By Alan Smylie
Foraging for the beginner, from the beginning!
First and foremost, I have never considered myself an expert or author on any subject. With that said I've been asked to write a couple of articles on foraging, in the personal hope that it might map out a path of sorts for someone new to the interest.
I hope the following articles are of use, and inspire you to get out and have a look. A country hedgerow or river estuary is a great place to start observing things, taking notes or just watch the world go by.
Foraging, or hunter gathering as it was known until just a few hundred years ago, is in essence eating and more importantly, staying alive through nutrition and medicinal benefit by natural resources. Through progressive generations, slowly, mankind (and womankind!) worked out what was edible food wise, palatable, (although this has probably changed somewhat) and out and out fatal to humans. You have to take your bushcraft hat off to our predecessors, just imagine two Neanderthals sitting around a camp-fire, one holding a recently discovered morel mushroom. You can only imagine the conversation…
So, back to the present, Spring!
Why is foraging so important in our lives!? Well, for me anyway it’s a chance to discover new tastes and textures. To get a better understanding of my environment and to one day pass on knowledge to my children, in turn, as it has been since peoples walked the earth. Maybe even in a strange romantic/sentimental way step back a few hundred years. To our great grandparents, foraging was simply country living and no doubt a huge amount of information has been lost, or mislaid, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered again sometime soon.
I tend not to think of foraging as a means of survival in our very modern times (although it is a fundamental skill in bushcraft) as you would be really hard pressed even in this country to scrape an existence. Agriculture happened for a reason. Summer may be bountiful but pretty much all of it would have to be utilised to prepare for the lean and long winter months. I really think it’s about small snippets of taste throughout the seasons. A handful of sorrel in Thai style soup, chopped fresh hog-weed in an Asian dish, sea spinach in a venison casserole and on it goes. Simple or quite complex meals using a multitude of wild foods can be very rewarding. It installs a great feeling of self accomplishment within us being able to fend for ourselves a little bit more in a now very hectic, hustle and bustle lifestyle, with vast soulless ‘monolithic’ supermarkets and processed stringy cheese adverts bombarded to us on an hourly basis. I don’t watch telly much these days, thankfully.
A conversation that often comes up with my foraging friends is how there is definitely something very deeply rooted within us when it comes to collecting wild food, our ability to consistently recognise plants within a few weeks of discovering them and also our mistrust for the ‘new’. Even though it’s been identified 100% and eaten by others hundreds of times, my stomach still feels slightly nauseous on that first mouthful. Something within me is naturally being cautious, for good reason.
Safety. So on to the practical stuff.
It goes without saying, but I’m going to anyway, that we never eat something, even a small section of that ‘something’ without knowing exactly what is. There are thankfully only a fairly small amount of plants and mushrooms in the UK that will make you wish you were deceased, if not accomplish the task for you if eaten in even minuscule amounts. They will ether introduce you to your maker, or at least give you an experience you would never want to repeat. Please don’t let this put you off as there are some truly fantastic tastes out there. Just follow if you like the simple guide I do. Take your time, but first and foremost, do your homework!
Stick with one plant, fruit or mushroom, get to know as much as you can about it such as seasons, shape, flowers, similarities with others and any possible chemical side effects it may have. This could be as simple as high sodium plants such as sea asters are probably not best in large volumes for heart condition sufferers over time and generally odd looking things; not so good for the squeamish either. Pass around the pickled Jews ear mushrooms and see who's up for the challenge!
You will very quickly build up a sound database that will be very beneficial to your health. After you’ve confirmed the identity 100%, using more than one source, put a picture here on BCUK just to seal the deal. Confidence comes with time and repetition, there is no short cut!
If you are coastal foraging, please take on board a basic understanding of spring and neap tides and what they actually are, tide times, conditions and weather forecasts. Living on the upper Bristol Channel, amongst the highest tidal variances in the world, I can testify to how quickly water can catch you off guard and weather can change for the worse. The summer’s day walking on the sea flats can within 20 minutes change to the fog covered island that’s rapidly getting smaller and smaller. Not a good situation to be in!
Just think about where you are going, what’s in store and what to do if things don’t go to plan.
Legality. As usual both a simple and complex subject at the best of times. Common sense prevails!
You are legally entitled to collect, for non commercial gain, fruits, berries and plant matter from public paths or rights of way as long as you don’t uproot said plant (mushrooms need to be gathered with the whole stem for id purposes and the law is aware of this) without the landowners permission/consent. I have a friend who forages for a living on MOD land and is part funded by the European union, so anything is possible if you go about it the right way. If you wish to do it for a living or off the beaten path, you need written consent, set in stone, end of.
That could make old Mrs. Smith, the local jam maker and hedgerow forager from down the road crime watch material technically. Now that would add a dash of humour to a drab night on front of the telly! The law can be an odd entity, but it is the law none the less and its best to be on the right side of it at all times. Please also be aware of national trust land, forestry commission woodlands and most importantly SSSI's (sites of special scientific interest) as each will have its own by-laws, most covering total lack of removing any plant matter. Always worth checking.
Now for the casual forager some of this boils down to common sense. It’s better to take a little from a larger area, than a lot from one particular spot. You want it to be there next year too and minimise impact. Always carry a trug or basket if practical. People can see this from a long way off and the majority will instantly recognise that you are gathering some type of wild food, not lurking in bushes or skulking around the countryside. Even if you are a big hairy beast, there’s something about a basket that throws people off guard. Sadly a percentage of people these days sadly suffer from ‘totaphobia’, the fear of everything so giving them a starting chance will do you a world of good. I used to be quite conscious when foraging on verges (with consent) for horseradish or wild onions, now I don’t bat an eyelid. Say good morning as you stroll past walkers, talk to everyone that’s curious! Remember to use caution with children about your new found enthusiasm if you are talking to a passing family. It shows responsibility. I tell my daughter when she joins me that I want to see everything before she picks it, to passing families, something like- 'just a make sure daddy picks it for you' or similar if they tune in to your conversation. You will find the vast majority of people have a genuine interest in wild food, just as you do. We all eat, so you have common ground straight away. Sometimes if you are lucky it may be a friend of a landowner and you could get your own exclusive patch, permission and all. A bunch of wild onions presented to someone that thought I was up to mischief on a roadside recently now has me the landowner’s permission to one of the best patches in the county. People are generally nice if you interact with them, well most of them.
If someone confronts you such as the landowner and is irate at what they think you are doing, tell them what you are actually doing - so there is no confusion. If they are still offended, apologise, explain that you meant no harm and where collecting in a responsible manner and assure them you respect their wishes and you shall not return. They may cross your path one day in the future and with hindsight, apologise for their rash behaviour and offer you a second chance. They may not, but it’s a nice thought.
So, where to start?
At the beginning! You already know a huge amount, you just didn’t realise it but also remember that “you don’t know what you don’t know”.. Start to research all the plants you knew as a child, such as the bramble (for the Scots) or blackberry for those down south. There’s a couple of dozen varieties in the UK alone.
Hunt down some common sorrel in your local fields or if you are a city dweller, have a look around your local park to see what looks out of place.
A surprising amount of what humans class as invasive weeds are fair game for the table once you know what they are. If you look carefully, charlock (a member of the mustard family) and smooth leaf sow thistle (a type of wild lettuce) could be growing on every street pavement in the county. Food for thought.
Next month, foraging tools, reference books and easy to identify plants.
Part 2 can be found here