What is foraging? Simply put its collecting easily accessible wild foods. Predominantly, these include mushrooms, vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries. A word of warning however, for what would appear a completely safe pursuit, especially when comparing it to those that require high velocity rifles and very sharp knives, foraging can be lethal. There is a reason why certain mushrooms are called Deadly Webcap, Death Cap, Destroying Angel and Funeral Bell! So, with that in mind we strongly recommend you go to a well-established and well-respected foraging school for instruction before venturing out on your own and trusting your recognition skills to a photo in a book!
What to forage
There are many wild foods to forage for here in the UK. There are many varieties of green leaf vegetables from beet greens to kale. These wild varieties, like all wild food, are pesticide and chemical free and by and large generally easily accessible once you know what you are looking for.
Fruits and berries are widespread. Crab apples, cherries, plums, blackberries, sloes, damson, elderberry, rosehip, hawthorn all offer a smorgasbord of tasty treats or the main ingredients for jams, jellies or flavoured gin! A big benefit of these fruits is that they are generally high in vitamin C, antioxidants and fibre.
Wild herbs are a plenty. The aroma of wild garlic is unmistakable, but stinging nettles also offer a free food source. Nettle tea seems to be quite popular these days. Other herbs to look out for include fennel, borage (apparently good as a hangover cure or aphrodisiac!), mint, dandelions, and ground elder.
Mushrooms are what springs to mind when people mention foraging. They are probably the most difficult food to safely collect. So many books exist to try and advise and inform on correct identification. That fact in itself gives you an idea of how dangerous it can be. There are however, many edible varieties in our rural regions that you just can’t help yourself want to go and forage for them. The more prevalent species include Horse Mushrooms, The Prince, Pavement Mushroom, Medusa Mushroom, Field Mushroom, The Princess, and the Grey Spotted Amanita to name just a few.
Let’s not forget the nuts! Our woodlands are home to a number of nut producing trees and you should be able to find sweet chestnuts, beech nuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts and walnuts. High in protein and other nutrients these are power packed snacks that shouldn’t be missed. They are expensive in the supermarket so why not go and find your own.
Foraging isn’t restricted to inland areas however, there are plenty of edible foods on our shorelines that shouldn’t be missed. Seaweeds are an obvious choice, as are certain shellfish including winkles and mussels. Crabs, brown and spider, are often available from rock pools and shallow water.
There are also wild vegetables along our seashores such as Marsh Samphire, Sea Beet and Alexanders. Don’t leave these behind!
When to forage
As with all ecosystems, seasons determine when things grow, when things sleep, when things reproduce. We are therefore, guided by the seasons to determine when to forage. The good news is that due to the wide variety of wild food available we can pretty much forage all year round but it will be quarry dependent. A simple overview would suggest berries are sourced during the summer, herbs from spring through to autumn, winter fruits, nuts and mushrooms during the winter. However, there are year-round herbs and edible wild plants.
Where to forage
Finding out where to forage different foods is one thing, but then getting permission is another. Public areas which are naturally plentiful with wild foods are likely to have already attracted a number of foragers so competition might be strong. As with all things, the more off the beaten path you are prepared to search the greater the rewards will be. Knowing someone who knows someone who knows a landowner is a good opportunity to try and get permission to search their land. If you are polite, respectful and can convince them that you won’t cause any damage or have a negative impact on the wildlife and fauna you will likely be pleasantly surprised at the acceptance of your request. Do some research first to know what you expect to find and when its likely to be making an appearance. Whilst a good walk is never to be missed, it is nicer if you achieve your aim of bringing home some beautiful wild produce.
To assist you in your new endeavour there are course, online research resources and in the new age of apps there are …apps! Take a look and test a few out to see how useful they are. Just bear in mind some might need an internet connection to work and that might be something you have gone on your foraging expedition to avoid!
Whilst not strictly foraging, don’t forget your own garden. If you have a little bit of spare garden its easy to create a small vegetable plot. I use railway sleepers and box in some topsoil. I grow the easiest of all vegetables – potatoes, onions, and carrots. I’ll have a go at other vegetables but find these three reliable for getting a harvest. Occasionally I get some lettuce. I also have an old conservatory which I’ve turned into a makeshift greenhouse. It has been very successful at producing some coriander, peppers and chillies over the years without too much effort. I’m also fortunate to have mint a plenty growing in the garden planted by a previous occupant. The beauty of growing these vegetables at home is that at my annual summer wild game BBQ I can supply the salads, and other accompaniments without having to visit the supermarket meaning all the food provided that day is either completely wild or grown without any chemical support!
Once out and about foraging, take care not to disturb the habitat of the resident flora and fauna. You will be leaving the existing tracks to get to the food sources so take care. Also, remember that the food you are taking is also food for the local wildlife. Don’t take it all. Only take what you need. It goes without saying that you bring back with you everything that you took out. Don’t litter!
Foraging is a growing pursuit throughout the UK. There are many small businesses and organisations offering instruction on how to be successful. Equally, larger organisations such as the Woodland Trust are supportive of your foraging efforts within the UKs woodlands and offer some great advice on when, where and what to forage for. Simply getting out into the countryside and exercising in the country fresh air is reason enough to go foraging. The fact that you can bring home healthy, chemical free wild food of a wide variety (some being classed as super foods!) is an added benefit. Do please get some instruction though, but if you decide to venture forth with your basket and a book then remember the old saying “if in doubt, there is no doubt”!