Foraging: 'It's in our DNA'

The Staff Canteen

With foraging gaining in popularity in recent years, we take a look at the ins and outs of it and what foragers should bear in mind when they go hunting for nature's finest. 

First off, foraging refers to finding and gathering wild foods, and there are some legal boundaries so take a look at our info bar before you head out into the wild and cause some irreparable damage!

Once you have the knowledge, the natural environment is your pantry and according to Will Newitt, owner of Down to Earth Bushcraft, who run foraging courses and events, ‘collecting wild food is in our DNA’. He said: “Foraging puts us back in touch with the natural world. I have a strong feeling that collecting wild food is in our DNA, as though it is our birthright. 

Over the generations, the knowledge has been lost.  There is something very empowering about collecting wild food, kind of like reclaiming that birthright and bringing some personal power back, so we are not always dependant on the supermarkets.”

Info Bar *Foraging is legal, according to the Theft Act of 1968, unless it is done for commercial purposes, e.g. for sale or reward. There can be local bye-laws banning foraging but these will always be signposted. *The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is illegal to forage on private property without permission, so make sure you ask the owner’s permission if foraging on private land. The act also contains a list of protected plants that are illegal to forage. *This does not apply to Scotland though, as all land, public or private, is legally accessible for recreational and educational purposes, according to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. *If someone is found to be foraging for commercial reasons then they can be fined around £200 depending on how much was taken. This year 20 people have been prosecuted already, an all-time high. *When foraging, you can take the foliage, flowers, fruits and fungi, but make sure not to uproot the plant. *If you are a beginner forager, are unsure about what is edible or just want some company while foraging, then try a foraging course. Foraging courses are offered through various companies and range from beginner courses to advanced foraging days. They are offered around the UK, including in Cheltenham, Surrey, Ledbury, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and the New Forest.

Foraged ingredients are being used in restaurants more and more, with the phrase ‘field to table’ being used frequently. But why are these ingredients becoming more popular? Will explained: “Generally, foraged ingredients are better than anything you can buy in a shop; it is the ultimate in fresh, organic and local. “I’ve heard it described as painting: if you are a painter painting with the same paints all the time, it can get a bit boring, whereas if you suddenly find this new, wonderful, different colour you can bring a whole new freshness into what you are creating. It’s the same for cooking, and for a lot of people that can be inspiring.” The natural world can provide lots of exciting plants and fungi which can make a great dish even better, but there are also dangers to foraging. Will said: “Often when I’m doing a wild food walk people express amazement that the plants that they see every day or spend hours weeding out of their garden are edible and tasty. But you have to be careful obviously, there are plants and fungi out there that really could harm you. “While I encourage people to get excited and inspired by wild food, you do still have to take care, especially with mushrooms. “There is a saying: you get old foragers and you get bold foragers, but you rarely get old, bold foragers. “If anyone is seriously thinking about foraging then the best thing is to go on a course with someone who knows what they are doing and has a sustainable approach.” Simon Hulstone, chef proprietor at The Elephant, in Torquay, is also a keen forager. He said: “Foraging is a way to get produce that we can’t get from shops, and any items that are in the shops have been cultivated and have lost their natural flavour. “There are lots of things that we can get from foraging that are full of natural flavour. Obviously, there are lots of things out there that taste absolutely disgusting but we are very selective with our foraging at The Elephant, we forage for ingredients that will benefit the customer.”

One of Simon’s reasons for using foraged ingredients in his food is that it adds something different and exciting to the dish. He said: “It is a talking point for the customer, we are using things that they can’t go out and get from the shops. “Everything has been cultivated into a more uniform shape, flavour, and colour for mass production, but foraged ingredients give more of a connection between kitchen and customer, to be able to talk about something different.” Simon started foraging because he realised there was food in the wild that he wanted to use, and foraging was the best way to get those ingredients. Simon said: “We only take small amounts because we don’t want to ruin the countryside, and also we make sure to take things that taste of something, as at the end of the day food should taste good.”

He added: “Foraging is beneficial for the customers and for the chef; the only thing is obviously if you are foraging for something, you need to know exactly what you have found. Ideally have someone professional with you, especially when foraging for a restaurant, as the last thing you want to do is accidentally harm somebody.” We took to Facebook to find out what you thought about foraging and got some great responses. Here are just some of the many replies we got: Jeffrey Robinson said:  “It’s awesome, how local can you get? It’s better than buying herbs from 200 miles away.” Karl Stephan Martin, chef at Old Downton Lodge, said: “Know what you pick, respect nature and it will carry on giving. Foraging keeps menus exciting and different; it is as much a part of cooking today as having a vegetable patch or herb garden. “I feel we have gone full circle with foraging, back to the older generation when it was normal to use the land to survive and save money.” Andrew Tozier, chef at Sodexo USA, said: “It should be taught as part of the curriculum at any respected culinary school.” Carl Houben, from Smith and Mckenzie Chophouse, also thinks foraging is a good idea, but agrees that consideration for the surroundings must be given. He said: “Foraging is a great idea; you just need to respect nature and its beauty, so it can be an ongoing trend.”

Daniel Campbell, sous chef at the Almanack, said: “From forest to plate can’t be beat, the tranquillity of being out in the fresh air and finding new ideas and exciting treats is a really wonderful thing.” Brittany Bell, from River Café, said: “I love everything about it. I don’t get to do it too often at my restaurant, but when I do I love it.” There appears to be resounding support for getting back to nature and as long as it is done respectfully it may be a trend that continues. But can the environment cope with this reignited love of plucking mushrooms, berries and foliage from the ground? Yes, it is a talking point on any menu but at what cost? Let us know what you think by commenting below or on Facebook and twitter. By Samantha Wright *Please thoroughly research any wild food before consuming, and ideally use a foraging course if a beginner    

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th December 2014

Foraging: 'It's in our DNA'