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Free food from foraging
Would you like some free food? We’re often asked “how can I save money on food?” so why not try some foraging while you’re on a walk in the country? Foraging is simply wandering around in the countryside and collecting anything edible that’s growing wild. It’s cheap food at its cheapest! In the UK there are seasonal fruits, nuts, edible flowers and seafood available to pick, and we’ll show you where and how to find them! We even have ideas and recipes, so read on for everything you need to know.
- Finding free food
- Know your rambling rights
- What free food is in season?
- Top summer foods for free
- Freegan foods
- Grow your own cheap food
- Restaurants that sell wild food
There are loads of places you can go to pick up tasty free food. Try foraging in hedgerows, woods, and on the seashore. It is good to have an understanding of what you are looking for, and there are a number of books out there to help you identify everything from nuts and herbs to fruits and leafy vegetables to shellfish.
Richard Mabey’s book Food for Free, which has been around for 40 years, is a great source of information, but there are many others out there just as helpful, as well as a wide variety that include recipes. Have a look at Wild Man Wild Food and Naturali for more info and our food columnist Sarah Lockett, also has some useful recipes on her blog using free food. Celtnet also has an array of wild food recipes and a handy guide to edible wild foods.
There are thousands of different varieties of berries, mushrooms and flowers. However some varieties, especially fungi, can be poisonous. So despite what your guidebook says – if you’re not sure, don’t eat it. When picking have a look around the area to make sure it’s not an old industrial estate or road verge; the area may have been sprayed with pesticides or contaminated by oil or ash.
Although it’s OK to eat berries while you’re picking them from berry farms, out in the open is a different matter. Don’t eat unhealthy-looking fruit or plants and don’t let children pick or eat wild foods without supervision. Make sure you take your harvest home and wash it thoroughly. It goes without saying: always eat your harvest as fresh as possible.
It’s a good idea to take a small knife with you when you go foraging. You can use it to cut mushrooms off their stalks, thereby allowing new ones to grow in their place and to pry away anything else you can’t pull out with your bare hands. It’s also good to have a basket to collect your bounty in.
The law gives people the right to roam on foot to access open country in England and Wales. This includes mountains, moors, heath, registered commons and land that has been opened up voluntarily by landowners. Legally, a person may take away foliage, fruit or parts of the plant without committing an offence, unless it is done with the intention of selling them or for any other reward.
- Foods on a ramble
In May you should look out for cherries, elderflowers, jersey royals, new potatoes, mint, parsley, samphire, sorrel, spring onions, rocket and watercress. In June and July hunt for cherries, elderflowers, gooseberries, redcurrants, strawberries, and tayberries.
- Supermarket foods
Eating seasonally means it’s likely your food hasn’t travelled as far. When food is out of season it is imported from far off countries, which increases the price, and decreases the quality due to travel time. In May the cheaper vegetables are asparagus, broccoli, broad beans, carrots, cauliflower, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach. In June and July you should go for asparagus, aubergines, broad beans, courgettes, lettuce, peas and peppers.
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Blackberries grow on thorny bushes so it’s a great idea to tackle them with gloves. They tend to ripen in late summer, but don’t pick them after October – legend has it the Devil pees on the blackberries on 10 October and they become unfit to eat! Berries can make rich coloured sweet wine, pies and other desserts, but the easiest is jam.
Mushrooms grow above the ground and you can identify them by their smell and colour. But with 3,500 known species, it is vital that you know the difference between the edible and poisonous species. Horse mushrooms and parasols are readily available in fields in Dorset, and beech and open mixed woodlands are good locations for many edible species. Mushrooms can be eaten raw as crudités with dips, sautéed in butter with garlic and cream or as part of an English breakfast.
Wild mussels are found at the beach in blue, boat-shaped shells. Inside they are a nice saffron colour. If you put them in a sinkful of cold water, the bad ones will float. Also throw the ones that are already open. You should then remove any barnacles, sand or grit with the cold tap running, and the beard must also be removed. Rinse the wild mussels several times but do not let them sit in water, as freshwater will kill them.
Mussels can be added to seafood soups, stews or rice dishes and are simply delicious steamed in white wine, garlic and parsley. As long as they are cooked, they can also be added to salads, pasta dishes, stir fries, sauces, soups or stews.
