Where our local supermarkets and restaurants stand today our ancestors once hunted and gathered their food. Hunting and gathering was, over the last century, becoming a romantic relic from the past. The subject of anthropologists and historians (how eating such large quantities of nettles in World War Two was said to give certain communities green tinged skin) wild food foraging has experienced an upsurge in popularity, so let’s look at some of the reasons why modern man may wish to learn about wild food today.
Benefits of Wild Food Foraging
Firstly, wild plants have optimized to survive on their own – we don’t have to do anything at all to enable their growth. Foraging is therefore easy gardening – it is a low input-maximum output system of gardening – we don’t have to worry about planting, potting on, weeding and watering. Nature does all this for us leaving us simply to do the harvesting.
Secondly, foraged greens are the ultimate in ‘local food’. You can’t get fewer food miles than the distance between the dandelion patch on the green over the road and your front door. Unless, of course, you decide after reading this to allow a few weeds to colonize a part of your own garden.
The third advantage of wild greens over the cultivated veg. we buy from shops is that they are usually healthier. How? On two accounts. They are ultra fresh having just been picked by you, they haven’t sat on supermarket shelves for three days and in chilled transit for a week before that (some vitamins diminish over time and with exposure to air or heat). Wild plants are usually of the darker green colour and of the bitter perennial type which are packed with minerals from the soil drawn thirstily up a long tap root through the need to survive harsh conditions without help and these are then deposited in the leaves/roots/flowers of the plant. These plants are known as dynamic accumulators. Compare a dark green shiny dandelion leaf to insipid water filled nutrient deficient iceberg lettuce or white cabbage – bred to meet a demand for bland taste rather than nutritional content.
A fourth advantage is simply that wild food is free. Learning about foraging can ensure you a lifelong supply of free greens for your family!
The main benefit though, I believe, is this:
Economic, social or climatic disaster could see our shops empty in three days due to the modern tendency to operate ‘Just In Time’ Stocking Systems to minimise capital outlay. How would you feed your family? The reason I started to learn about wild food nearly twenty years ago was to future-proof my children. In an uncertain future where imports may stop and domestic food production could be under pressure, to have knowledge of a native wild food source could save their lives.
Warnings When Learning to Forage for Wild Foods
So, we have considered the benefits of learning about wild food, but there are also some warnings that must also be communicated here, caveats to heed before embarking on gathering wild food.
Here they are:
Pollution. If we are hoping to eat wild plants for their health giving properties it is no use collecting them from busy roadsides or the edges of recently sprayed fields as we will be ingesting potentially harmful chemicals. Always harvest away from busy roads and recently sprayed farmers fields (you can usually tell a sprayed field because the weeds in in will be pale and droopy).
Law. When harvesting it is important to work within the law. Law relating to wild food foraging would be concerned with theft, trespass and conservation. Foragers are protected under law from theft charges as we are allowed to gather leaves, flowers, berries and mushrooms without being guilty of a Theft Act offence but must not uproot a plant without the owners permission. In theory you still need the landowners permission to cross land/take these weeds though or you could be guilty of trespass. Finally the law protects some plants that are at risk we must not forage these for the conservation of their species. For a full list (updated every five years see Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) but don’t worry too much about this as there is still plenty of more common obvious stuff to start with anyway!
Conservation in its own right, not just to adhere to the law. Natives living in nature based cultures know to just take a little from a few plants rather than strip a resource dry. When berry collecting in Autumn always leave some fruit for the birds to winter on, some for the plant to reproduce. If you struggle with the temptation to pick the lot – think about the fact that the birds, by eating berries will be ensuring the future survival of the berry giving shrub by pooping out the seeds in ready made fertiliser onto the soil around ensuring bountiful supply for your own tomorrow too so leave some for this reason.
Identification Errors. Although there are many edible plants growing in the UK there are numerous poisonous plants, the consumption of which could result in serious illness or even death! So, rather than just looking at a new plants’ picture in a book for a quick i.d before you guzzle it down compare other variables than just its appearance…
After comparing the plant to a clear image in a reputable reference book, I personally prefer photographs rather than artist drawings however beautiful and I like photos across a couple of books showing the plant in all its growing stages from overwintering rosette, spring buds, summer foliage and autumn fruits/seeds. After the visuals – compare notes on the plants habitat eg. woodland or pasture, light preferences, seasonality with your observations of the current plants situation and only then decide if you have a match.
This isn’t the end of it, you should then do a sensitivity test next. This involves:
Rubbing the plant on a sensitive part of your skin eg. inside arm or neck.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If no itching or stinging occurs chew a small piece of the plant and spit it out. There are always exceptions though – (think nettle) and conversely not all poisonous plants sting, again this is just one of many tests to be performed together.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If no ill feeling follows chew and swallow another mouthful.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If all is well go ahead and tuck in.
This may seem laborious and lengthy but it is only done in situations where you are still new to a plant.
