Whilst foraging has been around since the beginning of time, it has experienced something of a rise in popularity in recent years. Although Ray Mears and Bear Grylls probably started the latest trend with television programmes documenting their explorations of foreign lands, TV chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have inspired us to get outdoors and start looking for food closer to home. One consequence of this is that there is an increasing number of foraging courses to choose from.
Did you know? During World War Two, with food shortages causing real problems, the government encouraged the British public to both grow their own food and forage for it.
Foraging since World War Two
After the war ended, the economy recovered and society changed dramatically – as cars grew in popularity, supermarkets began to supply food cheaply and conveniently to shoppers who drove to them and stocked up. So we’ve become used to having cheap food at our fingertips, and simply haven’t needed to take to the hedgerow to stock our larders. The sad fact is that, as a nation, we simply don’t know how to forage anymore.
Did you know? Almost the whole year round, you can find a vast array of wild fungi, leaves, fruit, nuts and berries – all just freely available for foragers to make use of them.
In the last decade or so, we’ve become more concerned by the environmental impact of shipping food across the globe and interested in knowing more about where our food comes from. As our awareness has increased, it has become more important to source local, seasonal food. And, you can’t get much more local and seasonal, than by sticking to what’s available in our woodland, fields, and hedgerows.
Did you know? It’s illegal in the UK to forage for commercial gain, under the 1968 Theft Act.
Top finds for foragers in the UK
There’s a great variety of food that can be foraged in the UK, but some of the most popular are:
· Field mushrooms
· Sweet chestnuts
· Wild garlic
But foraging extends right to the edge of the country, with the coastline being another spot with plenty to lure in foragers –seaweed and mussels are two favourites.
The main thing that puts people off foraging is the fear of accidentally eating something poisonous and ending up in hospital. And that’s a very real worry to have – indeed, the Health Protection Authority has issued a number of warnings about foraging for mushrooms in recent years, after seeing a rise in the number of poisoning cases.
Did you know? There are around ten deadly wild mushrooms in the UK, and yet more that can make you feel very unwell.
As scary as accidental poisoning is, however, knowledge is power when it comes to foraging and with expert guidance there’s no reason why you can’t safely forage in the UK. In short – there is such a thing as a free lunch, if you look in the right places.
The best way to get clued up on what you can forage for is to spend some time on a foraging course.
What happens on a foraging course?
Most foraging courses are offered on a day or short course basis, and offer a solid introduction to safe foraging in the UK. These courses tend to be practical and ‘hands on’ in nature, and often end up with you preparing some foraged food and enjoying your ‘free lunch’. It’s possible to take foraging courses along a certain theme or season, such as coastal foraging or foraging in the spring – or to combine your foraging study with some other useful outdoorsy skill that Ray Mears would be proud of (bushcraft, anyone?)
Did you know? On the Galician coast of north-west Spain, men risk their lives in the name of foraging, as they attempt to collect goose barnacles from cliff faces, whilst the Atlantic Ocean crashes against them.
What happens after a foraging course?
Whilst a foraging course doesn’t lead to a particular formal qualification, it will probably pay for itself if you make use of the skills that you pick up on the course. Once you’ve done one foraging course at a particular time of year, you’ll find that you probably want to go and do another in a different season to keep your cupboards stocked with foraged foods all year round. And, if you get really lucky on your foraging travels, you might need to do another course to work out how best to preserve the food you forage!
By Fiona Hughes