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Top 10… foods to forage

Kara Moses

18th March, 2011

Thought there was no such thing as a free lunch? As Kara Moses found out, Britain’s edible wild plants, berries and nuts can provide exactly that

Thanks to modern agricultural methods, foraging – once a part of the majority’s daily life – has faded away, replaced by regular trips to the supermarket instead. Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in raiding nature’s larder thanks to increased awareness of the health benefits of wild food, not to mention the TV exploits of Bear Grylls, Ray Mears and co. But it foraging is about more than just food. It gets us out into the countryside and helps to cultivate an intimate appreciation of nature, re-establishing a connection severed by modern urban life.

But for the beginner, foraging should come with a health warning as it’s easy to mistake a deadly fungus for an innocent field mushroom. While wild food is generally good for you, taking precautions and getting some tips and advice from experienced foragers is essential. To help you get started, we’ve rounded up 10 of the best – chosen for their versatility, abundance, health benefits and ease of harvesting. Before you head out into the wilderness, remember to check whether the land you are foraging on is protected, and whether it is public – get permission if it isn’t. Always follow the country code and don’t overharvest: birds and animals depend on wild foods for their survival. 

Mushrooms
Neither animal nor vegetable, mushrooms are a type of fungi and the largest living organisms on Earth, some reaching three miles in length. Wild mushrooms grow across most of the UK and parks and woodlands are a good place to start; the New Forest is said to be particularly rich. Thanks to the diversity of our native mushroom species, there are always some varieties in season, but autumn is the prime mushroom picking time, as September and October are the months when most of the good edible varieties appear. Always take a knife when foraging for fungi, so you can cut them from the base rather than pulling them out of the ground. This prevents damage to the mycelium (root-like threads) that allow them to regenerate. Take paper bags or a wicker basket rather than plastic, which makes for sweaty shrooms. Once you have your mushrooms safely home you are spoilt for choice for things to do with them. Grill them, stuff them, add them to soups, stir-fries and pies, or fry with wild garlic and parsley. There are loads of recipe ideas for wild mushrooms online, such as Rogers Mushrooms, which also offers a guide to identifying the best edible species, and even an app for on the hoof identification using your mobile phone. 

Wild Garlic
Wild garlic is a good all-rounder. Widespread and abundant across much of the UK, it’s easily harvestable throughout the year and is versatile and delicious. It tastes much like regular garlic but has a milder flavour than cultivated cloves. Use the leaves to spice up a winter salad or stir-fry, or use it to add flavour to soups and stews. The flowers appear in spring and can be used in much the same way, adding a flash of colour at the same time. Bulbs can be harvested year-round, but this is best done when the plant is dormant between July and December. Wild garlic is easily identifiable, forming lush green carpets in woodlands close to bluebells, and emitting a distinctive garlicky smell. Like its cultivated cousin, wild garlic has numerous health benefits, including helping to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It’s also good for gardens thanks to its ability to ward off pests and diseases, and the juice can even be used a household disinfectant.

Elder
There are more uses for elderflowers than for any other type of blossom. The aromatic blooms can be eaten raw, cooked, dried or powdered, and added to cordials, wine, salads, fritters, ice-cream, cakes, biscuits, jellies, jams, sweets, tea and meat dishes, as well as to beauty products such as skin lotion and eye cream. Grazing on the crisp, juicy flowers straight from the tree is a wonderful way to spend a sunny afternoon, and what you can’t finish in situ can be taken home to make elderflower ‘champagne’.  Elder bushes are usually covered in sweet-smelling flowers by the end of June, followed by berries between August and October. Elderberries can be put to many of the same uses as the flowers but the leaves and stems are poisonous. Elder is widespread and abundant in hedgerows, woods and roadsides.

Seaweed
There aren’t many foods you can share a bath with but seaweed is a great addition to both bathtimes and mealtimes by virtue of its rich vitamin and mineral content. Eaten regularly it can help to improve poor thyroid function and blood circulation, deal with skin conditions and reduce cholesterol. It’s also extremely tasty and easy to prepare – 15 seconds in a hot wok with a little oil is all you need. It can also be boiled, steamed or smoked and used in everything from paella and risotto to salads and soups, bread and cakes and even chocolate fondant and green tea ice cream. Collect seaweed from any coastline with exposed rocks – the more rocks, the more variety of seaweed available. Seaweed gathering is best done when the tide is low, exposing the full range of varieties that grow at different intertidal zones. Always keep an eye on the incoming tide and avoid areas that could become cut off from the shore. To avoid overharvesting, leave the roots and some of the fronds intact – this will allow them to regenerate.

Dandelion
They might have a reputation for being obstinate garden weeds and a bed-wetters nightmare, but dandelions are versatile, healthy and are freely available throughout the country for most of the year. The whole plant can be eaten: leaves in salads, sandwiches or pies, while flowers (in bloom between February and November) can be used in anything from risotto to omelettes. If you can’t wait for the buds to open, they can be marinated and used like capers for flavour. Make dandelion coffee by grinding the dried roots and use as normal. It’s totally caffeine-free and has a vaguely chocolately taste. The roots can also be thrown into stir-fries or added to vegetable dishes.

Nettles
Another plant pariah, nettles tend to be avoided thanks to their well-known propensity for leaving painful welts on the hands of the picker. But once you’ve invested in a decent pair of gardening gloves, the pros of nettles outweigh the cons. Among other things, they can be used be make tea, soup, beer and even haggis. Boiling will get rid of the sting. Packed with vitamins and minerals, nettles contain more vitamin C than oranges. Nettles should be harvested before the flowers appear in early spring and only the youngest leaves should be chosen; mature leaves can damage the kidneys. Find them in gardens, woodlands, pastures and orchards.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn used to be referred to as ‘bread and cheese,’ as the leaves sandwiched between slices of bread were once a staple food in the spring. The leaves can also be added to salads, made into a tea or munched straight off the branch, while the roasted seeds make a good coffee substitute. Hawthorn berries, bountiful in autumn, make a tasty jam or fruit bread – try adding the dried and ground fruit to flour for a fruity loaf. Hawthorn also has medicinal benefits and can help treat heart and circulation disorders. Powerful bioflavinoids present in the fruit stimulate blood flow to the heart and regulate the heartbeat.

Berries
Abundant, tasty and packed with vitamin C, berries are one of the easiest foods to forage. They often abound in accessible areas and there’s so much variety, you can’t go far wrong. Among the most common are blackberries, raspberries, mulberries and sloes, and uses range from juices and cordials to jams and jelly, pies and cakes, wine and gin, and ice cream. Look for berries in woodlands, hedgerows, and parks from late summer. 

Nuts
Nuts are a rich source of protein and energy for hungry foragers, but bear in mind that nuts are relied on by many birds and animals, so don’t take the lot. Forage for nuts in the autumn, keeping them dry and warm once picked. Eat them as they come or roasted. Most nuts can also be used as a replacement for protein, so work well in nut roasts and nut breads, or mixed into salads and stir-fries for extra crunch. Ground nuts can be pressed through a fine muslin bag to extract the oil, which can then be used for frying and dressing salads. Favourites include chestnuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts. Grubbing for pignuts was once a popular past time but is now illegal without the landowner’s permission.

Mallow
Mallow leaves have a mild flavour and a distinctive gummy, glutinous texture, making them good for bulking up salads. By the same virtue they can be used to treat constipation and diarrhoea, soothing the digestive tract, as well as helping a dry throat or chesty cough. Deep-frying the leaves makes satisfying green ‘crisps’, while the seeds have a delicate nutty flavour. The mauve flowers have a similar flavour and texture to the leaves and are also a good addition to the salad bowl. Mallow is widespread from spring to midsummer in open and sunny habitats such as roadsides and pastures.


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