One of the most enjoyable things about foraging is the way it compels a greater awareness of one's surroundings – the need to slow down, pause and look. I've been foraging for about 10 years and during that time I've managed to turn my home town into a kind of seasonal wild supermarket – I have 'aisles' for nettles, hop shots and three-cornered leek in spring, elderflowers and lime leaves in summer and walnuts, hawthorn berries and wild cherry plums in autumn. Come June, you'll find me gathering cherries in a quiet corner of the local park, assuming I've managed to get there before the birds.
What is foraging?
Foraging is the act of gathering wild food for free. Although it's gained far greater popularity in recent years, for our distant ancestors foraging would simply have been a way of life – a necessity in fact. As recently as World War 2, collecting wild rosehips to make syrup became an important way of supplementing vitamin C intake when the importation of fruits such as oranges was widely restricted.
Five things to forage
One of the easiest wild greens to identify, a pair of thick gloves in the foraging bag are a must when picking stinging nettles. Early spring is the best time to pick them: choose young, pale green nettle tops – after about late May/June onwards they'll be getting a bit tough and stringy. Never pick when they are in flower and handle with care until cooked – this will remove the sting.
A real lover of wet ground, you'll often find wild garlic (or ramsons as they are also known) carpeting the banks of streams and rivers. Pick young leaves from late March onwards, while the little white flowers that appear later in the season add a gentle garlic flourish to a spring salad.
If ever there was a flower to mark the move from spring to summer, it's elderflower. Find them from around late May to early July. The most common use is to make them into a cordial, but elderflower fritters are more than worth the effort if you're feeling a bit more adventurous. The elder tree yields a double crop, elderberries being a valuable addition to the autumn kitchen later in the year.
Many people can remember picking blackberries in their childhood. They're easy to identify and pretty abundant in the autumn months. I find that they freeze well and I always make sure to have a frozen stash at hand to last me through the winter.
There are plenty of wild nuts to be had during autumn, but the squirrels get most of the hazelnuts near me so sweet chestnuts are my go-to crop. Great for pestos and stuffings or simply scored, roasted and eaten on their own.
What to avoid
While the five foods that I've outlined are a relatively safe bet in terms of indentification, it goes without saying that you need to be 100% sure that what you're eating is definitely what you think it is. For instance, wild chervil is a delicious herb, but it also looks almost indentical to hemlock, a deadly plant that will dispatch you into the realm of 'rookie ex-forager' with an alarming degree of haste. Even if you're completely sure that you've got the right thing, it's standard practice to try a small amount first to rather than dive straight into a bowlful of what you've just found.
Where can I forage?
While foraging in public spaces and footpaths is perfectly legal, this isn't the case on private land without the permission of the owner, so do ask first. I actually do a fair bit of foraging in my own back garden. Wild seeds invariably find their way in and all manner of things start to appear if I'm a bit behind on my weeding duties.
Where not to forage
While I probably don't need to expand on this too much, when foraging along public footpaths, be wary of spots that could possibly be at 'dog lavatory height'. Also be mindful of areas that are near busy roads as the taste of exhaust fumes won't be a great addition to your wild supper. Finally, if you do find a special patch of an amazing wild food, pick with discretion – this isn't just about leaving some for other people. There's a good clump of jack-by-the-hedge near where I live, but I also know that it's the primary food source of the orange tip butterfly - I always make sure to leave plenty for the caterpillars too.
Photos by Stuart Ovenden
Useful foraging links…
Have you had any foraging experiences? We'd love to hear what you've found to eat while out and about...