I am a committed urbanite – born and bred, with the unhealthy complexion to match. To me ‘foraging’ is a trip to a supermarket in a neighbouring borough, and ‘hunter gathering’ involves grabbing a burger at closing time on a dodgy high street. But we live in uncertain times – our smooth supply chains and groaning supermarket shelves are easily taken for granted. I decided it was time for me to get back in touch with where my food comes from – and explore nature in the process.
I set myself a simple challenge – could I create a meal entirely from foraged food? I soon discovered a thriving network of guided trips hosted by experts offering countless opportunities to expand your knowledge of native edibles.
My first port of call was Orvis’s Kimbridge trout fishery, located on the picture perfect River Test in Hampshire and a fanatic place to take your first steps in fly fishing. Here along, with Nick Weston and his team from Hunter Gather Cook, a day of trout fishing with the chance to cook your catch is on offer. My main course was a simple cast away. I must confess to already having a great love of fly fishing, but having the chance to cook up the catch on the riverbank was adding a seasoning to the experience that I couldn’t resist. As I hoped in the idyllic surroundings assisted by qualified fly fishing instructors to get even the greenest angler on the fish everyone should have a great chance of catching. Sure enough I soon had a gorgeous brown trout in the net.
Catching lunch myself felt like a great starting point. I had tamed nature, I was its master. But then I realised I had a raw fish on my hands (in fact all over my hands and down my coat – trout, like most fish, are extremely slimy!). Preparing and cooking raw ingredients on the river is an event in itself. Nick Weston, whose book ‘Adventures in Wild Food’ makes preparing and enjoying wild food accessible to all, was at hand to show me how to gut the fish. It was then expertly cured and turned into gravelax before my eyes. Other fish caught that day were barbecued, along with a locally sourced deer. If you want to go a step further and learn how to butcher an entire deer, this is also available at Hunter Gather Cook.
Herbs from the Hedgerows
Having caught a fish the mind soon turned to accompaniment. Now as someone who regards reaching for packaged coriander as adventurous the idea of rummaging around in hedgerows seemed positively maverick. Ask most people to describe undergrowth and they will say ‘green’ and ‘weedy’ but when you actually look you soon realise there are treasures just waiting to be plucked. Quick disclaimer – do not attempt this unaccompanied by an expert as amongst the prizes lurk some highly dangerous plants. I was startled to discover I was standing ankle deep in a patch of Hemlock Water Dropwort. This innocuous looking plant, Dave Fennings gleefully explained to me is lethal and only a couple of leaves would kill me by the merrily termed method of ‘dry drowning’ as you diaphragm stops working. Nice. Giving that a miss we were soon grabbing nettles (far more nutritious than spinach) and beautiful purple flowered edible ground ivy. Foraging courses are available with Robin Hartford of Eat Weeds in London and around the country.
Having successfully put a pretty decent meal together it was time to guild my (edible) lily. Now truffles may not be at the top of your average survivalist hit lists of ‘must haves’. But they are delicious and they’re out there for the picking (or I suppose that should be ‘digging’.). At Cowdray House they offer a day of truffle hunting accompanied by specialists Tom Lywood. The season runs from September – February and you will then be treated to a truffle inspired dinner. This would appeal to groups of 8 – 20.
Foraging is even possible without leaving the capital. Foraging London offer guided walks around some of the best areas for finding edible plants in the city – from berries to brewing your own nettle gin.
I may not be about to survive in a cave on a remote Scottish Island living on kelp and sea snails but I’m certainly more aware of the edible opportunities that abound once you get outdoors – even if I do then opt to have lunch in a country pub.