Sebastian Oake on the art of foraging
PUBLISHED: 10:27 06 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:27 06 November 2015
Sebastian Oake learnt the art of foraging on the South Downs at his mother's knee. Here is his advice on what to gather, and what to do with it
It’s the time of year when nature’s larder is brimming with bounty. And we’re not just talking blackberries and hazelnuts – the countryside has much more to offer besides those old favourites.
There are elderberries, rowan berries, haws, rosehips and sloes to pick from the hedgerows; sweet chestnuts, walnuts and perhaps acorns and beech nuts to seek out on the woodland floor; and the mysterious but rewarding world of wild mushrooms to discover.
Actually there’s food to be had for free for much of the year and it’s often good and nutritious with, obviously, absolutely no artificial additives. Spring brings a flush of edible leaves including wild garlic, hawthorn and even stinging nettles – yes, they make a great puree or soup. In summer elderflowers make a delicious cold drink while heather flowers can be turned into a herbal tea. And there are sweet wild raspberries, strawberries and bilberries well worth searching for. The more adventurous might also go hunting for seaweeds, true superfoods that can be used in a myriad of ways. And even at the opposite end of the year, when nature seems to have retreated, there are still winter greens like chickweed available.
Foraging is becoming more popular, driven both by a foodie revolution that is challenging us all to look for something different and the desire to reconnect with nature and relearn old skills.
For me, foraging started in my early school days and, unsurprisingly, revolved around blackberries and hazelnuts. I moved on to gathering elderflowers on the South Downs for my mother to make quite exquisite elderflower champagne and then started wondering what else I could eat. But my mother taught me to be cautious. She led me on a wild berry walk, pointing out those good to eat but especially highlighting those that are actually quite dangerous.
The first rule of foraging is to be sure of what you are picking. Elderberries make a far better pie or crumble than blackberries, once they are cooked and sweetened that is, but the enticing big dark berries of deadly nightshade, which just might be growing nearby, would put you in hospital. Many woodland fungi make a fine meal but some, such as the death cap and the destroying angel, are deadly poisonous.
The answer is to take a good identification guide with you and make sure any ingredients for a wild dinner tick absolutely all the boxes. It’s also a good idea to get expert tuition before you start to eat wild food. Many professional foragers run courses and the National Trust organises fungal forays.
And, when you are out, be choosey. Avoid collecting anything past its best or from places that might have been contaminated by pollution or farm chemicals.
There are other things to bear in mind. Although collecting wild plants in the wider countryside for your own personal use is generally lawful, doing so for commercial gain is not. If you plan to sell your produce, you should seek permission from whoever owns the land. Also, it is an offence under wildlife law to uproot any wild plant without permission and a number of rare plants have complete protection. Foraging is also usually forbidden on nature reserves and land designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, while local by-laws might prohibit it at other places. The National Trust, however, is generally happy for people to forage for nuts, berries and plant leaves on its land, so long as it’s just for themselves and not for commercial purposes.
Finally and not least, remember that what you are collecting might be vital food for all sorts of wildlife, large and small, so pick a little, leave plenty and move on quickly.
That said, it’s time to look out your boots – and probably a raincoat too – and head out into the countryside in search of a free meal. Particularly satisfying is harvesting edible berries and turning them into jellies that can be used as accompaniments to meats and cheeses. They will send your taste buds to heaven and confound dinner party guests with your ingenuity. And there’s no better place to start than sloe jelly.
Food for Free by Richard Mabey is a source of inspiration for a forager but good identification guides are essential too. For fungi, Mushrooms by Roger Phillips is recommended. Finally, if you don’t like the idea of foraging for wild fungi yourself but still want to enjoy them, you can buy dried wild mushrooms online from Rye-based company Wild About Mushrooms (visit www.wildaboutmushrooms.co.uk).
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