Seasonality, Processing and Storing of Wild Food
Your diet was once about ‘what you could get and when’ as there were no fridge/freezers and not much in the way of imported food, certainly not for the poor. Eating what was in season fresh or learning to store harvested food to keep over the year especially during the hungry gap wasn’t a fashion it was the only way to survive. Our ancestors learned to preserve the wild harvest by drying, smoking, salting, steeping in oil or covering in fat to prevent air (and hence bacteria) entering, pickling, or boiling into a syrup (foods with high sugar content eg. honey keep well).
In late Spring, Summer and Autumn food is abundant but in Winter, for hunter gatherers , it was important to know where and when root foods were available. Roots store the foodstuff and vital energy of a plant over winter to give it growth in the Spring so the optimum time for eating roots is autumn/winter. More importantly though, our ancestors would have to find these roots in winter when the leaves of the plant; the usual indicator, would’ve died back. Some plants leave overwintering rosettes of leaves often very different to the plants actual leaves but at least there was some marker to show where to dig. To dig speculatively for roots in winter would expend more energy than would be gained by eating the results of digging so this method would not have been used unless their was another system of indicators. Our ancestors would’ve had a much greater awareness of plant life cycles and a system of markers. Roots are very rich in starch and have always been a good winter food (think how we still yearn for baked potatoes on a cold bonfire night) and so roots, together with dried meats, dried herbs (all reconstituted in a hot water to make a broth) and dried berry fruit leathers, nuts and seeds would’ve been the winter staples until other methods of processing and storing became available. Examples of wild edible roots are dandelion, dock, silverweed, marshmallow, bullrush and dock, thistle and burdock. These can be used immediately or stored by roasting/drying and chopping or grinding into a powder to store and add to the pot later.
Now of course we can preserve berries in fancy vinegar and oil or freeze them on fast freeze or dry herbs and mushrooms in an electric dehydrator but please do practice with traditional, fire, fat or solar methods of preserving, just so you have the skill for a time when you may need it.
Following the energy of the plant, after winter the growth forces move up from the roots to enter the stems, leaf buds, and leaves so Spring is a time for eating spring greens. Some weeds surface as early as February and so can provide a refreshing plate of spring greens to end the hungry gap. Useful early weeds are dock, lesser celandine, chickweed, cleavers (goosegrass or sticky willy), dandelion and nettle leaves. Followed by hogweed leaf buds (huge, cooked like asparagus) and ramson. These can all be simply mixed together steam fried with butter and seasoning as the green part to a meal, dried into vitamin rich powder to add to other dishes or have as tea. Leaves on trees follow and certain types can be eaten; beech in April raw as the green layer in a sandwich or cooked, silver birch leaf tea rich in vitamins a, b, c and e. I tend to dry leafy greens by laying them in baskets cover with brown paper or a tea towel and leave in warm dry room for two weeks turning occasionally then crumble the leaves into jars (adding dried flowers or other ingredients as they come available) these can be made into teas or added to meals eg. rice, omelette’s or crumbles over the next year. This way, long after the leaves have died back outside we are still getting the benefits of wild greens in our diet. To preserve leaves by drying retains much of their goodness and indeeds concentrates it as you are simply evaporating the water out. Some wild greens eg. plantain or ash keys are so bitter that they need double boiling to make them edible. Double boiling involves bringing the plant to boil in one lot of water, changing the water then re-boiling.
Blossom and flowers follow on from the leaves, some can be a wayside nibble; hawthorn and blackthorn, while others like elderflowers can be made into fritters (dipped in batter and sprinkled with sugar) or made into recipes such as strawberry and rose-petal fool or sweet violet sauce for venison, meadowsweet flavoured ice-cream and sweet ciceley and rhubarb preserve.
Towards the end of summer the flowers give way to either fruit, berries, seeds or nuts. The hogweed gives round flat seeds that give a citrus peel flavouring to puddings or can be eaten as a wayside nibble. On my walks I warn students they taste like citrus peel with a washing-up liquid after-taste! Large, long sweet cicely seeds have an aniseed flavour. Gather hazelnuts early to beat the squirrels and store them in shells in your airing cupboard.
In 2010, I became concerned not only with preserving the wild harvest but preserving the nutritional content as best I could. I decided after making elderberry cordial, rosehip syrup and hedgerow berry jam for years that I was boiling the life out of fresh fruit and decided to research the effects of heat on vitamin ‘c’. Having believed the old wives tales of making vitamin ‘c’ rich berry syrups for my children for a decade I bowed to modern science and reluctantly realised that I had been boiling most of the vitamin c out of the fruit for years. I therefore began experimenting with different ways of preserving berries without cooking. These are some of the ways I have discovered:
1. Fruit Leathers: mash up the berries in a bowl, pick out as many stones as possible (you could mash through a large gauge sieve, spread the paste thinly and dry somewhere in the sun but covered with paper or in the oven on a very low heat eg. 47 degrees for a couple of days. Cut the dried leather into sheets and store in air tight container. I have made leathers that have lasted nearly three years made in this way.
