Is it possible to forage our own wild food in twenty first century Britain? Can we really take the habit of our ancestors and supplement our own lives with nettle leaves and hazelnuts, or are we destined for processed food and produce loaded with carbon miles?
When I was writing my first book Food You Can Forage, I encountered the same two questions over and over again: Isn’t it dangerous to eat wild food? And isn’t it bad for the environment to take plants out of their habitats? The first question can usually be answered with a few golden rules around awareness of where you are foraging and making sure you are 100% sure on your identification. But I found the second question fascinating and almost reassuring, simply because so many people were aware that picking wildflowers could be illegal and to remove plants from their habitats was fundamentally a bad thing to do. In a world where we are constantly reminded of people becoming disconnected from nature, I was amazed at just how many people were actually engaged with these issues.
Nonetheless, there was still a disheartening side to this question. We have lived for thousands and thousands of years in the British landscape, and for the majority of that we were hunter-gatherers, long before farming was introduced and we started reshaping the land for our own use. Foraging plants was the only way to sustain ourselves and our families, yet fast forward to 2018, and we have reached a point at which well-meaning people would rather import an avocado from across the globe with no knowledge of its environmental or social impact, rather than harvest a few leaves of garlic mustard for supper.
There are, of course, important things to consider before encouraging everyone to forage their own food. We have all been guilty of taking a few too many wild garlic leaves or berries from the hedgerow, a handful more than we need that will end up on the compost heap when it could have fed birds or butterflies instead. Some fragile nature reserves should be no-go areas if they are to retain such diverse ecosystems, and there are some plants that were once abundant just thirty years ago, but cannot now be picked with a clear conscience.
When done in the right way, however, foraging your own wild food is one of the best ways we can connect with the natural world and reduce our impact on the Earth. A 200g packet of spinach from Tesco in spring will cost you £1 and is loaded with carbon miles as it is grown, transported and imported all the way from places like Italy and the Netherlands. Buying local homegrown spinach is a better option, but how about harvesting free, nutrient-rich nettles from the land where they grow in abundance from March onwards? There’s nothing quite like the aroma of fresh nettle leaves sizzling in garlic and butter.
To step outside into your local environment and harvest just enough of an abundant species to feed your family is a wonderful thing, and essentially far kinder to the planet. Wild food can be a fantastic supplement to a modern diet, adding a fresh twist of seasonal goodness to your plate, and helping us all take back responsibility for our food.
The transition from spring to summer is a brilliant time to start foraging. Garlic mustard, cleavers and dandelions are perfect for frying up and adding to soups and stews, while cuckooflower leaves make a great alternative to watercress. Elderflowers are also emerging in all their creamy, frothy loveliness, and if champagne isn’t your favourite thing to drink, why not fry flower clusters in batter to make delicious elderflower fritters? Elsewhere, look out for sweet wild strawberries hiding in weed-smothered pits and banks. These tiny flavour bombs are difficult to spot, but a few berries sprinkled over cakes and crumbles, or crushed in the bottom of a prosecco glass, really capture the natural joy of the summer season.
Pink Dandelion Wine
When the frosts of winter finally begin to thaw in March, dandelions are one of the first flowers to unfurl in the weakened sun. Although their seed ‘clocks’ were a most accurate way to tell the time as a child, for adults they can be used to create something a little more tempting. Dandelion wine is known for its unique and tangy flavour, but combined with the tart sweetness of raspberries it makes for a refreshing drink in late summer. Pick your dandelions on an early spring morning, when the flowers are in full blossom and the heads just starting to open; the final concoction should be drunk ice cold with a dash of lemonade for extra sparkle.
10 mugs dandelion heads
2.3 litres boiling water
350g fresh raspberries
1 rounded tsp yeast
Take a demijohn and sterilise with hot, soapy water before rinsing and leaving to dry. Wash the dandelion heads in cold running water, snipping off any green leaves where the head joined the stem, and pop each head into the demijohn. Cover with the boiling water and leave to stand overnight. The next day, squeeze the contents through a teatowel or muslin cloth and combine with the lemon and lime juices, raspberries and sugar in a preserving pan. Heat gently and simmer for 25 minutes. In the meantime, clean and sterilise the demijohn. Once the liquid has finished simmering, return it to the demijohn and cool to room temperature, around 25°C. Add the yeast and swirl until it has dissolved and spread out, and leave to ferment with an airlock for 12 days. After this time, strain the liquid into swing-top bottles. For the first 24 hours, leave the swing-top resting on the bottle without securing, to reduce the chance of major fizz explosion. Seal the bottles and leave for at least six months before drinking.
Tiffany Francis is a nature writer and artist from the South Downs where she previously worked as Creative Developer and goatkeeper at Butser Ancient Farm. Her first book Food You Can Forage was published in 2018 by Bloomsbury. Her next book Dark Skies is due around Summer 2019, all about exploring the landscape at night.
n.b all images credit Tiffany Francis