Foraging in Surrey - A walk on the wild side

PUBLISHED: 10:59 11 September 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

Nestling on the woodland floor, the Bay Bolete fungi (Photo by A. Wragg)

Nestling on the woodland floor, the Bay Bolete fungi (Photo by A. Wragg)

With the interest in organic and local produce growing apace, it is no surprise that foraging for wild foods is becoming an increasingly popular pastime - and here in Surrey we have a bountiful harvest from which to choose

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2007

With the interest in organic and local produce growing apace, it is no surprise that foraging for wild foods is becoming an increasingly popular pastime - and here in Surrey we have a bountiful harvest from which to choose...

Words by Janet Harmer

Anyone who has ever indulged in a spot of late summer bramble picking will know only too well the delights it can bring - there's nothing quite like tucking in to a bowl of blackberries that you have picked yourself. But have you ever thought about widening your search to include other types of food?

Trudging through woodlands, scrambling among hedgerows and wandering down country lanes, all whilst keeping your eyes peeled, can produce a bountiful harvest of edible goodies - completely for free.

What is more, with its mix of open countryside, river plains, heathlands and vast wooded areas, Surrey offers a vast range of habitats that can make foraging a truly satisfying experience.

Seasonal local produce

As we move into autumn, the wild foods available to us are more plentiful than at any other time of year. Bilberries, blackberries, rosehips, sloes, beech nuts, walnuts, cob nuts and a plethora of mushrooms, including penny buns, giant puffballs and oysters, can all be gathered, providing the perfect antidote to over-processed and pre-packaged foods.

While for some, foraging is a means of obtaining something for nothing, for others it is an opportunity to reconnect with nature. Certainly, a spot of hedgerow-scrabbling or tree-climbing, in order to collect that evening's supper, will appeal to the hunter-gatherers amongst us.

As such, food gathering makes a great day out with the added bonus of a tasty feast at the end. For professional forager Fergus Drennan, however, foraging is a whole way of life with wild foods generally accounting for 60% of his diet. Recently, he increased this figure to a daunting 100% (predominately vegetarian, supplemented by some road kill) whilst researching and writing a book on the subject.

Famous fans

"It all started when I was seven years old and began collecting dandelion leaves for my tortoise, and then took off in a big way when I started collecting mushrooms at the age of 18," says 35-year-old Fergus, who recently led a forage in aid of Children in Need with BBC Radio Two DJ Chris Evans in woodlands near Godalming.

A typical lunch for Fergus these days might involve nettle soup, followed by wilted mallow tops cooked with chanterelles and jelly ear fungus served with steamed burdock, and wild cherries for pudding - all washed down by a cup of linden tea.

"The best advice I can give is to go with someone who has foraged before or talk to elderly relatives who have had experience of collecting wild foods themselves," he says. "Also, get yourself a good book that will help you to identify foods that are safe to eat."

Fergus is keen to encourage responsible foraging and for this reason no longer supplies restaurants on a wide-scale basis.

"There are more and more professional foragers out there now, but it is not really sustainable on a commercial basis," he continues. "I love the countryside and don't want to see it stripped bare.

"My general rule of thumb is, if you see one plant, ignore it; only when you see a second one should you pick it. Always leave a viable colony that will conserve the plant for the future."

How to pick

Permission should also be sought from farmers and landowners before picking leaves or plucking fruit. The law on what can be collected from common and public land is not very clear, but it is best to only pick the leaves, stems and fruits of plants. Never dig or pull them up unless they are in great abundance. Most edible plants in the wild, such as nettles, dandelions, alexanders, fat hen and sorrel, are so prolific that they are generally considered a nuisance and it is unlikely that any amount of picking by amateur foragers will cause harm.

One specific wild food that should not be collected without thorough research is, of course, fungi. Whilst the number of mushrooms that are poisonous is very small, it must be remembered that just a fraction of a death cap (Amanita phalloides) can be fatal.

Therefore, always be cautious. The best way of learning what can be safely consumed is by consulting one of the recommended books or joining one of the fungi forages listed below, led by experienced mycologists.

Ray Tantram, a physical chemist who lives in Great Bookham, has been studying mushrooms for 26 years. She leads regular fungus forays to Ranmore Common and Abinger Roughs at this time of year, which is generally the start of the peak season for brilliant displays of brightly coloured mushrooms in the wild.

"Woodlands are generally the best habitats for fungi," she says, "and Surrey is very fortunate in having many accessible sites belonging to Surrey Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and the Woodland Trust."

A Surrey funghi

An incredible 4,700 species of fungi have been recorded in Surrey. Those that are most plentiful, safe and delicious include the prized penny bun, or cep as it is known in France (Boletus edulis), found in all types of mixed woodlands and on heath areas at woodland edges where scrub birch trees grow. It has a rich brown, rounded robust cap with a pale margin and stout stem. Bay bolete (Boletus badius), which has a darker cap and brown stem, is found in similar habitats and quite often where conifers grow. Also popular is the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) identified by its shell-shaped greyish-brown caps that grow closely over one another, mainly on beech trees.

On pasture land, the horse mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) can be found, as can the well-known field mushroom (Agaricus campestris). Care must be taken when collecting field mushrooms as there are some poisonous ones among the 48 British species. Avoid yellow-staining types, especially those that smell of carbolic. The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantia) is a very easily recognisable and delicious species, which occurs both in pastures and also in broad leaved woodland, often in summer as well as late autumn.

Ray advises picking only those species that you are can 100% identify and confirm as being edible. "Collect in an open basket to avoid sweating and bruising of the delicate flesh," she adds. "Also, eat only those specimens that survive to your kitchen in excellent condition."

And once in the kitchen, what are the best ways to prepare wild mushrooms for eating? Classically fresh tender ones are probably best fried in butter (or olive oil for a healthier option). Slightly tougher ones are good finished with the addition of a spoonful of crme frache to form a sauce and a sprinkling of a mild herb such as parsley or dill. A splash of wine following the sauting stage also works well. Enjoy!

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