FORAGING: GETTING STARTED

There is something very satisfying about being able to identify a plant or berry in the wild and knowing if it is edible or not. Even just the tiniest amount of foraging knowledge can make you look like Ray Mears in the eyes of others. But like any skill that is worth learning (and a few that aren’t) foraging can seem a little daunting at first, especially as it ultimately involves putting things in your mouth that didn’t come off a supermarket shelf. So here are a few tips on how to get started with foraging.

While there are foraging courses available around the country, these might not suit the keen beginner. Not only can they be expensive, the overload of new information and plant names can also leave one forgetting a lot more than they remember, ultimately not learning much from it. To learn the basics it can be much more effective and enjoyable to just do it yourself, taking your time . . . oh yes, and keeping it safe. So keeping on the earlier theme of self-sufficiency (rather than hard core survivalism, which is too exhausting to my taste), the best way to explore and develop foraging skills is by enjoying it as a leisurely hobby, you’ll end up learning much more that way.

As with starting any new hobby, the key is to keep it cheap until you can decide that this is the thing for you. So never mind the courses at this stage, just buy a book on foraging, making sure it is clear, concise, well illustrated and not overpriced. Richard Mabey’s Food for Free is something of a classic and an excellent one to start with; it usually comes in a handy pocket edition and can often be found on the internet on in second-hand bookshops for under a fiver. Whichever book you do get, look through it, you may be surprised at how many edible wild plants you already know about but either never thought of or never realized these can be found in your area. Then you just need to go for a walk in a nearby meadow, forest or wild park and just look around. Actively searching for a particular plant is often counter-productive, unless you already know where to find it – if you go to a forest randomly looking for blackberries, not only are you probably not going to find them, you will also miss a dozen other edible plants in the process. Rather, just take your time and keep your eyes peeled, looking around, appreciating the scenery until you spot something that looks familiar or interesting, and then try to identify it in the book. Don’t just identify one thing off the plant. If you find a familiar berry for example the next step is to confirm it by positively identifying the leaves and other features on the plant (like thorns, flowers, bark, etc.). Be precise! Tiny details such as whether the plant has or hasn’t dented leaves can make all the difference between two similar looking yet different plants. Whilst the foraging beginner should focus on only identifying edible plants, it is also important to know about the ‘false friends’ or ‘toxic lookie-likies’. So, if in doubt, don’t touch it. And remember that even once positively identified, make sure that the plant isn’t intermingled with any other non-edible plants.

Note that the above tips only apply to plants and berries . . . mushrooms are a different story altogether.

Foraging for mushrooms is a skill that requires proper training and very careful observation. In this case, just using a book is not good enough – chances are that in trying to identify a particular mushroom there will huge discrepancies in what you can reliably recognize. I don’t know about other people, but I have yet to find a mushroom in a book that I could positively identify growing on the ground, and vice-versa. Even when a book contains very clear pictures, they are usually difficult to compare with the genuine article. Even the rule-of-thumbs for identifying poisonous mushrooms (bright colours, spots, etc.) still leave out many dangerous varieties that can look just like edible ones. Furthermore, while edible mushrooms are delicious, they are not particularly nutritious, so even on a practical level it is not worth taking the risk, unless you absolutely know what you are doing.

As for finding a places where to forage one doesn’t have to go too far to begin with. Foraging is partly about being familiar with the terrain, so it is worth looking around one’s local park or even in wild patches along a road just to get used to spotting and identifying plants. Word of warning though: roadside plants will have been exposed to a fair bit of pollution and are best avoided. Plants found along pathways and at the foot of trees and posts might also have been urinated on by dogs, foxes and desperate humans. For similar reasons, when picking berries off a bush it is best to only pick those that are above knee height. We have to accept that nature is not a sterile environment, but it is still best to avoid some of the things it throws at us. The key is to be adventurous in where we search but cautious in what we eat.

If anyone thinks that London is no great place to learn foraging then think again. There are plenty of wild patches here and there worth looking through (even if to just find a bit of fat-hen and dandelion), lots of parks with chestnuts and lime trees, among others. As for finding fruits, just check out this amazing website: http://fruitcity.co.uk/the-fruit-map/

Happy hunting!

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