Nature's Larder: Best Foraging Spots in Cumbria

23/10/18
By Beth Pipe

Before I get into this, can I start by saying that you must not pick and eat anything at all unless you are completely confident that you know what it is. There are lots of nasty things out there, so I’m going to stick to the simple stuff like berries and sloes, but please don’t take my word for it and if you are even a tiny bit unsure, leave it alone.

Right, with that said I want to tell you about my favourite foraging spots around Cumbria; well, maybe not all of them, after all if you get all my goodies then what would be left for me? One of the best bits about autumnal hikes (apart from the log fire and hot chocolate at the end) is the chance to raid nature’s larder; I am a big fan of free food and an even bigger fan of sloe gin – so where are all the best spots?

Brambles

Brambles.jpgLet’s start with the easy stuff: you can find brambles along pretty much every walk you do, and from August through into September they make a tasty snack as you potter along. I was once given a great piece of advice about picking brambles – if you’re going to eat them straight away, be sure to pick them from a height higher than a Great Dane could pee. Wise words!

Once you have them, then what? Well, as well as popping them into pies, they also make excellent liqueurs, and bramble gin or vodka is nice and easy to make. Liqueurs are basically spirit, sugar and fruit, plus any additional flavours you might enjoy. You can find a basic recipe here but you can tinker according to your tastes – personally I prefer to add less sugar, but you might have a sweeter tooth. Either way, experimenting is part of the fun!

Sloes

Sloes.jpgHere it is – my top sloe-hunting spot. I discovered it on a lovely long hike up and around High Cup Nick, which I would definitely recommend. The sloes are along the lane leading back from Keisley towards Dufton; the last time I was there they were the size of cherries, and I came home with 6KG in my rucksack. Traditionally you’re supposed to wait until after the first frost to pick sloes, but these days they seem to ripen earlier. Sloes are quite a tough berry, so you’ll need to either prick each one individually or pop them into the freezer for at least 24 hours before you try to use them to make sloe gin, otherwise the juices won’t come out. Top tip – look for the blossom during spring walks to identify the best places to raid in the autumn.

Junipers

Juniper 1.jpgWhile we’re on the subject of gin, let’s talk juniper. As well as being an essential ingredient when making London Dry Gin, juniper berries make a tasty addition to lamb or venison dishes, and the bushes also have significant ecological importance. “Juniper Central” is Scout Scar near to Kendal – a beautiful walk which punches well above its weight when it comes to stunning views, and is just a short stroll from the town centre.

Juniper berries take two years to ripen, so you’ll always find green berries on the same bush as ripened berries. They’re fairly easy to identify too – if you squish one and it smells like gin, then it’s probably juniper. Only ever use a few though, as they have an effect on the blood (there’s a nice recipe here). Ecologically, juniper acts as a nursery for saplings which grow in amongst its branches and are therefore protected from marauding sheep, and Cumbria Wildlife Trust have been involved in an extensive replanting of upland juniper on the high fells.

Damsons

Damsons.jpgCumbria is known for its damsons, and in a good year the local trees are laden down with them.  (Please only pick damsons from pubic trees and don’t go stealing them from anyone’s garden!) Although they grow in many places, the best place to head is the Lyth Valley in the south of the county, where the roadside trees are hung heavy with fruit and the local orchards have roadside stalls crammed with fruit, jams and pickles. Each year in April, they still celebrate Damson Day in a tradition that stretches back many years, and the Victorians used to enjoy charabanc tours around the valley to admire the trees festooned with blossom. If you can make it to Cumbria, look out for Cowmire Hall Damson Gin, which was specifically started to support local orchards and supplies the own label Damson Gin to Fortnum and Mason.

Elderberries & Flowers

Sloe Blooms (2).jpgLike brambles, elderberries and flowers can be found right across the county, so it’s worth taking a spare tub with you in spring (when the flowers are out) and in autumn (when the berries are out). Elderflower cordial is very easy to make – just make sure you wash the flowers properly first – and it’s a lot cheaper than buying it readymade in the supermarkets. There’s a nice recipe here. Elderflower “champagne” is also popular and easy to make, though I must confess I’ve never tried it. Elderberries, like most other fruits, can be used for a myriad of things from cordials and wines to jams and chutneys.

As well as all the things mentioned above, you can find a myriad of other treats in Cumbria, including wild garlic in spring, wild strawberries in summer and rosehips along all the country lanes during the autumn. There is nothing quite as delicious as freshly picked fruit but, as I mentioned at the start, please only eat it if you are 100% sure you know what it is.





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