Go wild in the country

Sophie Haydock explains how to forage for delicious wild food

Would you forgo your trips to the supermarket? Would you believe (or want to believe) that you could feed yourself on a tantalising mix of healthy and tasty foods that can be found for free in the wild?

Perhaps not everybody would be prepared to give up their ready meals for a bowl of fresh nettle soup, salad of dandelions and cherry blossom, or chicken of the woods mushroom tempura. But your local area – and potentially your own back garden – is a treasure trove of edible wild food, allowing you to feast on what nature has to offer without a supermarket checkout or club card in sight.

“Foraging is an exciting way of engaging with the world.”

The popularity of foraging and wild food is peaking – and getting celebrity chefs hot under the collar. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made foraging cool on his River Cottage series, while Jamie Oliver proclaims wild food pukka. Even the typically hot-headed Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre White says he relaxes with a little mushroom hunting. “I could spend hours looking for mousserons, penny buns and chanterelle mushrooms.” He often did so as a child, in the grounds of Harewood House in Leeds.

Mina Said-Allsopp, 27, is a forager extraordinaire who has been running monthly Food for Free walks in Leeds and around the north for four years. “Foraging is an exciting way of engaging with the world,” she says. “It makes you look at things with completely different eyes. Everything becomes a source of food. Where everyone else sees scraggly weeds, I see fantastic chamomile or Good King Henry.”

The foraging walks cost £15 (with discounts for students) and Said-Allsopp teaches you how to find and identify wild food, including berries, fruits, mushrooms and edible greens. All the money raised goes to a children’s charity, NURU, in Kenya.

“I love teaching people about wild food,” she says. “It’s great to see the light in people’s eyes when they realise that plant they’ve been overlooking for so long is edible or that it tastes completely different from the stuff they buy at the supermarket.”

Spring brings lots of exciting things for a forager. One of the most exciting foods is wild garlic, a very versatile wild green that tastes mildly of garlic and makes great pesto (see recipe below). “I really look forward to spring because of the chance to find wild garlic,” Said-Allsopp smiles. It’s also the time of year to hunt for morel mushrooms, which are the holy grail of the foraging world. She adds that springtime is when leaves from certain trees, like beech and common lime, are edible – “they’re young and tender and a great addition to salads”.

Summer brings another world of edible delights. “The highlight is the St George’s mushroom and the fairy ring mushroom. Later, a bright-yellow bracket fungus that oozes out of trees, called chicken of the woods, appears. In autumn there’s a bonanza of wild mushrooms, as well as all the wonderful fruits, nuts and berries. In winter, you’d think there wouldn’t be much, but there are some things like chanterelles, which can take freezing and defrosting. As long as it’s not a very severe winter, you can pick things to February. Then there’s a brief lull. Towards the end of March, it starts all over again.”

She says that the people who go on her walks always say they cannot believe how much good food there is that you can eat everywhere. “It catches everybody by surprise,” she says. “We’re such a consumer society. We’re used to buying everything in sterile packaging with best before dates. Then you go out and see wild mushrooms in a field, and you’re naturally suspicious.”

She thinks it’s a lack of understanding that leads to such suspicion and, on occasion, hostility. Once in a while, as she’s picking wild fruit, she’ll see people carrying plastic bags of similar produce bought at the supermarket. “I’ll be picking plums, mirabelles or blackberries and people will see me and get alarmed, telling me to stop because they’re poisonous. No, I try to explain. The same things you’re paying a huge price for, I’m getting for free.”

“In continental Europe foraging is normal.”

Another time she was foraging near an urban area when a boy asked her what she was doing. “I explained I was picking blackcurrants. He said: ‘Oh, are you poor?’ He thought I would only want to pick things in the wild if I had no money.”

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, on the recommendation of the government, because of their high vitamin C content. Now, says Said-Allsopp, we’ve lost our hunter-gatherer skills. “In continental Europe foraging is normal and popular. It’s a huge part of the culture. In autumn, families go to the local woodlands to pick mushrooms to dry and preserve for the rest of the year.”

Of course, another reason to be wary of wild food, especially mushrooms, is that they can be fatal. It’s revealing that hospital admissions for people with suspected mushroom poisoning doubled last year. The Health Protection Agency’s National Poisons Information Service received 209 calls from NHS staff attempting to treat suspected mushroom poisoning, a rise on 2009’s 123 enquiries and 147 in 2008.

But Said-Allsopp explains that the number of very poisonous wild mushrooms is actually limited. However, she adds that it is essential to never eat anything if you are not 100 per cent certain of what it is. She also says that the horror stories and old wives tales serve a useful purpose, “reminding people of the dangers inherent in wild food”.

“You do need to be really careful. That’s why it’s important to go out on a guided wild food walk. Get your confidence, learn what to pick, what not to pick. As long as you’re methodical, you’ll be fine. A good mushroom identification book will tell you how certain mushrooms only grow in association with certain trees, whether they can be confused with other species, and that you have to look at cap size, spore print and length to make an accurate identification.”

And of course there’s also the question of sustainability. Environmentalists have warned that varieties of wild mushroom could soon be wiped out if the popularity of foraging continues. On top of that, it is illegal in the UK to forage for commercial gain, under the 1968 Theft Act. Said-Allsopp’s philosophy is:?“If you see something once, keep walking, if you see it again, it’s okay to stop and pick it.” But, she adds, “never pick more than you need. Think of others and future generations who’ll want to enjoy this wonderful world of wild food.”

For more information on Mina Said-Allsop’s walks, see www.msitu.co.uk.

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