If you’re a foodie like us, your thoughts are never far from your next meal. Even when we’re out on a walk, we’re often thinking or chatting about what to cook when we get home. Some of our best outings, though, are when we chance upon some wild food and a whole new meal option spontaneously presents itself to us. Recent treats from our travels included wild garlic (just pick the glossy, green leaves and leave the tiny bulbs to keep growing), that made a piquant pesto. Bunches of fresh watercress growing wild by a coastal stream were turned into a delicious soup (wild watercress is best cooked to avoid any risk from the common parasite liver fluke), and wild mushrooms were cooked into our favourite Spanish croquetas.
There’s something intensely satisfying – even exciting – about sourcing wild food. No doubt, it appeals to the genetic trace of our hunter-gatherer past, when the only food you ate was that you had found or killed yourself. Yet foraging has become a lost art and most people are unaware of the abundance of wild foodstuffs growing all around them. Admittedly, in the days of supermarkets and online grocery shopping, we don’t need to forage to survive but the beauty of foraging is that much of the really interesting, wild food doesn’t actually find its way into the shops. Foraging gives you the chance to eat unusual and seasonal delicacies, such as razor clams and cockles (be sure to try our recipe for cockles a la marinera), samphire (sea asparagus), nettles, dandelion leaves, seaweed, nasturtium flowers and even snails (if you need to be persuaded, see this recipe), that would otherwise be impossible or costly to buy.
Foraging is defined as any wild food that you source yourself. For some people, this might extend to fishing, setting lobster pots and even trapping small wild animals like squirrel and pigeon. However, with the space limitations of this blog post (as well as the desire to not upset our more sensitive friends!), we shall just cover some vegetarian and shellfish options here.
You’ll obviously find different wild food in different geographical regions and countries, depending on the specific climate and conditions. If you live by the coast, you’ll be lucky enough to have a wealth of shellfish to choose from, as well as edible seaweed, samphire, sea beet and other coastal vegetables. In warmer Mediterranean countries, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, you’ll come across figs, sloe berries, oranges and lemons growing in free abundance, as well as wild fungi and herbs like mint, sage and rosemary.
Even in a big city like London, there’s plenty of foraging to be done, with blackberries, wild apples, herbs, fennel, rocket and nettles (pinch the newest tips off to make a delicious soup or try this novel tapas recipe) growing freely at the sides of the road.
If you like the idea of sourcing some tasty wild food for free, arm yourself with a carrier bag, some scissors or secateurs, and perhaps some gloves to protect yourself from thornier plants or stinging nettles. It’s also well worth taking a guidebook or plant dictionary with you (such as Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free) to help you identify your finds. There’s a few basic rules to observe but generally, common sense is a forager’s best friend.
- Don’t eat anything you have foraged unless you are absolutely certain of its correct identification. Consult a guidebook to aid identification and only eat your find if you are 100% sure that it is what you think it is, ideally asking a foraging friend for a second opinion until you are more experienced. We all know that some berries and mushrooms can be fatally poisonous but less well-known plants can be toxic too. If in doubt, leave it!
- Make sure that the land you are foraging from is open to the public and not owned by an individual or company. If it is private land, ask permission first and leave a light footprint (ie: respect the land, don’t leave any rubbish behind and only take a modest amount of the wild food you’ve been allowed to forage).
- Only forage enough food for your own personal consumption. Do not sell your finds – that’s not foraging, it’s farming.
- Never uproot whole plants. If you want to be able to return next year and forage afresh, make sure you leave enough of the plant behind undisturbed (in the case of Wild Garlic, this means the whole bulb) for it to grow and prosper.
- It is advisable to pick berries and edible leaves or vegetables from as high on the tree or plant as you can reach. Try to leave the lower leaves of a plant in case pets or wild animals have ‘polluted’ them.
- If you are foraging abroad, do check the local laws as they may differ from country to country – for example, in Spain, it is illegal to catch clams unless you have a specific license. In the UK, collecting shellfish in tidal waters is a common law right but seaweed is only permissibly taken if it has become detached from the seabed (any seaweed still growing is the property of whoever owns the foreshore).