Foraging

I fell in love with foraging when I moved to the edge of the city, with fields and woods within a few minutes’ walk. Nature walks and learning the names of birds and plants had already changed my relationship to the living world around me; foraging introduced a whole new degree of intimacy, eating of the wilderness to make it part of the substance of my body. I started to experience seasonality directly (things grow when they grow), with the attendant acceptance and relinquishing of control, and also to acquire our ancestors’ instinct for where and when to find plants. There is also the wonder of the landscape changing constantly, of flavours not available in shops, and the relationship to place.

While I’m hoping these foraging notes of mine will encourage others to venture into the woods, this is not an invitation to see all of nature as a free buffet we are entitled to. Please be sure to start with the ethics and practical advice below.

Foraging Ethics

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist of Potawatomi heritage, offers precious guidance for respectful foraging in The “Honorable Harvest”: Lessons From an Indigenous Tradition of Giving Thanks (also a TED talk):

The canon of indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are “rules” of sorts that govern our taking, so that the world is as rich for the seventh generation as it is for us.

The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this:

  • Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
  • Never take the first. Never take the last.
  • Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. 
  • Take only what you need and leave some for others.
  • Use everything that you take. 
  • Take only that which is given to you. 
  • Share it, as the Earth has shared with you. 
  • Be grateful. 
  • Reciprocate the gift.
  • Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.

Practical Advice

To the above points, I would add:

  • Err on the side of caution. Only pick plants you can identify with certainty, and let someone experienced teach you how to recognize the trickier ones. This is especially important for mushrooms! It is wise to learn about poisonous plants in your area in addition to edible ones.
  • Avoid collecting from the sides of busy roads, industrial areas, near farms that spray pesticides, and other contaminated areas. Small amounts from such places may not be harmful, but the effect of heavy metals and chemicals can be cumulative and show over time.
  • Refrain from collecting roots in the wild. Many are edible, of course, but when you collect the roots, you kill the plant, and the wilderness can’t afford this anymore. We have to be content with the renewable parts of a plant.
  • What you need to go foraging depends on what you aim to collect. If you’re starting out and just picking what turns up at this stage, keep some paper bags on you (useful for most things) and maybe one small tupperware (for instance for poppy seeds or juicy berries). As you gain experience, you’ll know what you like and how to be prepared. A pair of snips and garden gloves are helpful for certain things..

Crème de Pissenlit (French dandelion soup)

A French dandelion-based soup, spiced up with mustard. Coconut milk can be used to keep it dairy-free/vegan (in this case sauté the veg in olive oil rather than butter), but to avoid making it too heavy I would suggest using just 1C coconut milk and replacing the rest with water or more stock.

Khobbeizeh bi Zeit (Sautéed Mallow)

Mallow (malva sylvestris), known in the Levant as khobbeizeh (“little piece of bread”, possibly due to the round shape of its leaves or its nutritional value) is out in force right now. Here’s a simple recipe for a mezzeh or breakfast, or as a side. Yum.

Nässelsoppa (Swedish Nettle Soup)

A traditional springtime recipe in Sweden, this soup makes use of the abundant young nettles shooting out at that time of the year. Nettle tops can be frozen for use later, though — and so can the soup itself. (At the time of publishing this post, nettles in the UK are flowering and seeding and it’s too late to harvest nettle tops, but it’s still possible to find some fresh shoots around the older ones).

To make it dairy-free, use 1T olive oil instead of the butter, and omit the crème fraîche. Leave out the egg as well for a vegan version.

Hawthorn Leather

Fruit leathers are a brilliant and simple way of preserving fruit, especially when it’s in excess or overripe and would otherwise go to waste. The basic principle is to purée the fruit (which can be combined to taste), spread it out and dry until no longer sticky. The “leather” can then be cut into strips or rolled up, will keep for a very long time, and is a handy healthy snack to keep on hand (no sugar needs to be added).

In this recipe, foraged blackberries are used to add flavour to the nourishing-but-plain-tasting haws, but the juice of other fruit (and a little sugar if really needed) can be added instead. Add a little water before step 2 if the pulp is too stiff. (Start with more information about foraging for haws.)

Poppy

Stumbling across a patch of poppies, a firework of red over a green or golden field, is the joy of my summer hikes. There is little danger of mistaking them for anything else. A few recipes: