Not so long ago, foraging for roots, berries, seeds and funghi would have been considered a rather eccentric pursuit – but these days it’s all the rage among sections of foodie society.
Matthew Oates, a foraging specialist at the National Trust, puts the soaring popularity of exploring forests and coastlines for wild food down to three factors.
First, the media attention. Foraging has been championed by a host of celebrity chefs, led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, while numerous books have been published on the subject, such as The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving, founder of Forager Ltd.
Second, there has been an influx of people into the UK from Eastern Europe, in particular Poland, who have a culture of foraging for funghi, Mr Oates suggests.
And lastly, foraging is somehow in the zeitgeist, as people grow to appreciate nature more and aspire to “wild” food as a lifestyle choice, he says.
Wild foods: where to find and how to cook them
Wild foods: where to find and how to cook them
1/10 Wild garlic
Look out for a lush green carpet of foliage in woodland and a garlicky smell. This can be harvested all year round, but the best time is from July to December when the bulbs are dormant. You can use this in the same way as normal garlic – in stews, stir-fries, or rubbed into roasted meat.
2/10 Wood sorrel
Wood sorrel, which is often mistaken for clover, grows in shady woodlands. Its leaves and stems have a lemony flavour, making them ideal for salads or as a garnish in sandwiches. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, blend the leaves with honey for a refreshing iced tea.
This scourge of gardeners is a gift to foragers. Dig out the roots, clean them, then grind and roast to make dandelion coffee. This is a caffeine free alternative that bears a resemblance to normal coffee in appearance and taste.
The fruit of the rose plant has been used by children for generations to make an itching powder, which is extracted from the fine hairs inside the hip. Don’t let that put you off though – you can blend dried berries with hibiscus to make a delicious herbal tea.
The smell of roasted chestnuts is synonymous with Christmas, but there is no need to go to the supermarket to get yours this year. The nuts are inside the prickly outer layer, and usually drop to the ground underneath the tree. Collect them now, and have them in storage ready for the festive season.
This evergreen shrub grows in all kinds of habitats, from windswept moors and coastal paths to urban commons and building sites. As each gorse variety flowers at a different time of the year, you can generally pick the vivid yellow blooms all year round. They can be added raw to salads, or used to make fruit tea.
Though sometimes known as the “Mountain Ash”, this deciduous tree grows in all sorts of places, such as parks, waste grounds and hedgerows. Rowan berries are very bitter, but can be used to make jelly, which goes especially well with game.
8/10 Hawthorn berries
These red fruits are surprisingly versatile in the kitchen, and can be used to make jellies, jams and even an alcoholic Schnapps! Just make sure you do not eat the seeds, as they contain cyanide.
9/10 Crab apple
This early relative of the commercial apple is perfect for making jams and jellies as it is fulll of pectin, a setting agent. Combine crab apples with a low pectin fruit such as rose hips or rowan berries.
You will find this hardy herb sprawled across forest floors all year round. To harvest, cut off the new growth at the top of the plant. It is highly nutritious, and has a mild flavour suitable for sandwiches, soups and salads.
By and large, foraging does not harm the environment, conservationists say. But there are causes for concern when – as alleged by Natural England, in the case of sea kale collection in the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay area – the act of foraging damages the surroundings.
Conservationists are also concerned when the level of foraging becomes too high – a danger if a species is being harvested on a commercial scale, or if a particularly popular food is picked in huge numbers for domestic purposes.
In July, leading funghi specialist Sara Cadbury warned that the New Forest is being stripped of mushrooms as celebrity chefs encourage people to “pick anything they can eat”. She called for the park to impose a ban on all mushroom picking in line with a similar one imposed in Epping Forest.
“Fungus is a central part of the web of life – nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates,” she said at the time.
Although conservationists are more focused on land-based foraging, coastal food collection is becoming increasingly widespread and beginning to generate concern.
Cockles, winkles, oysters, ragworm, shrimps and salicornia flowering plants are among the most popular coastal species to forage. And there are fears that the scale of foraging in general is becoming so large that the threat could grow from a handful of species in a few areas to much larger numbers of species in bigger areas.Reuse content