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.
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.
Reciprocate the gift.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
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.
For more information
It’s always recommended to learn about a plant from several different sources before attempting to collect and eat it. On this blog I only post plants that cannot be mistaken for a toxic look-alike, but if you want to expand your range, it’s really advisable to check whether such “evil twins” exist. Here are a few useful sites that are reliable as far as I can tell.
This is such an easy recipe – granted, I’m using an ice cream maker, but it’s possible to make ice cream without one if you’re willing to put in the extra work (personally I drew the line there – too much hassle for an imperfect result).
I substituted some of the lemon for elderberry vinegar I had made the previous summer. The flavour was great and it also contributed a pretty pink colour!
To store for tea purposes, simply rinse and spread out to let them dry (this won’t fully remove the sting so handle with care).
To use directly, start by removing the stems (wearing gloves). The leaves can then be cooked (for instance added to a soup or stew for protein) or blended (if making a pesto or a dip): either method will eliminate the sting.
To preserve, blanch the de-stemmed leaves for a few minutes in salted water, drain well, chop roughly and freeze. Keep the water to use as stock! It can be frozen too, if not using at once.
Eat fresh as an energy-boosting trail snack. They tingle a bit but rolling them slightly between your fingers first will tone that down.
To dry them, spread out in a tray and leave a week or so. The seeds are then easy to rub off the stems (I use my fingers but you can also rub between two sieves or the like. Don’t worry about the very fine stems). Store in a jar in a cool place. Sprinkle a teaspoon onto your breakfast as a tonic supplement. (I don’t like taking a teaspoon directly because the texture of a clump of dried seeds in your mouth is a bit odd.)
A few recipes:
Tea: Put fresh or dried leaves in a pot and boil until the water starts turning green, or longer for a stronger brew (pouring hot water over the leaves is not enough to bring out the buttery feel of proper nettle tea). Optional: adding a few drops of lemon will turn it pink! If the season allows, throw in fresh bramble tops for a really good pairing.
Quick sauté: Sauté sliced garlic in some butter (with a pinch of chili if you like). Add fresh nettle leaves, season and fry till fully wilted. Serve with a squeeze of lemon.
General: Substitute fresh leaves for spinach in any recipe.
Young leaves can be simply rinsed and eaten raw (think salad or smoothie.)
Older, more bitter leaves are more palatable after blanching: add to boiling water for 2 min, then drain. Repeat if necessary. Such a treatment will take away some of the nutrients, but you can save the stock, which also promotes digestion.
To preserve a large harvest for off-season enjoyment, blanch and freeze.
The first thing to do is de-stem them. If using soon, store the leaves in the fridge 3-4 days, and rinse with cold water before using. To save them for later, you have a few options:
Rinse and spread out to dry, then store in glass jars (they may still sting)
Rinse and process in a blender, then freeze in food containers. (Blending removes the sting, and is the method to use to consume nettles raw, for instance in a pesto or smoothie.)
Another option, whether you’re going to use them immediately or freeze them, is to blanch them before anything else. This removes the sting and you can then de-stem more easily:
Drop your harvest into a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes, till limp. The water can be salted (in this case save it to use as stock), or not (in this case you can directly drink it as tea).
Drain the leaves thoroughly, squeezing out excess liquid, over a bowl.
Remove stems and chop the leaves roughly.
Use right away or freeze in food containers.
Seeds: The seeds can be eaten fresh; that’s when they have the strongest stimulating effect, so avoid before bedtime (conversely, they are a great snack while on the trail). To preserve them, they can be frozen or pickled, but in my opinion the most practical way of preserving a large stock of seeds is to dry them:
Spread out the clusters and they will dry out in a few days.
Separate the seeds from the stems by rubbing them between the hands, or through a coarse-mesh sieve.
Store in a glass jar.
Take up to 1tsp a day mixed in with your morning yogurt, porridge or other breakfast (this makes them more palatable than taking a spoonful directly, at least to me!)
A few recipes:
Nettles can be used in place of spinach in any cooked dish that calls for the latter. Add the leaves to soups and stews for added nutrition.
Ripe fruit packed with nettle leaves keeps fresh longer as mould formation is stifled.
The leaves have a high nitrogen content: add them to your compost heap to boost the bacteria that break down the material.
For the same reason, they make an excellent fertiliser: Fill a bucket with nettles (the whole plant can be used) and cover with water. Leave out for a week or so. The resulting dark (and stinking) liquid is rich in nitrogen: dilute 1 part to 10 parts water to use as plant feed.
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.
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.
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.
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.)