoy this time of year when acorns are constantly dropping around us.  It’s good luck if one lands on your head! Actually most people don’t realise that acorns can be eaten if treated to remove the toxic tannins. These are bitter compounds that can be removed by repeated boiling until their water no longer goes a red brown colour.  Each time you have to change the discoloured water. The other, more passive way to remove tannins is to soak them in a stream for several days. The processing is worthwhile as, nutritionally, an acorn is about 50:50 starch and fat.

acorns being boiled

acorns being boiled

Talking of acorns, last weekend we made a good brew of acorn coffee.  This was done with two, 20 minute boils, changing and dis-guarding the water each time. The shells tend to split during the boiling process and are easy to remove.  Once shelled the kernels are rinsed, drained and roasted next to the fire in a metal pot. We were careful to keep stirring them so that most of the nuts went a coffee brown colour, but did not char too much.  The roasted nuts were crushed in a mess tin using the flat head of my axe.  They were then ready for spooning into a cup of hot water rather like conventional coffee. It’s a reasonable substitute for De-caf coffee and a real taste of the British woods in Autumn!

There were also fruits to be found – we came across elderberries, bird cherries, hawthorn berries, sloes and crab apples.

Shelling acorns

Shelling acorns

On other occasions we have processed the pithy, slightly sweet, hawthorn berries into a puree, removing the large pips (containing toxins). The puree sets cold into a jelly and can be sliced and dried into fruit leathers.  It is remarkable how this process both preserves the fruit and also intensifies the sweetness.

As for the crab apples, we chopped them up fine and added them to a flat bread – a great lemony taste. We also chopped and boiled crab apples into a fruit sauce to add to our trout.  It’s a tough life surviving in the woods!

acorncoffee

drinking acorn coffee!

acorn granules

acorn granules

Leave a Response