Foraging in Bristol

(c) Amy Lewis

Late summer is rich with nuts and berries ripening on hedgerows and trees in the city as well as country. Gathering and eating wild food is a great experience. It helps you get up-close-and-personal with nature and deepens your connection through this timeless and practical activity.

However, please forage responsibly: only take what you plan to eat and leave plenty behind for wildlife. Only collect things you are sure you can identify and never eat anything if you are not. It is better to start with one thing which you get to know well. Study it in detail using a plant ID book or website with clear illustrations. Note for instance the shape of the leaves and learn to spot tiny differences between any plants which look similar. Bring wide, lidded containers with you to store fragile fruits and cover yourself to avoid scratches from brambles. Once home, rinse or soak berries in water. You can freeze berries and use them straight from the freezer.

Blackberries – blackberry syrup  

Blackberries are a good one to start with because they are recognisable. Growing on hedgerows or shrubs, many are within arm’s reach. Ripe blackberries will be shiny black and come away easily from the plant when you pluck them. They are high in vitamin C – one 100g serving is over a quarter of the recommended daily allowance.  They can eaten raw – although do wash berries which grow by busy roads and avoid picking ones that are pesticide-sprayed. Make syrup by using equal amounts of fruit and sugar; if using less sugar, bear in mind sugar acts as a preservative so the syrup won’t keep as long. Slowly heat sugar and berries, stirring regularly to stop the pan burning and until the fruit has virtually melted (about 15 mins). Turn off heat, mash then strain overnight through a fine-meshed sieve. Store the syrup in clean airtight jars. Eat the leftover berries with muesli or yogurt.

Elderberries – elderberry cordial

These small purplish-black berries hang in clusters from elder shrubs or trees which had bloomed in spring with tiny white flowers. Once you have picked the hanging berries, you can remove them from their stalks by stripping them with the prongs of a fork. Elderberries are a natural dye so wear protective clothing to avoid staining. Unlike blackberries, elderberries must be cooked before eating. The branches, bark and leaves of the elder tree should never be eaten. Make an immune-boosting cordial by covering with water and boiling for 15 minutes. Strain, and add lemon juice and 500g of sugar per litre of water. Boil again then cool before storing, and dilute for use.

Hazelnuts – nut butter

Find hazel trees in woodland areas, scrub land and hedgerows. Hazelnuts start to ripen as the leaves on hazel trees change to autumn colours. The nuts are ready as human food once they have turned from green to brown, and have dried out. So, wait until the nut’s papery cover has started to shrivel away. Alternatively pick the nuts when they are young and green, and let them mature in a warm dry place. Their hard shell must be removed before eating. Healthy protein-rich snacks, they can be chopped and added to salads. Hazelnuts can also be roasted for 15 minutes, their skins removed and blended for 5 – 10 minutes into a nut butter.

Poppy seeds – baked in a cake

The wild poppies have bloomed, their bright red-orange papery petals long gone. Now, at the head of the upright poppy stem is a hard globe containing seeds. As the pod dries out, thin vents appear between the globe and its head from which the seeds can escape. When you shake the poppy stem, the dried seeds make a rattling sound. Cut off the pod head, carefully keeping it upright so the seeds do not spill. Once home and dry, empty the seed head upside down into an old envelope to catch the tiny black seeds. If there are not yet vents, you may need to crack the brittle globe by hand. Poppy seeds can be used raw in salads or baked in bread or cakes (lemon drizzle and poppy seed cake anyone?).

Stockwood Open Space BS4 5LU, Coombe Brook Valley BS16 3LQ and Northern Slopes BS4 1DQ are good for berry and nut picking. They are three of the eight sites in My Wild City, a project connecting local people to eight Bristol green spaces. More about My Wild City and how to get involved: