Their names won’t exactly make your taste buds tingle: chicken of the woods, hairy bittercress, beefsteak fungus, giant puffball, shaggy ink cap, white dead nettle and jelly ears (which are shaped like a human ear). But give them half a chance, and their unconventional flavours will certainly earn your respect – and a special place at your table.
Foraging is the age-old process of gathering food from nature. Almost the whole year round, in woodland, fields, on hedgerows and oozing from cracks in trees, you can find a surprising range of wild fungi, leaves, fruit, nuts and berries.
It wasn’t long ago that gathering wild food was a normal part of British culture. During the second world war, rosehips were commercially gathered because of their high vitamin C content. Now we’re seeing a ‘real food’ renaissance, including a resurgence in the number of allotment holders, people growing their own food at home, and more and more people interested in foraging and wild food.
Foraging for your dinner will make you see the world with new eyes. The inner hunter-gatherer is alive and kicking when you collect food directly from the earth. Grubbing under hedgerows, rummaging among fallen leaves, and using your instincts and knowledge of how the earth, weather and seasons interconnect to find a tasty morsel can be very rewarding.
Wild food is not just for people with access to countryside – even in cemented cities, it appears in the most unexpected locations: edible greens poking from the edge of car parks; morels soldiering up through wood-chipped soil beds, even pavement mushrooms defiantly bursting through the tarmac. And the scraggly weeds in your garden could actually be an edible treasure trove – look out for things like goose grass, dandelions, nettles and wild garlic.
Spring is the start of the wild food year. It is the time to look for ramsons (an edible green that tastes mildly of garlic) and to keep an eye out for oyster mushrooms and morels, which are the ‘holy grail’ of the foraging world. It is also when young leaves from certain trees, such as beech and common lime, are edible. In summer, the highlight is St George’s mushroom, as well as mousserons (fairy ring mushrooms) and chicken of the woods: a bright-yellow bracket fungus that oozes like lava out of trees. In autumn there are hundreds of wild mushrooms, and mountains of fruit, nuts and berries to be found. In winter, there’s less on offer, but you can find things such as chanterelles, which can take freezing and defrosting.
Environmentalists warn that hundreds of varieties of wild mushroom could be wiped out if the popularity of foraging continues. So never pick more than you need (it’s illegal in the UK to forage for commercial gain, under the 1968 Theft Act). One key foraging philosophy is if you see something once, keep walking – if you see it again, it’s okay to stop and pick it. Always cut mushrooms at the base rather than ripping them up, which damages the underground web of mycelium.
Hospital admissions for people with suspected mushroom poisoning doubled last year, as foraging became more popular, so get a good identification guide and follow it methodically. If you confuse the leaves of Fat Hen with Good King Henry, it’s not a disaster, as they’re both edible. But there are around ten deadly wild mushrooms in the UK, and others can make you feel very unwell. Even things listed as edible can affect some people – 10 per cent of the population has a violent allergic reaction to chicken of the woods fungi for example. Always start off by trying just a small amount.
In France, Spain and many countries in eastern Europe foraging is still the norm, especially when it comes to mushrooms. In autumn, whole families go to the local woods to pick mushrooms to last the year. Why not get some friends together, and make finding and eating wild foods a social activity?
It’s worth remembering that wild food tastes totally different to domesticated varieties. Watercress from the supermarket is bland in comparison with its wild-grown sister; and while authentic wild strawberries may be about an eighth of the size of their supermarket cousins, their taste really packs a punch. So find recipes online that bring out the flavours. Try www.eatweeds.co.uk