FABULOUS FORAGING: CREATING AN ALTERNATIVE MENU

PUBLISHED: 09:46 10 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:15 30 August 2017

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Love to include local produce on your menu? Go one further and forage writes Sebastian Oake as he goes in search of foodstuffs in Cornwall’s woodlands and hedgerows with the experts...

A patch of stinging nettles probably doesn’t make you think of lunch but you’d be surprised how much of the outdoors you can eat. Indeed, through much of the year, nature’s larder is brimming with bounty and no time more so than now. Blackberries and hazel nuts are perhaps the most obvious wild foods that can be gathered in the autumn but the countryside has much more to offer than just these childhood favourites.

Instead of the usual blackberry pie and blackberry jam, how about elderberry pie and sloe jelly? As well as the well-known nuts, there are seeds to collect from wild fennel and black mustard, while in a mild Cornwall autumn there could well be fresh new flushes of, yes, nettles. And for the more adventurous, there are the fascinating worlds of fungi and seaweeds to explore.

Foraging for wild food is becoming more popular, driven by a foodie revolution that is challenging us to look for something different and the desire to reconnect with nature and relearn old skills.

In Cornwall there are a number of professional foragers who offer courses in what to gather from the woods, hedgerows, fields and seashore and how to cook it afterwards. Amongst them is Caroline Davey. She runs a wild food foraging and cookery school called Fat Hen near St Buryan, where she lives with her husband and three children.

My experiments with wild food started when my husband and I met 15 years ago,’ she explains. I remember being on a beach in Wales around that time. We gathered sea lettuce and fried it there and then in butter. We ate it alongside some mussels we’d found, which we cooked with onions in white wine. I have always been a keen cook and appreciate the outdoors and nature. Foraging was a natural union of the things that I love.’

Caroline is an all-round forager embracing pretty much everything that nature has to offer. Through much of the year, she runs foraging walks, forage, cook and feast days and gourmet wild food weekends, as well as more specialised sessions on seaweed foraging, wild Italian cookery, shellfish cookery and game cookery. She employs chefs Andy Hoyle and Mark Devonshire to help out and also runs events in conjunction with the Gurnard’s Head near Zennor and the Old Coastguard Hotel at Mousehole. But despite these grand connections, she is quick to point out that her courses are for everyone, beginners included.

Fat Hen events are suitable for anyone who is inquisitive about cooking with ingredients you can source from the wild,’ she says. Most people who come are outdoorsy folk or keen cooks or foodies.’

Some of Caroline’s personal favourite wild foods are autumn-time sea buckthorn berries and edible fungi. Autumn is a time of great abundance,’ she says. Meanwhile, her husband’s dish of choice is laver seaweed cakes with bacon and eggs while the children adore Caroline’s seaweed crisps. She admits though that her forays into living off the land have sometimes turned out to be a little too adventurous. There are always the experiments that go wrong,’ she confides. Deep fried thistles weren’t great, I have to say.’

For those keen to get outdoors and go foraging, there are some key dos and don’ts. The most important rule of foraging is to be 100-per-cent sure of what you are picking. Wild food gathering can be rewarding but the big black berries of deadly nightshade, for example, would put you in hospital and some plants would kill you - including fungi such as the death cap and the destroying angel.

The answer is to take a good identification guide with you and make sure all ingredients for a wild dinner tick absolutely all the boxes. Bear in mind too that some things need to be cooked the right way before they become edible. It’s obviously a very good idea to get expert tuition from someone like Caroline before you start to eat wild food.

There are other things to bear in mind. Although collecting wild food along public paths and waysides for your own personal use is generally lawful, doing so for commercial gain is not. Foraging is also prohibited on right to roam land and usually on nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Remember, too, that under wildlife law, it is an offence to uproot any wild plant without permission and a number of rare plants have complete protection.

Caroline makes the point too that you shouldn’t forage in places that might have been contaminated. Avoid fields that might have just been sprayed with chemicals, busy roadsides, dog-walking routes and dirty water courses.

Lastly, foragers are not alone in their interest in what the countryside has to offer – birds and other animals are too. There’s a good general rule of foraging – pick a little, leave plenty.

That said, there’s no better time than now to put on your boots, grab a basket and head out for a free meal. Sure, start with the fool-proof things like blackberries but you’ll soon want to be more adventurous. Who knows, one day you might even be licking your lips at the prospect of a nettle lunch.

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