Most people are rightly cautious about foraging for food. It’s not without its risks: lots of plants – including many popular garden or house plants – are toxic to humans and pets. But with food inflation at 19.1 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), you could save a small fortune – and have a lot of fun – picking berries and other edible foodstuff, if you know what you’re doing.
The key to foraging, according to Lucia Stuart of The Wild Kitchen, is to stick to berries and leaves, which are easy to identify. “My advice is to leave mushroom-picking to the experts. It’s too dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
It’s a view echoed by Hannah Nicholls, who runs Natural Pathways, who says you need to be an expert not to pick poisonous ones (apart from Chicken of the Woods – real name laetiporus sulphureus – which is easy to spot and makes a tasty, mushroom-y soup).
Both Nicholls and Stuart run foraging courses in Kent. They teach novices about the many edible roots and plants that grow locally – and how to properly prepare them.
There are dozens of such courses across the country. The Association of Foragers should have a list of experts in your area who can show you what local plants are good to eat – and which are best to avoid. Courses generally cost around £100 for a day, including meals made from the foraged plants and berries, but some start for less.
There are also a number of great books and websites that can tell you what plants you can pick in the hedgerows, and, often, how to cook them.
Richard Mabey’s book Food For Free (£5.99 at Waterstones) is full of pictures and descriptions of the best places to find berries, nuts, seeds and other edible plants.
The website FallingFruit.org is also a great resource, showing thousands of places around the world where you can find free food, from charity gardens and allotments to fruit trees in urban areas that anyone can harvest.
If you want to learn how to (safely) eat and cook roadkill, Fergus the Forager runs courses just outside London in Forest Row. He will also teach you how to correctly identify edible mushrooms, if eating carrion isn’t your thing.
For more tips on finding free food, see our ‘Get Free Food Wherever You Live’ guide.
The easiest food to forage in the UK
If you don’t have money to spend on books and courses – or lots of free time to read up on the subject – don’t worry; there are loads of easy to identify plants and fruits that even a novice can safely pick and prepare.
Finding wild apples, pears and brambles (blackberries) is relatively easy. You should also be able to easily identify elderflowers on a walk along a cycle path or bridleway. Their white bloom, which is best picked between May and June, can easily made into a posh cordial, saving you a fortune on the price you’d pay for it at the supermarket or upmarket grocers.
Pineappleweed (matricaria discoidea) is another relatively easy plant to identify thanks to its chamomile-like flowers. This invasive species, which now grows throughout the UK, can be readily turned into refreshing cordials, teas, or syrups for desserts.
Vitamin C-rich nettles are another well-known plant that our ancestors have used to fortify soups and other staples for millennia. The humble “stinger” is becoming increasingly popular in haute cuisine dishes, too, finding its way into everything from pesto to salads to tarts.
Other well-known ingredients you’re likely to spot on a stroll along a bridle path include wild rocket, fennel and mint, all of which can be used to create a free salad or add flavour to other dishes. Wild garlic also grows abundantly in UK forests and is easy to sniff out.
Wild nuts, seeds, roots and weeds
It takes a bit more skill to identify edible nuts and seeds, but they are out there, if you know what to look for.
You’ll find walnuts, hazelnuts and cob nuts in many British woods, as well as acorns, which have to be soaked to remove foul-tasting tannins, but can then be turned into flour to create nutrient-rich chapatis, pastas – or a base for that nettle tart.
Other natural flour-extenders you can find in the hedgerows include ground-up nettle and dock seeds. If you live by the coast, you can harvest seaweed to either turn into a flour to make traditional laverbread. Or, you can boil or stir-fry it, and use as a tasty alternative to cabbage or spinach.
The roots and seeds of burdock and silverweed are another abundant ingredient that can either be eaten raw or lightly fried and tossed on top of a pasta, salad or stir-fry. While even the humble dandelion’s leaves can be used as an alternative to expensive bags of supermarket spinach.
Before you start picking random shrubs to eat, though, check with an expert or someone more experienced whether a plant or root can be eaten raw. Hogweed, for example – whose shoots are used as an alternative to asparagus in some upmarket “slow-food” restaurants – is highly toxic and must always be cooked. There are also lots of perfectly edible plants that should be approached with caution, too, like burdock, which can be confused with toxic foxgloves or deadly nightshades by some inexperienced foragers.
If you know what you’re doing, though, there are a lot of benefits to foraging, according to Lucia Stuart of The Wild Kitchen. “Most of foraging actually benefits the land,” said Stuart. “Foraging helps us value the foods we have too. For example, horseradish is plentiful here but we ignore it and in the meantime we’re importing wasabi to eat. It’s crazy because we have all this horseradish around and we’re not even bothering with it. If each individual does a little bit of foraging and appreciating what we have, it will help.”
Foraged food recipes
Knowing what to do with your foraged food can be tricky, as most recipe books and TV cooking programmes, quite naturally, feature ingredients sold in supermarkets, rather than items you find in the hedgerow.
But you can have a lot of fun inventing your own recipes by swapping out popular (and expensive) supermarket produce with wild alternatives, like dandelions, elderflower and seaweed. So don’t be afraid to play around and invent your own dishes.
Alternatively, Lucia Stuart, from the Wild Kitchen, has shared three of her favourite recipes (below), if you want a professional’s input before having a stab yourself. Enjoy!