A Beginners Guide to Food Foraging
Rachel Lambert has been introducing foraging to groups and individuals for almost 15 years. She is an award-winning author on wild food and cooking and runs Wild Walks South West.
What is foraging and its relevance today?
Foraging is the simple act of finding and gathering wild and naturalised foods. Our foraging ancestors would have had command of a range of skills to gather and feed their communities in this way. I imagine them walking with awareness through diverse landscapes of gigantic trees, across soft grasses scattered with flowers and through waters swirling with life and flipping tails.
Here in the UK wild food was all our food up until a few thousand years ago when humans started to settle in areas and cultivate plants. Across the world dwindling numbers of indigenous peoples continue this ancient practice. Living in their native regions, gathering and crafting essential wild, native foods and sometimes non-native plants that have naturalised in the area.
Collecting wild edible plants was second nature, part of being human, surviving and thriving. Our senses would have been attuned to the; subtle colour change of young, green foliage, the touch of glistening sun-ripe berries, the bitter taste of toxic plants and knowing how to transform them into nourishing foods. Such a sensitive connection to nature is rare in today’s modern world with repercussions to our mental, physical, environmental and spiritual health.
In the 21st century, modern world, foraging is rarely necessary, and yet the simple act of picking our own food in a natural environment touches something deep inside many of us. Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure, getting something for ‘free’ or the fact that this is what our human bodies were originally built for. Whatever the reason, it feels really good.
Whether you are looking to supplement bought foods with foraged edibles, reduce shopping bills or simply engage in an uplifting lifestyle activity. Wild foods offer some fantastic flavours, some wonderful nutrition for the body as well as an enlightening way to experience nature.
How to begin foraging?
Foraging for common and easily identifiable wild foods is the best place to begin. Do you know blackberries and stinging nettles? These two ‘weeds’ are wonderful, edible wild plants and, yes, they are also abundantly growing super-foods. Stinging nettles are a fabulous spring green (the sting disappears completely when they’re cooked) full of iron, vitamin C and a range of vitamins and minerals. Just pick (with thick gloves and scissors) the top four to six leaves and use in recipes to replace cooked spinach, though cook for a few minutes longer to tenderise.
As the end of summer appears and autumn unfolds blackberries are a juicy, bulbous fruit bursting with vitamin C, fibre and even omega 3 and 6 oils in those tiny seeds. Perfect rinsed and scattered over desserts, cereal or porridge. You can also simmer the fruits, strain off the juice, and heat with honey or dark sugar to make a rich, flavourful syrup.
Here in Britain, not everyone knows these two simple plants anymore, so finding a reputable foraging guide through an organisation such as The Association of Foragers is a good start and can also extend your foraging knowledge. I kicked off my foraging journey with buying or borrowing books on local plants, British wild flowers and wild foods as well as going on walks with different plant and foraging experts. Remember to choose professional, expert sources.
Where can you forage foods?
Starting locally can feel incredible rewarding and eye-opening. What’s growing in your garden, in the local park, nearby footpath or alley? How about on the moors, beach, fields or hedgerows nearby? Each of these environments can present a different range of wild edible plants and you’ll be amazed how much around you is food!
Getting permission from the landowner – another reason why starting in your own garden is the easiest – to pick wild foods is a useful, friendly and sometimes a legal requirement for foraging. It is illegal to dig up any wild plant without the permission from the landowner and some rare plants are also protected by law. Wild plants that are not listed as rare, including fruit, flowers, foliage and fungi can be picked without committing an offence, unless done with the intention of selling or for other reward. You may also want to familiarise yourself with the following documents as land rights is a little complicated here in the UK!
Tips for foraging safely
There is one golden rule with foraging; if you’re not 100% sure what it is, don’t pick it. You may think that a plant looks edible or tasty, though unless you’re sure, it’s not worth the risk. Some plants have the ability to harm, from causing burns, upsets stomachs and even death.
Where you forage is also key. Are there any nearby sources of pollution? These could be run-off from nearby farms, vehicle fumes, sewage outlets, water pollution or pesticides. Are you walking and foraging alone or with company? Does anyone know where you’ve gone if the weather changes or you get lost? Do you have suitable footwear on and layers of clothing in case our great British weather presents five-seasons-in-one-day?!
Food Foraging sustainably - the importance of not taking too much
Starting with abundant plants is the perfect scenario for foraging. Many plants thrive with being cut and harvested, though as our wild spaces decrease there are some additional considerations too.
Cutting the top leaves of stinging nettles, for example, often stimulates the plant’s growth and two new sets of leaf tops grow. However leaving enough nettles untouched so that they flower is also important for many insects, including butterflies, ladybirds and bees.
Flowers and seeds are also an essential part of a plant’s reproduction, therefore never pick more than 10% of these parts and never more than 30% of other aerial parts. Remember to think about the bigger picture and respect wildlife.