Ever felt like you want to learn more about foraging local foods, but been too scared in case you accidentally pick something poisonous?
If so, I know how you feel.
For many years, I’ve had the desire to learn the old-age craft of searching for my own food in the wild rather than a supermarket, but my own ignorance and fear has held me back. I’ve been too scared of accidentally picking something like hemlock rather than cow parsley for example, and I recall all too well the deadly fate this plant held for the Ancient Greek Socrates…
And yet the draw of possessing the skills to be able to gather nature’s free gift – tasty food with high nutritional and medicinal value – is a strong one. But I didn’t feel confident enough to start out on my own. So, when I happened upon a local and highly rated foraging course whilst I was researching microadventures to do with the kids, I jumped at the opportunity.
When travelling as a family, we often book courses to learn local skills, from Batik in Bali to making traditional brass bowls in the souks of Marrakech. And these are often the parts of our trips we remember most fondly. There’s something incredibly bonding about learning new skills together. And yet, we rarely think about doing the same thing on our own doorstep. But in the post Covid world, I find myself considering options closer to home, which thankfully led me to the Jack Raven Bushcraft foraging course in Westwell, Kent (although here are some foraging course options for other parts of the UK). Note the details for this course suggest a minimum age of 12, but this is just a guide – if your children are sensible and keen to learn, they’ll happily welcome you onto the course, as they did with our 10- & 11-year-old.
This turned out to be the perfect start to our staycation this week, thoroughly enjoyed by all four of us. It also opened up a whole new world of possible cheap but highly nutritious additions to our weekly menus. Nettle curry anyone? Or perhaps you’d prefer a dandelion bhaji? At the end of the day, as we were driving away, Bean10 looked wistfully out of the window and said, “When I look out there now, all I see is food!” And even I’ve found myself eying up a particularly juicy looking dandelion on my morning runs!
Here’s how the day worked:
After meeting the one other (lovely) couple on our course, the course leaders – Gary and Nicola – gave us a quick rundown on:
- The legalities of foraging.
- Where best to forage, such as for example, avoiding plants along busy roadsides.
- How to forage in a sustainable way.
- What types of containers you should use – paper bags or wicker baskets are best to keep your food as fresh as possible.
Then, we set off at a very slow amble along the sunlit lane, stopping regularly to discuss, photograph, ask questions and where possible, taste leaves and flowers of the plants on our route. One of our first stops for example was at a patch of white dead-nettles. These are non-stinging plants, not in the same family as the stinging nettle, but instead a member of the Lamaiceae, which also contain mint, marjoram, basil and thyme. Gary explained that you can suck the sweet nectar from the flowers or just eat them in their entirety. Its leaves can be cooked up into a tasty stew along with its stem, although if peeled, the stem can also be eaten raw. Later, we also tried the flowers of red and yellow dead-nettles, although I think the whites were our favourites!
Gary was sure to point out both those species which were edible and those which were harmful. In some cases, an edible plant has a similar lookalike species which is highly poisonous, and in these instances, he described in detail the differences between the two types of plant. A perfect example of this is the cow parsley-hemlock similarity – if you’re interested in how to tell the aniseed-tasting cow parsley from the deadly toxic hemlock, check out this post from the Jack Raven website.
Not only would Gary and Nicola point out which parts of each edible plant you could eat and whether or not cooking was required, they also explained any medicinal benefits (a white dead-nettle poultice for example helps to draw out splinters from under your skin), along with basic recipes for making tinctures or ointments. A range of food and medicinal recipes are also available on their blog – we fully intend to make use of this resource and try out a few of our own now that we feel more confident in our identification abilities.
As we wandered along the road learning about its plant secrets, it was like a new world opened up to us. Now, instead of a mass of green, we could see lots of individual plant species, many of which we could pick and eat as we walked along. Some of the tastes took us completely by surprise, such as the sorrel with its strong and delicious citric apple-taste and the peppery, almost wasabi-like taste of the cuckoo flower.
I was also shocked to find that many of the plants I’d considered weeds in my own garden were edible and would make flavoursome additions to our evening meals. Some such examples, rife in our garden, are ground elder, dandelions, nettles and hogsweed. I had been on a mission to remove these plants, but instead I now intend to forage them to replace some of the vegetables I’d normally buy from Aldi!
Aside from white dead-nettle, cow parsley and hemlock, here are some of the other plants we learned about:
Coltsfoot – used in herbal medicinal treatments for coughs and asthma, as well as colds, fever and flu.
Hawthorn – the new leaves in spring have a nutty taste; the flowers are good to eat along with the haws themselves in the autumn, which can be made into jams, wine, or a type of sweet ketchup. The leaves and flowers can also be left to soak in vodka to make a tincture which has been shown to help with heart problems (see this post).
Comfrey – this has now been found to have carcinogenic properties if eaten although it’s great for the bees!
Dandelion – all parts of this plant are edible and high in vitamin A, C and K.
Sticky Willy (Galium aparine) – although we’ve always called it this, it’s also known as cleavers, stickyweed, hitchhikers, clivers, bedstraw, goosegrass, sticky bud and a whole host of other names. The tips of these can be eaten raw, and the whole stem and leaves can be made into soups and stews as the hook-like bristles soften with cooking. It’s supposed to be excellent for your lymphatic system.
Hogweed – the young shoots can be eaten. Not to be confused with giant hogsweed, which is much bigger with the tell-tale dangerous sign of a green stem with purple blotches (if you see this characteristic on a plant, don’t eat it!) and whose sap combined with sunlight can cause severe skin burns.
Nettles – which apparently are a better source of iron than even spinach. Tastiest part is the very top of the nettle.
Bittersweet – part of the nightshade family and poisonous.
Lords and Ladies – also toxic if eaten.
Mallow – edible including its pink flowers, although you shouldn’t collect these near roadsides as they can absorb the pollution from the cars, which you can taste!
Plantain – much more effective at curing nettle stings than dock leaves.
Yarrow – its peppery, bitter leaves and flowers are edible raw.
Primrose and Violet – flowers are edible and surprisingly sweet!
Sorrel and wood sorrel – as mentioned, the leaves are citric and delicious, although not to be eaten in large quantities.
Marjoram and Salad Burnet – whose leaves you can eat.
Cuckooflower – whose flowers have that wasabi-like flavour.
Ground-Ivy – edible leaves.
Jack-by-the-Hedge or Hedge Garlic – its leaves have a yummy garlic taste.
Wild Garlic – this was one of my favourites. The buds of the new flowers are particularly delicious.
Dog’s Mercury – poisonous and found amongst the wild garlic so it’s important when foraging to look at every leaf you pull out rather than grabbing large chunks, or else you might accidentally collect a few leaves of something toxic.
Once we’d familiarised ourselves with the variety of edible plants which surrounded us, we were all asked to collect some dandelions, young hogweed stems, ground elder, wild garlic and nettles, taking care to only pick a little from each patch. There was something incredibly liberating about this part of the day and the kids loved it. We passed a lot of walkers on our way all of whom were interested in what we were doing, and the Beans were only too happy to explain their new-found knowledge!
Time seemed to fly by and after three hours of learning and foraging along the hedgerows and in the woods, we arrived at the camp. Nicola lit a fire and set some water to boil for tea whilst Gary showed us around the camp. The children were particularly fascinated by the composting toilet as you were asked not to put the paper down the loo but instead to set it alight in a metal bowl next to the seat. As you can imagine, this caused great excitement and almost immediately, the kids decided they had to go to the toilet! It’s the small things in life…!
As it was already 1pm, we had a quick picnic lunch before cracking on with cooking our foraged food.
Cooking Our Foraged Food Over an Open Fire
First up was wood collection and lighting another fire, before Nicola set us all off on a different dish to make. All the ingredients, including our foraged food had been laid out on the table by her along with the recipes for each dish.
I made garlic naans, the Beans Dandelion Bhajis, MrJ a Nettle Curry (Urtica Aloo!), and the other couple Wild Pakoras with Ground Ivy Raita (recipes on the Jack Raven blog). All the recipes were super simple and quick to make.
Then came our chance to cook our dishes over the open fire much to the delight of the children. We even managed to get through the whole event without any burns! Nicola also fried up the hogweed stems in oil and lemon.
Finally, it was time to eat, and boy did it taste divine! I was so impressed with how delicious a meal you can make with free, local and fresh ingredients combined with a few very cheap ingredients such as flour and onions. And everything always tastes better when cooked over an open fire too!
On our walk back to the car, all four of us had huge smiles on our faces. It was a fantastic course: we’d learned so much and now felt very confident in going out on a forage of our own. I’d HIGHLY recommend this course. What’s more, there are many other foraging, herbal remedies, bushcraft and craft courses on offer with this excellent company (and they haven’t paid me to say that!), so now my only job is to choose our next one!
Warning: as noted above, some plants (in addition to the ones noted) are potentially very dangerous, so please make sure you take suitable advice before you start foraging in earnest.