The A to Z of foraging

The A to Z of foraging
Fed up of paying a premium for supermarket berries and herbs? Take a walk on the wild side and pick your own

Foraging – a word that evokes images of wild boars scouring for truffles and dawn raids on your local woodland’s wild mushroom supply – is set to become a major food trend in 2012, according to a recent study by food and drink tasting company My Secret Kitchen. Fresh, wild food is an attractive option for those strapped for cash or who simply want to avoid supermarket produce and eat more naturally. ‘During the recession, more people have been buying British produce and cooking homemade dishes so the natural next step was foraging,’ says Phil Moran of My Secret Kitchen. ‘It’s all about people wanting to go back to their roots and to feel more in control psychologically.’

Fortunately though, raiding Mother Nature’s buffet of goodies doesn’t require burying your face into the forest floor wild-hog-style. With plenty of organised courses and books now on offer, it’s easy to get to grips with this back-to-basics activity, which can slash your food miles and do away with plastic packaging all in one go. Here’s our A-Z guide to get you started:

A is for apples
Wild apple trees grow in uncultivated ground and are often the remains of abandoned orchards, or the result of animals or birds eating the seeds and then depositing them onto other land through their droppings. Start your search in late summer, when most apple varieties ripen. Windfalls are the easiest to get hold of but watch out for bugs that might have got there ahead of you.

B is for bramble
A traditional countryside pastime, ‘brambling’ or picking for blackberries can be done between the end of July and the start of November in the UK. The berries are renowned for their high levels of vitamins and are considered to be a superfood by nutritionists.

C is for Cat’s Tail
Better known to most of us as a bullrush, this well-known water plant is not just any old weed.  ‘Most people don’t realise how useful the Cat’s Tail is for survival and culinary purposes,’ says wild plant expert Marcus Harrison, who runs Wild Food School foraging courses. Peeled stems and roots are particularly good to eat, while the boiled and mashed rhizomes can be used to treat cuts and scrapes. Be careful about where you pick them though: bullrush absorbs pollutants so make sure the river you’re foraging in is clean.

D is for dandelion
These tenacious bright yellow plants are bursting with vitamins and minerals. Every bit of the plant is edible and, in traditional medicine, dandelions have been used to treat liver and kidney problems as well as digestive disorders.

E is for elderberry
Elderberries are a familiar late summer sight in British hedgerows. They're easy to spot, with their distinctive purple-black fruit hanging from the heavily laden branches. For centuries, they have been used to make wine and syrups.

F is for foraying
An alternative form of foraging, ‘foraying’ involves simply observing the wild flora and fungi rather than picking and consuming them, which can be damaging to the woodland ecosystem if done to excess. ‘Some organised foraging parties literally strip the woodlands of anything edible. This can seriously affect the ecology of the area,’ says Michael Jordan from The Association of British Fungus Groups.

G is for Good King Henry
The leaves of this perennial plant can be cooked along the same lines as spinach or eaten raw in salads. Also known as ‘poor man’s asparagus’, the young shoots can be tied together in bundles, cooked and eaten.

H is for hops
Hops are a perennial climbing vine native to England and grow wild in many parts of the world. The female flowers are used as a culinary flavouring and stabiliser, especially in the brewing of beer.

I is for identification
‘The general rule of thumb is: if you don’t recognise it, walk away. It is very foolhardy to put something in your mouth if you can’t identify it,’ says Harrison. Professional forager Fergus Drennan, who runs a series of ‘Foraging the Wild’ courses, agrees: ‘These days there are countless courses and books on offer, some better than others. Ask around before investing in any of them.’

J is for Jack in the Bush
This common hedgerow plant has tasty leaves full of vitamin C that make an excellent addition to any salad. When crushed the leaves have a garlic-like odour and have antiseptic properties.

K is for kelp
Seaweeds are incredibly nutritious and kelp, a form of seaweed from the Laminaria family, is an especially good source of sodium, iodine and antioxidants.

L is for three-cornered leek
This white-flowered plant has a sharply three-angled stem, thus leading to its name. Many parts of the plant are edible and taste similar to garlic or onion.

M is for mushrooms
Wild mushrooms are a treat for the tastebuds but whatever you do don’t put anything in your mouth without consulting an expert. With around 16,500 species of fungi in the UK, edible mushrooms can easily be confused with highly toxic varieties. One such fatal fungus is the Cortinarius, which famously poisoned author and journalist Nicolas Evans and his family after they mistook them for chanterelles. ‘As there are so many lookalikes in the fungus family, we recommend people don’t pick wild mushrooms unless they have a very thorough knowledge,’ says Jordan.

N is for nettle
Contrary to popular belief, nettle is not only used as an ingredient in soup and tea. ‘Nettle can be used to substitute spinach in any dish – I’ve even been trying it as the main ingredient in the Indian side dish sagalau,’ says Harrison. But while they may be good for the tummy, they’re certainly not kind on the skin, so cover up to avoid a nasty sting.

O is for oyster
Gathering seafood such as oysters, mussels, molluscs, clams, winkles and whelks from the seashore is legal and sustainable (as long as it is for your own consumption and done on a small-scale). A good place to catch your own array of marine delicacies is along the west coast of Wales. NOTE: Be aware that shellfish can be the source of bacteria which can be harmful to humans - consult on the appropriate handling / treating procedures if in doubt.

P is for pesticides and herbicides
Watch out for agricultural land or urban parks that may have been recently sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, as this makes any plants or berries in the area unfit for consumption. ‘You need to develop the discipline of enquiring whether the area you’re picking food from is safe,’ says Harrison.

Q is for quince
Quince was commonly grown in Britain in the 16th to 18th centuries, when it was often used for making marmalade. ‘Many people have dwarf quince growing in their garden without even realising it,’ says Drennan.

R is for roadkill
The idea of consuming dead badgers from the roadside may not be for everyone, but for foragers, back-to-nature lifestylers and those with budgetary constraints, eating roadkill can be a great source of nourishment. It certainly stops good meat from going to waste.

S is for survival
‘You get people from all walks of life interested in foraging, most of whom are outdoors enthusiasts or foodies. But there are a small number of survival professionals who learn about bushcraft and foraging out of need rather than gratification,’ says Harrison.

T is for tolerance test
It is advised to test any foraged food that’s new to your diet by chewing and spitting it out in case of allergies or irritants. ‘If you have any allergies or a serious medical condition, it may be wise to steer clear of wild plants, as many contain diuretic components and could also amplify the dosage of any medication you’re on,’ says Harrison.

U is for urban foraging
While foraging is often seen as an exclusively countryside pursuit, it’s actually also possible to gather free fruits, vegetables and other ‘wild food’ around the city – yes, even in London.

V is for vitamins
If you think spinach is good for you, many wild plants have considerably more vitamins and nutrients than those found in the supermarket. ‘Generally people think of spinach as a benchmark for nutrient-rich foods but wild plants usually contain much more goodness comparatively,’ says Harrison.

W is for wild cherries
‘Cherries are a very English fruit and, since the recession, people have been focusing more and more on fresh, British produce,’ says Moran. Find them in local woodland or around the edges of fields.

Y is for ‘you-time’
‘The pleasure of collecting wild food, laughter with friends, the meditative gentleness of mind and body and a sense of being alive are all engendered by foraging,’ says Drennan.

Z is for zest
For those with a zest for food, foraging offers a plethora of tasty treats. ‘Wild foods are rich in flavour, nutrients and other important bio-active compounds and are free of pesticides when carefully sourced,’ says Drennan.


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