Foraging is something I have been interested in for a good couple of years now. TV chefs like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall always make it seem so easy – have a quick rummage in a hedgerow and just like that, you have everything you need for a wild garlic and watercress soup; tonight’s dinner, sorted!
Being a city girl, and having precisely no knowledge when it comes to edible plants and wild food, I always figured that joining the likes of HFW in his foraging adventures was best left to countryside folk (or at least people with great big gardens, living in the leafiest, roomiest city suburbs). Apart from the odd blackberry, I figured my chances of becoming a pro forager were pretty slim. There just aren’t many hedgerows in Canton…
Now I know that all of this is about to change. And that’s because last weekend, on the hottest day of the year so far, I spent four hours roaming around Bute Park in Cardiff on a guided forage with Wildfood UK. I still can’t believe that during the last three years of walking home from work, unbeknownst to me, I’ve been wandering past so much free food!
My introduction to the leafy larder that is Bute Park started at the Castle Street entrance where I was met by Eric from Wildfood UK. For Eric, sustainable foraging is part of his family tradition and he has many years’ experience of farming, foraging and eating from the wild. After growing up in the South Downs, he has since worked in France and Spain, as well as the UK, and along the way, has built up a wealth of knowledge about wild food.
Eric started our foraging experience with a safety talk and a brief outline of the laws around foraging on public land which currently exist in the UK. Basically, you’re pretty much fine to take whatever you like for personal consumption, as long as you’re not ‘excavating’ – actually digging anything up. In some places, there might be restrictions, but you will always find info about any by-laws which exist by checking the signage at the park entrance.
Next, Eric introduced us to a plant that we should all steer completely clear of – hemlock water dropwart. This incredibly poisonous plant contains enough toxins to kill a man in a couple of hours, and once ingested, there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop it! Crazy!
After the safety stuff was out of the way, it was straight down to the business of finding some edible plants, and just centimentres from where we were standing we found our first foraged treat, ground elder. The leaves on this plant are best picked when then are very young and have a shiny green to them, rather than picking the matt leaves that develop as the plant matures. Eric advised us that the flavour really comes out best when it is cooked or marinated, but we gathered up a hefty bunch to add to the salad we would be eating at the end of our walk.
Over the course of the next few hours, we were taught about the health benefits of Birch tree sap, the best times for picking wild garlic, and the best ways to cook hogweed. Turns out, one of these is in a simple soup, a sample of which we got to try from Eric’s flask. It was delicious!
As the afternoon progressed, we also learned where to find pig nuts, and how best to eat white flower comfrey (deep fry the leaves in batter – yum)! My absolute favourite find of the day though, was a bumper crop of St George’s mushrooms. These are one of the only all-white mushrooms that are safe to eat, they grow in rings, and are considered a gourmet mushroom – in fact, they have been known to fetch up to £40 a kilo!
After learning how to spot and prepare a few more edible treats (including wild sorrel, common nettles and scarlet elf cup mushrooms) it was time for our guided forage to come to an end – but not before we’d had a spot of lunch. Cue Eric, our guide, producing a delicious lunch of foraged-mushroom pate, wild garlic pesto, and fresh crusty bread from his backpack! The perfect way to end a lush afternoon.
My foraging experience with Wildfood UK was pretty awesome. A small part of that was down to the balmy spring weather we had on Saturday, but it wasn’t just that. I found the walk totally eye-opening and it has inspired me to learn more about the edible plants we have around us here in the UK. Later on that evening, I had enough St George’s mushrooms to enjoy a delicious supper of gourmet mushrooms on toast, and a load of leafy greens which went straight in to an omelette the next day. I’m looking forward to trying a few more of the recipes on the Wildfood UK site soon.
If all of this sounds right up your street, an urban forage with Wildfood UK costs £35pp, and there are Spring courses running from now until the end of May. Mushroom geeks like Eric (his words not mine) might be better waiting until September when the Autumn courses start – these are priced at £40pp and include a glass of homemade elder-flower champagne.
For more info about the Wildfood UK courses available in Cardiff and across the UK, see: www.wildfooduk.com