Devon and north Cornwall locals love their laver, the local name for seaweed. It needs to be thoroughly washed when you get it home, and then simmered in a pot without water for around ten hours. Most seaweed found in rock pools is called carrageen.
- Elderberries or flowers
Pick these flowers in June or July, in the early morning when fragrant and fresh. Cook them with fruit or infuse them into syrups and custards. The purple berries grow fruit in August and September. Raw elderberries are poisonous, they must be cooked. Elderberry cordial and jellies are tasty and sweet, and elderberry chutney is also a must to try.
A green weed with a peppery flavour, watercress can be added to salads, scrambled eggs, game bird dishes or made into a soup. Wild watercress can still be found growing in clumps among the rocks in clear-running streams and brooks. Watercress is usually very clean on purchase. Discard any wilted, yellow or bruised leaves or stems. Remove any string-like roots and use your fingers to pick the sprigs from any particularly large stems. Don’t remove the stems entirely – that’s where most of the flavour is.
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For the foods you cannot get in the woods or the sea, you can embrace anti-consumerism and try a bit of bin rummaging. It may sound odd, but every day supermarkets throw out enormous quantities of food that have gone past their sell-by dates (and so cannot be legally sold) but are still good to eat and often in top-notch condition. They throw them into the big bins behind the supermarket where they are fair game for foragers – or ‘Freegans’ as they are known.
Although you might be hesitant to take vegetables or fresh fish and meat, if they are in packaging and have clearly-marked use-by dates then after a good scrub they should be fine to eat. Freegans constantly find ready meals with the plastic packaging intact but no outer cardboard packaging. There are often also full jars and tinned items, and even ice-cream, all with sell-by dates far in the future, but the packaging is dented or tarnished in some way. Eggs are common finds for Freegans; if one egg in the box is broken, supermarkets will often find it easier to throw away the whole box rather than simply reduce the price and sell the other five. The best time for Freegan foraging is around closing time and it’s often best to go under cover of darkness just as a precaution. Take some cloth bags, fill them up quickly and move on.
Some quick tips for Freegans:
- Take gloves and a torch
- Don’t pass a ‘No Trespassing’ sign
- Use discretion when choosing what to eat. If in doubt, throw it out
- Always leave the bin as clean as you found it
- If the bag is ripped or any goods are exposed, just leave them behind
- Just because a bin is no good one day, doesn’t mean it will be like that every day
- In general small to medium shops are probably best. Larger chains have their bins locked away
- Wash all the items you find before consuming
Once you cover the set-up costs of owning a plot of land or growing in your own garden, there is great personal and monetary satisfaction in growing your own fruit and vegetables. With fruit trees you are growing for the future, years of a good harvest can save you hundreds, even thousands, of pounds. You can re-use the seeds from vegetables like potatoes and pumpkins, and harvest other seeds from friends’ patches. From a tomato plant on the balcony to a herb garden on your windowsill, savings can be immense.
For more information on growing your own, take a look at our article Fruit and veg – grow your own. It’s got tips on how to grow vegetables even if you’ve only got a windowsill, and tells you the kind of veg that is best for different spaces. It will also tell you exactly what tools and seeds you’ll need and some places to get great gardening bargains so you save even more. Click here to see the full article.
Everybody loves a good freebie, so go no further than our pages for coupons and vouchers for restaurants and free samples of promotional foods – the latest coffee flavour, a sachet of curry sauce, Yorkshire tea. Find out more here.
A reformed pub in East Sussex has embraced the idea of gathering local goods to build their menu. Aptly named, The Foragers uses a team of…er, foragers, who search the countryside for wild chervil, wood sorrel, radish leaves, wild yarrow, watercress and puy lentils. The chefs also source local seafood, mushrooms and Sussex-reared beef.
You can find The Foragers at 3 Stirling Place, Hove, East Sussex or call them on 01273 733 134. They serve lunch daily, or dinner Monday-Saturday. Dinners cost around £70 for two people, including wine and service.
For more local wild feasts check out the following:
- Due South: 139 Kings Road Arches, Brighton Beach; 01273 821 218
- The Foxhunter: Nantyderry, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire; 01873 881 101
- The Railway Hotel Dining Room: Preston Street, Faversham, Kent; 01795 533 17
- Restaurant Sat Bains: Lenton Lane, Nottingham; 01159 866 566
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