The art of foraging is almost as ancient as humanity itself. One of the first adaptations early humans made was the transition to hunting and gathering. We taught ourselves to hunt wild animals and gather plants to feed our families, habits that became so essential to our survival that it lasted for 90 per cent of human history, before farming was introduced at the end of the Stone Age. In a world before online shopping and takeaway pizza, foraging was a vital part of daily life for our ancestors and one on which they depended to stay alive. Now we have such secure, affordable and varied food production, why should we bother to forage for our food? Why seek out blackberries or hazelnuts when we can find them all in the supermarket?
By examining how far we have strayed from our primordial roots, it comes more and more apparent why we must reconnect with nature and our wild origins. In Stephen Moss’ 2012 Natural Childhood report for the National Trust, it was revealed that on average, British children watch more than 17 hours of television a week and spend more than 20 hours a week online. While there are positive benefits of screen time, the belief is that children are not being given the freedom to escape outdoors and enjoy the natural world. Access to nature has also proven to have positive effects on the mental and physical health of adults. It is essential that we switch up our weekly schedules and spend more time in the beautiful landscapes our country has to offer – foraging is the perfect way to do it.
We are also living in a world where more and more people are keen to know where their food has come from. Cheap products with dodgy labels are all very well, but many of us now rightly insist on understanding the provenance of our food, particularly regarding animal welfare, environmental costs and unethical ingredients.
When carried out sustainably and respectfully, foraging is an incredibly environmentally friendly choice, with no reliance on chemicals and pesticides, the food is seasonal, and there is no carbon footprint from importing and transportation. It can literally be harvested from the ground and carried lovingly to your own kitchen, ready to be savoured and devoured. When I scoop a thick blob of blackberry jam onto a piece of warm toast, my mind fills with recollections of misty autumn walks and the kitchen cupboard is transformed into a scrapbook of delicious memories.
Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris, July to October
One of my favourite flowers to spot through the summer and autumn months, the mallow always pop up like someone has dropped a bag of bonbons. Young leaves and shoots are juicy and excellent in salads, soups and stews. The flowers are perfect for crystallising and make a wonderful decoration for puddings. Simple coat each flower with egg white and sprinkle with icing sugar, then leave to dry and solidify for a spectacularly sweet finish.
Goosegrass, Galium aparine, All year
One of the most amusing plants to discover as a child, goosegrass (or ‘sticky buds’ as we called them) brightened up Sunday afternoon walks with ‘How many sticky buds can you attach to Mum’s coat before she realises?’ game. Try to gather young shoots and leaves before the seeds harden and they can be chopped and used in fresh salads or as an alternative to spinach in cooked vegetables. To make a less caffeinated coffee substitute, slow roast the seeds at a low temperature and grind them for use in a cafetiere.
Common Gorse, Ulex europaeus, January to June
A familiar flowering plant across most British heathlands, the gorse bush is both beautiful and vicious. The petals have a delicious, coconutty aroma that is definitely worth capturing if you have the patience. Once enough petals have been gathered, use them to make a delicate panna cotta, sweet cakes or my gorse honey mead with a chilli kick.
Common Nettle, Urtica dioica, March to May
There are few people in Britain who won’t be acquainted with the nettle; delicious and healthy as they are, the leaves and stems are covered in stinging hairs and it’s a rite of passage for small children to fall into a nettle patch and reappear covered in a blotchy rash. Their leaves taste the best when picked in spring. Cook young leaves and shoots like spinach, sautéing in butter, garlic and salt for extra flavour, or add the leaves to hot soups, sauces and stews. Nettles make an excellent home brewed beer and when left to settle will produce a clear, russet draught with a wonderful wild tang.
Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis, March to June
This pretty, pale flower takes its name from the time it blossoms when the cuckoo begins its clockwork song. Once used as an alternative to watercress, cuckooflower shares the same, peppery taste and makes a great addition to salads, soups and sandwiches.
Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, September to November
According to Celtic lore, haw berries make a tremendous remedy for a broken heart. While a little too dry to eat, the berries are one of the key ingredients in hedgerow jelly, and they can be infused in vinegar, or used to make tea and cordial. The young leaves in spring have a delicate flavour and can be chopped and added to salads.
I’ve used cider vinegar in this recipe as it’s my favourite kind, but you can also use malt, sherry or red wine vinegars.
300ml cider vinegar
1 mug hawthorn berries
Pour the vinegar into a 500ml bottle and leave the top open. Take your mug of haw berries and use a knife to gently slit each one, before popping them into the bottle with the vinegar. Keep adding the berries until the vinegar reaches the top of the bottle. If you run out of berries before this point, top it up with a little more vinegar. Leave to infuse at kitchen temperature for 4-6 weeks.
This is an abbreviated extract from Food You Can Forage by Tiffany Francis, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife.