A taste of the season with foraging in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 15:42 30 October 2016
Nobody turns down a free lunch, right? Well, strangely, as it turns out, plenty of us do – walking past nature’s bounty completely oblivious to the treats in store. Sebastian Oake takes us on a journey into the wonderful world of foraging
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2016
The days may be getting shorter and the weather becoming less agreeable but autumn does bring with it some fine treats. For now is the time that nature offers us the best chance to enjoy a free lunch. From berries, nuts and seeds to late flushes of wild greens to edible mushrooms, nature’s larder is brimming with tasty produce.
For wild food foragers, it’s time to put on some boots, find a basket and head out to see what the fields, hedgerows and woods have to offer. It’s an activity that’s becoming more popular, driven by a foodie revolution that is challenging us to look for something different and the desire to reconnect with nature and relearn old skills. Nevertheless, gathering wild food can be daunting, and even dangerous, for a beginner, so it’s a good idea to get some expert advice before taking the plunge.
There are a number of courses and events that prospective natural eaters can attend in Surrey over the coming weeks. Among them are those run by Marlow Renton and Eric Biggane, who have set up Wild Food UK to share their knowledge of outdoor cuisine. For these two, their interest in foraging began at an early age.
“Both of us had family who knew what to pick and when,” says Marlow. “We were very fortunate to have that wisdom passed on. We also have a keen interest in food, so experimenting with all the wonderfully intense flavours you can get from wild produce has always been something we enjoy.”
Wild Food UK has places available on courses at Banstead and Warlingham and will also be staging foraging events at the Polesden Lacey Food Festival at the start of October. Marlow explains what they’ll be foraging for in particular: “We’ll be looking for some lovely autumn fruits like hawthorn berries and late blackberries, late salad plants such as sorrels and wintercress and, naturally, all different types of mushroom,” he says. “Our courses are always a bit of an adventure as we’re never sure exactly what we are going to come across but we always expect to find fungi such as field mushrooms, blewitts and boletes. Hopefully, we’ll also come across some of my favourite fungi – penny buns, horse mushrooms, chanterelles and the hedgehog fungus.”
Wild Food UK courses are suitable for anyone, no matter what your level of experience, so provide a good introduction to this relaxing pastime. “The walks are only around a mile in total and aren’t physically taxing as we stop every 20 feet or so to talk about the things we see,” adds Marlow. “We also bring along some wild food-based treats for breaks along the way, such as our own wild mushroom soup and home-made elderflower champagne.”
Another professional forager active in Surrey is Italian Claudio Bincoletto. A chef by trade, he gives foraging and cooking demonstrations at shows and festivals. He also retains links with his family’s herb farm near Venice where he was born. As an ethnobotanist, Claudio is interested in the relationship between peoples and plants, and particularly how different plants are used by different cultures.
“I learned the basics of foraging when working as a chef in Italy,” he explains. “I was interested in looking at local dishes and also traditional ways to survive. Then I moved to London and became fascinated by the amount of edible things in the gardens and parks there. When I started out, wild food was a new phenomenon but I’ve now seen a big increase in urban foraging.”
Claudio is conducting two wild food walks at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond this autumn, where the hunt will be on for mushrooms, hawthorn berries, chestnuts and young leaves of dandelion and wild borage. “I hope the walks will inspire people to enjoy nature,” he says. “We’ll be looking at plants, identifying them and discovering what happens in nature’s cycle.”
Learning the ropes from people such as Claudio, or Marlow and Eric, is a sensible first step towards discovering outdoor bounty. It’s a good way of learning the essential do’s and don’ts – and all agree on the need to be sure of what you have in your foraging basket. Claudio advises that before collecting any part of a wild plant, a forager should be “150 per cent sure” that it’s edible, while Marlow says: “Get a pile of books and consult the internet a lot. If you are even remotely unsure about what you’ve got, then you could be risking your life. Foraging is not meant to be an extreme sport.”
Wise words indeed. Wild food gathering can be rewarding but the big black berries of deadly nightshade, for example, would put you in hospital and the death cap mushroom would almost certainly kill you. Both can be found in our county. It’s also important to remember that some things only become edible on cooking and it’s vital to follow the right instructions when preparing wild meals. As an example, Claudio explains the right way to cook honey fungus, the destructive parasite of tree trunks recognisable by its dense clumps of honey-coloured caps. “You must boil them first for 15 to 20 minutes, then throw away the liquid,” he says. “You can then fry them in butter or oil with herbs.”
There are other things to bear in mind too. Although collecting wild food along public paths and waysides for your own personal use is generally lawful, doing so for commercial gain is not. Foraging is also prohibited on right-to-roam land and usually on nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Remember also that under wildlife law, it is an offence to uproot any wild plant without permission and a number of rare plants have complete protection.
You should also avoid wild food that is past its best and steer clear of foraging in places that might have been contaminated, such as fields that have been sprayed with chemicals, busy roadsides, dog-walking routes and dirty water courses.
Enough for all
Lastly, foragers are not alone in their interest in what the countryside has to offer – birds and other animals need food too, so it’s important to ensure there’s plenty left for them. Claudio, who is concerned about the threat of over-foraging in places like Epping Forest, says: “A good rule is pick one, leave 20 – and if there are less than 20, don’t pick any at all.”
That said, foraging is a great autumn activity – and it can be for all the family. Wild Food UK often takes out children’s groups too. Marlow adds: “It’s great teaching youngsters about foraging because it’s a mixture of so many different skills – identifying plants, knowing the traditions associated with them, preparing and storing food etc – that can be lacking in the young.”
And for adults, a successful forage disproves one old chestnut of an adage – there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Courses this autumn
Wild Food UK
Friday September 30: Autumn Fruit and Fungi Foraging Course, Banstead
Saturday October 1: Autumn Foraging Course, Warlingham
Saturday October 1: Mini Foraging Course, Polesden Lacey Food Festival, Great Bookham, near Dorking
Sunday October 2: Mini Foraging Course, Polesden Lacey Food Festival, Great Bookham, near Dorking
Friday October 28: Autumn Foraging Course, Warlingham
Sunday October 30: Autumn Fruit and Fungi Foraging Course, Banstead
• For more information, see wildfooduk.com
Saturday October 29: Fungi Wild Food Walk, Petersham Nurseries, Richmond
Saturday November 26: Fungi Wild Food Walk, Petersham Nurseries, Richmond
• For more information, see petershamnurseries.com
For other courses
*** Doing it by the book…
Good starting points include Food for Free by Richard Mabey and Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers by Roger Phillips. For anyone interested in foraging for fungi, Mushrooms by Roger Phillips is an essential companion.