Safe and sustainable foraging
My foraging posts are always popular, reflecting the growing interest in wild foods, including their appearance on the menus of some seriously swanky restaurants and a small army of professional foragers to supply them. There are lots of delicious things out there to collect and eat for free but there are certain warnings and caveats I should point out.
The main warning is about positive identification - do not pick or eat anything unless you are absolutely sure what it is. The attractive looking plant in the picture that resembles flat leaved parsley is in fact hemlock water dropwort and is extremely poisonous; one of my books states that eating a good portion of it will kill you within three hours and even a small amount can make you very ill indeed as it affects the central nervous system. Anyone that knows their classics will know that it’s hemlock that did for Socrates.
I only post about wild foods that are widely available and easily identified, but even so, do not use my posts as your only method of identification; get yourself a good field guide or two. The classic text for Britain is Richard Mabey’s Food for Free, originally published 40 years ago and still the best and most comprehensive. It’s also available as a pocket guide that’s more convenient to carry around than the full scale hard back. The River Cottage Handbook series includes two books on foraging, Edible Seashore and Hedgerow, both written by the very jolly John Wright, that cover some of the most widely available species in those habitats. All of these books provide useful identification notes, photographs and recipes. They also provide guidance on the somewhat complex laws on collecting wild food on private and public land which I will not attempt to explain here.
If you don’t feel confident using a book as a guide, there are numerous courses on foraging popping up all over the country. Here in Birmingham, Loaf Cookery School runs a monthly Forage and Cook in urban Stirchley and River Cottage run some fancier versions in the south west. A really good website is Eat Weeds that offers advice, recipes and courses all over the UK.
Many people wonder whether it’s sustainable to collect wild foods. So long as you stick to common species and aren’t greedy, there’s plenty to go round. Don’t take more than you need and spread your gathering about. Never clear a whole patch, pick a few leaves or whatever here and there, leaving plenty to regenerate the plant and to provide food for animals and birds that rely on it as a food source. Never pick rare species and try to avoid digging up entire plants.