I magine a world in which you could escape from the office, pick your dinner from the hedgerows, wander along the beach finding beautiful and unexpected objects and generally live a little more sustainably. If this sounds like an impossible fantasy, we’ve got news for you.
Incorporating a little foraging into your life doesn’t mean you have to give up your job, live in a yurt and eat entirely off the land. As Anna Colquhoun, culinary anthropologist, cooking teacher and food writer, says: “We’re not hunter-gatherers. The reasons to forage are that it’s fun, it’s outdoors, you often do it with other people and it reminds you of a connection with nature.”
You can forage within seconds of your back garden and get great flavours
Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods used to work in the corporate sector and understands the pressures of professional life, yet still believes foraging is possible for everyone.
“We’re all under huge amounts of pressure and work doesn’t finish at five o’clock,” she says, “but you can still forage within seconds of your back garden and get amazing flavours. The reality is that you’re not going to be able to spend a huge amount of time cooking, but what you might have time to do is, on a Monday, take some leftover chicken from your Sunday lunch and put it into some water with herbs that you’ve gathered in literally five minutes outside, and you’ve got an amazing, herby, spring chicken broth. It connects you with the outside environment, which many of us hanker for.”
Spring is just about the best time to start foraging, as easily-identifiable plants grow in abundance. A walk in the country is likely to reveal nettles (not just good for traditional soup, but in any cooked recipe as a substitute for spinach), cleavers (also known as goose grass or sticky willy) which can be juiced or cooked as a green vegetable, dandelions (which make a surprisingly tasty salad leaf), wild garlic (superb in pesto or garlic butter) and wild mint.
By May or June you’ll find elderflowers – easily turned into cordial – and later in the year you can look out for berries and fruits – blackberries, wild raspberries, elderberries (which make lovely syrup and jelly), plums, damsons and sloes.
What, though, if you live in a city and don’t have country lanes or a garden at your disposal? According to Christopher Robbins, nutritionist, medical herbalist and forager who teaches courses on the subject, urban environments have huge foraging potential. Although he cautions against eating plants at ground level, there is plenty of wild food higher off the ground.
“You often get crab apples and wild pears on trees on the edges of parks because of the old houses there. You can knock on the door and ask if you can pick them; people will often let you.”
Townies can also find berries and fruit, often growing plentifully and ignored by most passers-by.
Anyone living near the coast should look out for samphire (wildly expensive in the supermarket) and seaweed, rich in iodine, iron and protein, and unexpectedly delicious. “I thought seaweed would be a Marmite thing,” says Fiona Houston, co-author of Seaweed and Eat It and self-styled “SeaEO” of Mara Seaweed, “but everyone who is prepared to try it tends to like it.”
Foragers often advocate wild food for its health benefits, but according to Robbins these should not be overstated: “I cringe when I hear people claim things are superfoods.”
Robbins does acknowledge, though, that wild plants may have a higher concentration of nutrients than their cultivated cousins. “Because we’re not giving them vigour from fertilisers and heat, they are not pumped up with water and the same weight contains a higher proportion of vitamins and minerals.”
Whatever your reasons for foraging, there are a few basic rules. Most importantly, only eat what you can identify (this is especially important if picking mushrooms). A foraging course or guided walk can be a good start, and there are plenty of books to help you with identification.
If you’re foraging on private land, it is wise to seek the permission of the landowner, and no matter where you are, pick only what you need and don’t strip a tree or patch of land of all its produce. If abused, foraging can be actively harmful to the environment – Colquhoun points to woodland in Sussex, popular among foragers, where mushrooms and other species are being wiped out – so forage with care.
Of course, foraging isn’t just about food; combing beaches and fields for hidden artefacts is hugely popular. Karen Miller started beachcombing seriously when she discovered that her driftwood Christmas trees and hearts were proving a hit with customers at a shop where she worked. Now she has her own business selling driftwood furniture and gifts and sources much of her driftwood from overseas.
Beachcombing was, for her, about much more than just sourcing the materials, though. “It was peaceful and very rewarding; it never became a chore,” she says. “You would meet and see people just doing their thing; it was great.”
Beachcombers look for more than driftwood, depending on the area of the country. Pieces of amber and jet can be found on parts of the eastern coast of England, and fragments of ruby in Ruby Bay in Scotland. Fossils are quite common finds, as well as seashells, pottery shards, sea glass and the occasional historic artefact. If you’re prepared to go overseas, you might find anything from fishing floats to petrified lightning.
Treasure-hunting isn’t confined to coastal areas. City riversides can be a rich source of artefacts, as mudlarkers will tell you. The word, explains Nicola White, PA in an investment bank who has been mudlarking for 15 years, derives from the Victorian children who used to search for discarded objects to sell for a few pennies.
As the Thames is tidal, new finds are deposited each day, and the anaerobic nature of the mud means that they are usually perfectly preserved.
The appeal isn’t hard to see. “What I particularly love,” explains White, “is the secret history of the objects that I find. These objects are evocative of past lives, mysteries and stories that we will never know about – a small link between the past and the present.”
White’s finds have included part of a human skeleton dating from the 1600s, Victorian toys, pendants, coins and messages in bottles.
As with food foraging, beachcombers and mudlarks should respect their environment. In London a licence from the Port of London Authority is needed to disturb the surface of the foreshore, and historic finds must be reported to the Museum of London. For safety reasons, White advises a novice mudlark to join a group such as Thames and Field (thamesandfield.com) as the combination of mud and tide can make the riverside hazardous.
Whether it’s pulling a handful of herbs to throw into your supper or an afternoon looking for shells on a beach, what excites all foragers is the thrill of finding something unexpected. As Houston explains: “It’s an adventure. It’s about being experimental.” And it’s also a whole lot more fun than trailing around a supermarket.