I had a great time picking blackberries last weekend, and it got me thinking about why we don’t turn to our hedgerows and woodlands for food more often. For most of us, a trip to the greengrocer’s is about as exciting as it gets, but maybe it’s time to get adventurous.
That said, this post does carry a health warning. It’s all too easy to mistake a poisonous fungus for an innocent field mushroom, but with a bit of common sense, foraging is a great way to get out into the countryside and re-establish that connection with nature.
Wild garlic is abundant in the UK and is highly versatile. The plant is easily identifiable in woodlands, as it forms lush green carpets near to patches of bluebells and emits a distinctive garlic scent. It tastes much like cultivated cloves, but has a milder flavour.
The leaves can be used to spice up salads and stir frys and can also be used to flavour soups and stews. Wild garlic has many health benefits, including reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Wild mushrooms grow across most of the UK, with parks and woodlands providing a good place to start looking. We have a huge diversity of native species, but autumn is prime mushroom-picking season, as this is when most edible varieties appear.
Wild Mushrooms Online has some great tips for fungi foraging. Once you’ve identified and collected your mushrooms, you’ll be spoilt for choice for things to do with them: grill them, stuff them, put them in soups or pies, or fry them with wild garlic and parsley.
Elder is commonly found in hedgerows and woods. The bushes are covered in sweet-smelling flowers by the end of June, followed by berries between August and October. The flowers and berries are sweet and aromatic, but the stems and leaves are poisonous.
The fragrant blooms can be eaten raw, cooked or dried and can be added to cordials, jellies and jams, as well as ice cream, cakes and biscuits. The flowers can be eaten straight from the tree. Visit the Sacred Earth site for more recipe ideas.
Although painful stings have taught us to avoid nettles, they are actually a very healthy and versatile plant. You can protect your hands with a decent pair of gardening gloves and boiling the leaves will get rid of the sting.
Nettles are packed with vitamins and minerals and, believe it or not, contain more vitamin C than oranges. They should be harvested before the flowers appear in early spring and only the youngest leaves should be collected. Use them to make tea, soup and even beer.
The old wives’ tale may tell us that dandelions make you wet the bed, but in fact, they are healthy and freely available throughout the UK for most of the year. The whole plant can be eaten, from flower to root.
The leaves can be added to salads, while the flowers, which are in bloom between February and November, can be used in anything from risotto to omelets. The roots can also be dried to make dandelion coffee, which has a hint of chocolate.
Just one final word of warning. Don’t forget to check whether the land you’re planning to forage on is public and remember to get permission if it isn’t. Always remember the countryside code and don’t over-harvest. Have fun!