A beginner’s guide to foraging

While its popularity dates back to hunter-gatherer times, foraging has entered the foodie vernacular with force in recent years, proving itself to be a mulish trend.

The practice refers to collecting food from the wild, whether it be your local park, woodland, beach or forest and using it in your cooking.

It’s a buzz word on menus of the world’s top restaurants. René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the two-Michelin star restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, widely regarded as the world’s best restaurant is a known fan. And the UK has jumped on board too – the annual Scottish Wild Food Festival is solely dedicated to the practice.

Another foraging fiend is ES contributor Clodagh McKenna, who often uses foraged goods like wild garlic in her weekly recipes and says she started sourcing seaweed on the Irish coast while she was growing up.

“My favourite things to forage for are wild garlic, seaweed, blackberries and mushrooms,” she says. “I love using them in my recipes and they taste so much better picked in the wild.”

Before lockdown, McKenna spent time in the woods surrounding her home foraging wild mushrooms.

“I ordered every book under the sun about wild mushrooms and so I taught myself which ones were safe to pick. We had a two month supply of mushrooms, which was amazing,” she says.

“I always cook with the seasons, and foraging makes that extra exciting. Foraged ingredients are so precious, so it inspires me to cook the best I can with them.”

If you’re a foraging novice and don’t know your everyday mushroom from your poisonous fungi, we’ve created a foraging guide for beginners below.

Is it possible to forage in London?

The best time to pick elderflower is between May and mid-June (Unsplash)

Yes – but be careful where you forage. Foraging in London’s Royal Parks is forbidden, and in 2018 the Royal Parks Charity said there was a 600 per cent increase in the number of foraging incidents in its park within a year and 35 police warnings were issued in 2017.

You don’t need the Royal Parks to forage in London – you’ll find sloe berries and elderflowers in Hampstead Heath, wild garlic and herbs in Battersea Park and walnuts, chestnuts and rocket in Burgess Park.

“The parks are full of beautiful edible leaves such as dandelion, chickweed, wild garlic and berries like blackberries and sloe,” McKenna says.

When it comes to foraging, where is a good place to start?

Firstly, you need to figure out two things: what you want to forage and where you are allowed to forage. Most woodlands and parks, as long as they aren’t private property, should be okay.

Most of your foraged items will be accompaniments to your meal – perhaps some herbs, berries and garnishes, even nuts and seeds, so get a rough idea of what you want to forage and start looking.

McKenna says: “If you live near the sea then I would say seaweed from the beaches, or if you are inland like me, the last of the wild garlic is still here and it’s so easy to identify and cook with.

“Woods, beaches, and hedgerows are abundant with wild exciting food. But be sure to buy a good foraging guide so that you know what you are looking for.”

You can check out our favourite things to forage and what to look for in the gallery above.

Look for blackberries in late summer, end of August through mid-September (Unsplash)

How do you know what’s in season?

The Woodland Trust has released a handy month-by-month guide to what’s in season in the UK. February is the best month to look for mushrooms and nettles, while in May, foragers should look for wild herbs like chickweed and in the warmer July months, keep your eyes peeled for wild strawberries.

What items should you avoid foraging?

It’s imperative that you are 100 per cent certain about what you have foraged before putting it anywhere near you mouth. If you have any reservations at all or are struggling to identify what you’ve picked, don’t risk it.

“I would avoid any plants that look blackened,” McKenna adds.

To know for certain, you’ll need to extensively read up on foraging before getting started and Forage London says whenever you are trying something new, only eat a ‘very small’ amount to make sure there are no adverse effects. Most common edibles also have poisonous lookalikes so, if you can, go foraging with a knowledgeable forager before you have a go at it yourself.

It’s also best to avoid areas common with dog walkers, for obvious reasons.

You can find Clodagh McKenna’s recipes here and follow her on Instagram @clodagh_mckenna


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