Call of the wild – top ten foraging foods
I have been inspired by the Hairy Bikers of late. Not, as some might think, by my girth and facial hair, but by their foraging around the country to find the best of British wild food. It’s fresh, it’s free, it can be done all year round, and it’s well worth the odd looks you might get from some as you dig up molluscs next to an urban playground. Well, mostly, and I hereby apologise to my French friend from years ago for refusing to take a bucket to our local park under cover of darkness to harvest snails. If only I’d known then how tasty they are with garlic butter.
From the beaches of Anglesey to the Isles of Orkney to your local park, wild food can be foraged in Britain almost anywhere. Try these ten for starters:
Razor clam: Razor clams look a bit of a faff the way the Hairy Bikers do them, but then they’re chefs. The hairy ones scattered salt on the sand to tickle the clams out, then boiled them, sliced them, put them back in their shells, grilled them and served them with homemade chilli oil and saffron mayonnaise. All very nice, but if you pan-fry washed razor clams with butter or steam them with cider, you can have them on the beach right beside where you tickled them out.
Brown crab: A tad trickier to catch, mainly because they have powerful claws they like to clamp onto fingers. You’ll find brown crabs in rock pools as the tide goes out, but it takes a while to be able to spot them as they hide in crevices and under ledges. Quite clever of them, really. Entice one out with a crab hook or stick, then take a deep breath and lift it up from behind the claws.
Spider crab: These tasty little critters are normally found in shallow waters and are fairly easy to spot. But not so easy to catch, as they’re the only crab that can reach behind themselves to dig their claws in – wear thick gloves when foraging for them.
Whelks, cockles and mussels: Possibly the easiest live food foraging ever, with no possibilities for broken fingers unless you trip over in the wet sand. Pick mussels and whelks from rocks and rock pools and comb the sand for cockles: if they’re not spottable when the tide is out, look for the tiny dimples in the sand that indicate cockles are down below.
Snails: Snails are everywhere, as anyone who’s decided to dash out to the bin at night without slippers will ruefully know. And they can be picked everywhere, including urban parks and your back garden. But unlike most other types of foraged food, snails can’t be cooked and eaten right away, not even with a gleeful cackle as you slather them in garlic butter. They need to be purged first, which means not dipping them in tequila as a surefire emetic but keeping them in a basin or bucket for up to a week until all nasties they could have eaten are in them no more. And then, smother in garlic butter.
Garlic: Like to add garlic to everything, but fear repelling all, vampire-like, in your path? Go foraging. British wild garlic is a milder and more sociable way to flavour food as it’s best to use only the leaves and not the stronger bulbs. Follow your nose in woodland to find a wild garlic patch or look for the star-shaped white flowers when the garlic blooms around April or May: crush the leaves and use them to make garlic bread, tear and scatter over pizza, or chop and add to whatever takes your fancy. Perhaps not cornflakes.
Seaweed: For anyone who was forced to eat dried, uncooked dulse as an innocent child, picking seaweed off rocks to use as a gastronomic delicacy might seem to take shoreline foraging a tad too far. But, although no-one saw fit to tell me this as a child, seaweed species can be eaten in many other ways than dried from a plastic bag – added to salads, boiled and made into Welsh laverbread, stirred into porridge, deep-fried or dried and used as a condiment or to thicken sauces. Gather seaweed mermaid-like off the rocks and experiment with it in the kitchen – it’ll probably taste better than dried dulse.
Mushrooms: Buy a field guide. And refer to it with the paranoia of a Roman emperor. There are several plump and tasty mushroom species in Britain that were designed for slicing, frying and adding to bacon, but there are also some that can cause severe poisoning or fatal organ failure when eaten, even if cooked. There are reams of tips online for identifying wild mushrooms, but again – buy a field guide, bring it with you and refer to it with the paranoia of a Roman emperor.
Sloe: Gin! Dive into blackthorn bushes for sloe berries, which can then be mixed with sugar and booze to make sloe gin. And, as you’re doing autumnal fruit foraging in the hedges anyway, pick a separate basket of blackberries and use it to make a bottle or two of blackberry brandy. For over-indulging, a tonic or tea made from wood sorrel is said to be a good hangover cure; perhaps the leaves could also be added to a Bloody Mary.
Go nuts: There’s more to nut species in Britain than getting your favourite conker smashed by the school bully in a deliberately unevenly balanced match, or licking the dust out of the last packet of Dry Roasted in the pub, neither of which I have ever done. Walnuts, sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, beech nuts and pine nuts are all findable in autumn to squirrel away, with acorns useable to make coffee or flavour cakes. Remember to leave enough for the squirrels, and to find that mammoth conker to swing about your head and pretend to be vanquishing a playground bully.
Under the Theft Act 1968 for England and Wales and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, foraging for nuts, berries, plants and seafood away from public paths is generally allowed as long as the landowner’s permission is gained and what is picked or foraged isn’t for commercial use (there are exceptions in Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall for the commercial gathering of seaweed). Local byelaws can prohibit foraging in a certain area, such as National Trust land.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 made it an offence to forage on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), or to uproot a wild plant without the permission of the landowner.
There’s no official code of conduct for wild food foragers (yet), but common-sense guidelines include:
- Always pick in moderation: leave enough for others or for the plant/habitat to recover.
- Take care not to damage surrounding plants or vegetation.
- Be aware of trespassing laws when foraging: landowners can ask you to leave if they find you on their property.
- Don’t collect species you don’t intend to use.
- Follow the Countryside Code: leave gates and property as you find them, keep dogs under control and take litter home.
Finding foraging sites
Take your bucket and torch away from your back garden or park and go foraging around the coast or in woodland, using the Pitchup.com filters and guides to find a campsite or caravan park in the area or with the theme you want: