“It was like pushing my way through to Narnia,” said Steve Woolnough of his secret find on Epping Forest’s western edge. Spotting a sunlit patch of grass, he’d crawled through undergrowth to find himself in a secluded bower of blackthorns. “These are trees that keep on giving,” he said. “I must have had 4kg of sloes just from these three or four.”
Those sloes, now being made into gin, wine, cordial and a wickedly tasty jelly at his home in Highams Park, east London, are just part of what has become an obsession and a lifesaver for Steve, 50, who was furloughed in May from his job at a sports and events company hit by Covid. Taking the family cockapoo, Billie, on long forays once his three children were back at school in September, he was struck by how heavy with inky blue-black fruit the forest’s many sloe trees were – thanks in part to 2020’s warm, dry spring.
Having had periods of depression and anxiety in the past, Steve was alert to signs of the illness returning, and also aware of natural ways to combat it: exercise, being outdoors, keeping busy. Sloes were his gateway drug, but a bit of research showed that the forest had much more to offer.
It was the very end of November when Steve, armed as he always is with a simple stick with a hook on the end, showed me round some of his favourite foraging grounds. He talked enthusiastically about plump, vitamin C-rich rosehips; haws, fruits of the hawthorn tree, which are also good for the cardiovascular system; and firethorn berries, which can be made into a semi-sweet wine like an orange-tinted rosé.
I presumed it was a bit late in the season for foraging, but I was wrong. A crab apple tree still had some yellow fruits – sweeter and larger late in the season. And when Steve led me to his private sloe grove – near where the weather-vaned gate of defunct Chingford football club protrudes from tangled greenery like some Angkorian temple – the trees were still laden. “Sloes have loads more flavour now: they are always better after the first frost,” he said.
A short walk away, a gnarled, ancient-looking hawthorn was covered in berries. Like most of us I’ve seen these hundreds of times but never bothered to taste one. It was surprisingly sweet and a bit mealy, like a ripe apple, and while you wouldn’t eat many in their natural state, Steve’s haw and apple jelly is delicious on toast. Another tip was to look out for midland hawthorns – found all over southern England – with fewer lobes on their leaves and bigger fruit.
Next, we came to some gorse bushes covered in yellow flowers. “The seeds and pods are poisonous, but the flowers are edible, Steve said. “Here, try – they’re sort of pineapple-y and smell of coconut.” While it’s not quite a piña colada, the petals would brighten a winter salad beautifully, and can also be made into fruit tea, cordial or syrup, or the buds pickled and eaten like capers. Spend time with foraging folk and gin will be always be mentioned sooner or later: sure enough, Isle of Harris Distillers in the Hebrides has just launched a wild gorse tincture for flavouring G&Ts.
We were too late for Steve’s other great find: on open ground within earshot of the A1009 was a paradise apple tree – bare of fruit by now, though the ground was covered in largish red windfalls. Sweet enough to eat raw, this is Malus pumila, the wild apple of legend, native to eastern Europe and used as rootstock for most cultivated apples. “You can see this from the road, but no one knows about it,” he said.
Not everyone, of course, has a former royal hunting forest on their doorstep, but that shouldn’t deter any forager. On a green amid residential streets Steve had spotted a “common pear” tree, again laden with fruit – smaller and harder than commercially grown pears, but with a great flavour. He pointed to his big rucksack: “I filled that three times.” The pears are now fermenting into perry at his home. And no, it will be nothing like Babycham.
Another gem of advice from Steve was that fruits grow in in-between places, where one thing is becoming another. They need to be where the sunlight gets in, so edges of woods, by fields, roads, golf courses or parks are good places to look.
One such liminal place was the banks of the River Lea between Walthamstow and Tottenham Marshes: as a child in the 1970s Steve gathered horseradish there with his dad, and he’d been recently with his own son, Louka, 9. The plant looks like a tall dock leaf, and has a tap root that seems to go down for ever, but it’s possible, he said, to dig up a six-inch length. (Top of Steve’s Christmas list this year is a fold-up shovel for just this purpose.) And while he felt self-conscious at first, grubbing about and gathering things in public places, he said he’s grown oblivious.
His shelf of goodies now included three big jars of pickled and creamed horseradish. The latter is great with roast beef dinners, but he said a cube or two of the raw root adds zing to any casserole.
The foraging habit has made Steve look on everything with a fresh pair of eyes. Sea buckthorn berries are a popular foraged ingredient – I’ll long remember a tart sea buckthorn stir-fry made by chef Mark Hartstone at restaurant-with rooms La Fosse in Dorset. As the name suggests, it grows wild in coastal areas of the UK, but Steve had spotted it in a few front gardens and said he was tempted to knock and ask to pick some. In the meantime he’s investigating making pesto from some of the forest’s millions of acorns (leached to remove the bitter tannins).
With wild fruits, Steve emphasised the importance of ensuring there would still be some to collect in coming seasons. While he used his hooked stick to catch high branches and bring their fruit within reach, he was careful never to break them. “That way mould can get in and kill the tree.”
Apart from protecting his mental health, Steve said, his outdoor passion had reached other parts too: his eyesight had been improved by spending long days gazing around the forest rather than staring at a screen. “Now I can spot a crop of hawthorn berries at 200 metres.”
This Christmas will be like none any of us can remember, but those who can connect with nature’s bounteous gifts – tangible and otherwise – may have a merrier time. Especially if, like Steve, they have quantities of homemade wine, gin and perry to toast the season with.
• Follow Steve on Instagram @furloughedforager