Under ‘common law’ we have the right to pick the four ‘F’s’; flowers, fruits, foliage and fungi. We can exercise this right on any public land, if foraging on private land it is good practice to seek permission, though not essential. Wild plants and fungi are not owned by anyone, unless you have picked them and they are in your possession.
From a culinary perspective, wild foods add extra excitement, creativity, and above all else, unique and varying flavours. Their versatility knows no boundaries, they can be added to, or become dishes in their own right, be transformed into jams, jellies, syrups, sweets, pickles and chutneys, infused in alcohol or brewed in their entirety to produce wine, beer and cider, dried for herbal teas, longer storage and later use, powdered and blended to create bouillons, native spice mixes and curing blends… the list goes on and on…
We live in a time where economic prowess takes precedence over our personal and environmental health, a worrying trend indeed. The natural world is the life support system for humans and everything else; why would anyone want to endanger that? Many of us work long hours, live time pressured, stressful lifestyles and struggle to find the time to relax properly and eat healthily – the solutions to these problems are the problems themselves. We are all encouraged to get outdoors more, get fresh air, exercise, eat more healthily, in order to reduce stress and improve our health; foraging is the perfect prescription here for all of this. Pilot projects are currently being carried out with the aim of exploring whether nature can be utilised as a means of social prescription – I believe that if carried out independently and fairly these studies will be successful.
I find foraging for wild foods to be deeply relaxing and therapeutic and so much more besides, I often find myself deeply immersed in a meditative dreamlike state of mind, dancing through my thoughts, yet ever present in that moment, and always feel better for the experience. Participants on my courses often comment on how much happier and healthier they feel after a half day wandering and eating the wilds. Foraging can open ours hearts, eyes and minds to more natural and sensible ways of thinking, acting and being. Foraging isn’t so much about the end result (though a basket of tasty mushrooms is excellent!), it’s more about the journey and discovery.
Foraging, the very natural act of seeking one’s food and resources, is etched deep within our genetic make-up, and this practice is gaining in popularity. Records indicate that humans have been foraging in the UK for more than 30,000 years. As a species we’ve been foraging since time immemorial, and globally there are still many cultures, tribes and societies that rely on foraging as an essential part of their daily survival and well-being, which in turn provides a deeper connection and understanding with their natural environments and themselves.
In other parts of the world this is not the case; we have unwittingly surrendered ourselves to the reliance of other people and systems to supply our requirement for food and water, the basics to sustaining life. This disconnect from our food chain, in particular natural wild food sources, has led to a loss of innate knowledge and dented our confidence. Thankfully, foraging and other outdoor activities can restore our vital connection with the rhythms and cycles of nature, and ourselves; it’s extremely powerful, liberating and fun, but in order to experience we must first partake.
Many believe that a trip to the local countryside is required to find suitable foraging grounds. Whilst this holds an element of truth, it is also far from the reality. Urban foraging opportunities abound right here in Leeds; public parks, urban green spaces and gardens all prove to be very fruitful foraging grounds. Couple these with Leeds’ close proximity to the countryside and the opportunities for foraging increase exponentially. Woodlands, fields, hedgerows, rivers, streams and swamps are all viable harvesting grounds, and for the more intrepid there is easy access to the coast too!
The four seasons play host to a plethora of exciting, tasty, nutritious and versatile ingredients; fresh, vibrant green herbs, vegetables, shoots and leaves such as wild garlic, common hogweed and lime, heavenly scented flowers like elderflower and honeysuckle, aromatic, flavoursome seeds and roots of alexander, thistle and burdock, plump juicy berries, fruits and nuts including cherries, damsons, apples and hazel, interesting lichens and, of course, the enigmatic and wide ranging species of edible fungi such as boletes and chanterelles. Head to the coast and you can add seaweeds, fish and shellfish to the mix.