In these modern times, it’s easy to forget that most food comes straight from the ground.
As time-poor urban warriors who strut our stuff on the digital battlefield, the only hunter-gathering we do nowadays takes place in supermarkets. We peruse the aisles of conveniently lined up food, before stalking up to the self-checkout machines. Our spears are our contactless bank cards.
But long before remote jobs, computers, supermarkets, farmers markets and even agriculture itself, there was a different way of doing things. Foraging for food. Gaining a knowledge of what wild plants, fruits, nuts and fungi are edible, and where to find them.
Wild food is by nature organic, and more often than not is packed full of vital vitamins and minerals. Much of it has medicinal benefits and folkloric stories attached. Despite being a free resource available to all, in many Western countries wild food knowledge is unknown to the masses. If it does make your plate, it’ll probably be part of an expensive starter at a restaurant.
Even in the 2020s, with our heads permanently in the cloud, it’s still possible to incorporate foraging in to your life. Taking the time to scan a hedgerow, forest or park for these foods can add a fresh twist to our lives, seriously boost our health, save money and allow us to reconnect with the earth in the age of technology.
Millions of wild, edible species can be found across the world. There are far too many species to mention. Below is a brief overview of the wild food highlights of the UK and Europe only.
Wild food calendar – a cursory glance
From mid-February through to May, wild garlic can be found in abundance along the banks of pretty much all wooded streams. The smell is hard to miss. While all parts of the plant can be eaten, the leaves and flowers are generally preferred by chefs to the bulbs. Wild garlic leaves can be used in salad, but are best diced and added as a final touch to steak, seafood, or pasta sauce. While not quite as strong as traditional garlic, the earthy, aromatic flavour is loved by gourmet chefs. The flowers, which usually arrive in May, make a novel addition to salads.
Stinging nettles are notorious for, well, stinging. Most of us prefer to steer clear of them. However, the young leaves can be made in to a surprisingly tasty soup. Despite their ready availability, stinging nettles are sold in UK farmers markets for as much as £5 ($8), where health food enthusiasts snap them up for their high content of vitamins A, C and K. You don’t need to live in a forest cottage miles from civilisation to find nettles – any hedgerow (or even piece of waste ground) should have them in abundance. There are multiple ways to remove the sting – cooking, crushing, freezing, blending… But make sure to only use the very top young leaves, and pick them in Spring, while they are still young and fresh.
As June arrives, elder trees burst in to flower. The unique fragrance of elderflower has seen it achieve mainstream popularity in drinks, and it can be turned in to a cordial or a champagne perfect to enjoy on lazy summer afternoons. Honeysuckle makes a brilliant sorbet, and wild strawberries are true gifts of nature – You’ll be lucky if you can resist them long enough to take them home to the kitchen.
Late summer and autumn is arguably the golden period for foraging. This is the season where the woods and fields are the most plentiful, and become free supermarkets in their own right. Vitamin C-rich blackberries line the bushes, sweet chestnuts fall from the trees, and mushrooms shoot up from the ground. Crab apples are tart, but make an exquisite dessert fried up with rum and ginger.
Mushrooms can be delicious, foul-tasting, sweat-inducing, hallucinogenic or straight up deadly. Given the huge variety of similar looking species which have totally different hidden properties, they must be approached with caution and careful consideration. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to learn the rules and always edge to the side of caution, picking fungi can be hugely rewarding. A whole host of luxury mushrooms are out there waiting to be found for free in woods and fields, even around big cities. It’s a subtle art – certain fungi species are more likely to be found around certain tree species, and many only remain intact for a few days before deliquescing into nothingness. Morels and porcini mushrooms can be a challenge to track down, but will blow the button mushrooms we’re used to eating straight out of the water. Parasols are much more common and can be pretty damn tasty when fried with garlic. Add lemon and pine nuts just before serving to bring the dish up a level further.
Parasol mushroom ^
As autumn turns to winter, the life fades out of the land, and we must wait until spring again for the majority of the wild food to return. But even when the land appears most lifeless, it’s still offering us up dietary supplements. Rosehip berries taste somewhere between an orange and an apple, and can be used to treat inflammation and gastrointestinal infections. Sloe berries are rumoured to be best picked after the first frost of the year, and are often made in to the age-old English classic – sloe gin.
So there you have it – our forests, fields, hedgerows and parks are packed full of culinary delights and surprise superfoods. This article was only a fleeting glimpse of what wonders are out there, waiting to be picked. So put your phone on aeroplane mode for ten minutes, go outside, and dive in to our ancestors’ pantry. Money may not grow on trees, but high-end ingredients do.
By Alexis Parrinder