2. Put uncooked berries into vinegar and oil as a sweet salad dressing.
3. Blend with vanilla ice cream and refreeze.
Make a sugar syrup, pack uncooked bashed or pricked berries into a jar and cover with the hot syrup. Leave to seep for about three weeks then blend in a food processor to make a vitamin ‘C’ rich syrup.
Berries and rosehips could be dried whole to make a tea later, strained through muslin
Freeze small berries like elderberries in ice cube trays to pop out when needed.
Beginning with Wild Food.
To begin your journey into wild food foraging, processing and storing I recommend that you start with just three to five plants this year. Right now, choose three to five easily identifiable, easily accessible and simple to prepare weeds, I recommend dandelion, nettle, elderflowers/elderberries, ramson, and maybe daisy as they all meet these criteria but you can choose others. Write them down now or google some if you are having trouble thinking of names of weeds. Find one way you can use each and pledge to go out collecting this week and set aside some extra time before one mealtime to get to grips with it. Here are some basic family meal ideas, I dont apologize for not being ‘foodie’ I came to this from a background of being neglected underfed child then as a concerned mother wanting to future-proof her children so I don’t tend to offer gourmet recipes just healthy family basics. Plus I find it offensive to take a commoners food source and turn it into a fancy meal to impress friends at dinner parties or charge too much for in restaurants looking for a niche.
Bacon and Dandelion Pasta. Fry some bacon (or quorn?) roughly chop and fry a couple of handfuls per person of small/medium size dandelion leaves and a little onion with the meat, add to pasta.
Chickweed Pakora. Collect a small carrier bag of chickweed. Chop roughly. Make up a batter mix adding spices of curry, cumin etc. Stir in the chopped chickweed. Put dollops of the chickweed/batter mix into the frying pan and cook in oil. Drain on kitchen roll.
Elderflower cordial. Pick 12 heads of elderflowers on a dry non windy morning (else the pollen will have blown/washed away and the taste will not be as piquant). Put them upside down in a large bowl, cover with cold water and weigh the flowers down with a plate so they sit under the water. Leave for 24 hours then strain the water through a sieve into a pan, measure the liquid and for every 1pt add 300g of white sugar. Bring the flower water/sugar mixture to boil, add optional squeeze lemon, bottle hot in sterile bottles and seal immediately. The cordial will keep for up to three years. Dilute to taste with cold or hot water, fizzy water or milk or pour over deserts like a syrup, elderflower is especially nice to sweeten gooseberry deserts. A simple way to make champagne is to add a pinch of yeast to one of your cordial bottles decanted into a larger plastic pop bottle, shake then leave for two or three days, let off air and leave again. After about 5 days you will have light fizzy champagne without the complicated methods found in many recipes.
Elderberry or bilberry sweet yorkshire puddings with cream and sugar. Make up batter mix, add elderberries and spoon of white sugar, cook as yorkshire puddings and serve sprinkled with sugar and cream.
Ramson (or wild garlic) is often found in woods near rivers. Gather a few handfuls and chop up and mix with either new potatoes and butter or cream cheese and pasta. Use the white flowers in salads.
Nettle soup (and any other of the greens above thrown in) Collect a carrier bag of nettles from a shady spot so the nettles are not too dark, large and tough. Chop and fry a potato and an onion in oil, add the nettles (removing any large stems) and salt and pepper. Put a lid on and wilt it for a minute then add stock to just cover the nettles. Cook until the nettles are mushy then put in food processor with some cream and nutmeg to taste. My children will eat three bowls of this in a row! You could put a blob of cream cheese in to serve and a sprinkle of nutmeg, serve with oat cakes or crusty bread.
Adding to Your repertoire of Wild Food Recipes
When you have got used to including these ingredients in family meals without having to refer to recipes, choose another three to five plants to research and use. For the next year I might add:
Hogweed leaf buds
Jack by the hedge
Red clover flowers or lavender.
Wood Sorrel – looks like clover but found in woods and has a very tart lemony taste. Chop finely and mix with sugar and a little vinegar/oil to stuff fish. Serve with mash potato (including some silverweed root?) and steam fried hogweed leaf buds covered in butter.
Grate the root of Jack by the Hedge (garlic mustard) and add it to some mince to form into burgers. Serve in a bun with cheese and fresh garlic mustard leaves).
Make some almond shortbread biscuits and add either red clover flowers (chopped up) or lavender or dry red clover, lavender, chamomile and rose flowers to sweeten herb tea.
‘Gardeners Revenge’. Ground elder is no relation to the Elder tree but is still as useful in the kitchen and dry frying it and serving it in omelette or pasta gives gardeners the opportunity to get their own back on this pervasive troublesome weed. It’s really tasty and very easy to prepare – just fry!
Wild Food Foraging should no longer be seen as a quaint old fashioned idea our fore-bearer’s did for their survival because it’s benefits are too numerous to ignore for families today. The knowledge of how to secure healthy local food easily and for free is surely a legacy you would want to leave your children…. so get foraging now!
For advice or to book on a wild food walk or rural craft course with Diana please visit wildharvest.org