It was walking through woodland near to her Ripponden home with her grandad that gave Alysia Vasey her love and knowledge of edible plants which would turn into a career supplying some the country’s top chefs.
Little did she know back then that her grandad’s seemingly endless knowledge of how to live on nature’s bounties came out of necessity, living in the woods near Poznan hiding from the Nazis during the Second World War.
“I never thought my childhood was different to anyone else’s,” says Vasey, whose customers have 20 Michelin stars between them and include the likes of Simon Rogan, Michael Wignall and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen – voted the world’s best restaurant four times. She has also appeared on James Martin’s Saturday Morning and BBC Countryfile.
“Every weekend me and my brother Adrian would go for walks in the woods and on the moors with our grandad as he searched for plants, nuts, mushrooms and fruit. I don’t ever remember him teaching me exactly, but I copied him and listened and he would test my knowledge, correcting me if I went wrong. Thanks to grandad by the time I was seven or eight I could identify every tree, plant, flower, animal and bird that we came across. I knew which plants, nuts, berries and mushrooms were safe to eat and which had to be left alone.
“I just presumed every child knew how to recognise trees and plants.”
But while out on their weekend excursions, Vasey says her grandad never talked about what he had been through.
“He never really talked about his time in Poland or how he knew all about foraging. He talked to my nana about it and we learnt snippets but not the entire story.
“I remember asking him how he knew all this stuff but he would just say he learnt it when he was young and fall silent.”
It wasn’t until researching her book The Yorkshire Forager: A Wild Food Survival Journey, that her grandad’s amazing story was discovered and how after escaping the Nazis, hiding in the woods for months, he and his brother then became members of the Polish resistance.
“They survived by hunting and foraging for mushrooms, plants, berries, nuts and fruit, living in perpetual fear of discovery,” says Vasey in her book.
“My great grandad Isydor was a train driver and railway engineer from Poznan. I didn’t realise that Poznan was the location of the first concentration camp in Poland and my great grandad, and my grandad and his brother were forced to man the delivery wagons with all the people being transported to the concentration camp. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for them.”
After the war things didn’t get much better as Poland became under the control of the Soviet Union and Dan and his brother once again faced persecution. They managed to make it through Germany to a displacement camp in Italy and then on to Britain, settling near Bradford where Vasey’s grandad found work in a carpet mill.
Now in their 90s, her nana and grandad are now in their 90s and live in Ripponden with one of their sons and Vasey’s mother close by.
Vasey says her grandad is reluctant to talk about the war. But what he has passed down to her is an enviable knowledge of edible plants which she has added to over the years with her meticulous research and a thirst for learning, making her one of the country’s top foragers.
But she never always saw foraging as a career, for many years it was more of a hobby.
“Nobody in their right mind would consider picking weeds for a living as an occupation. And neither did I. For me becoming a professional forager happened organically.
“I got engaged to a pig farmer when I was 19 – it lasted five days, he dumped me, so I thought I’d run off and join the Navy.”
And that’s exactly what she did, becoming one of the first women serve at sea.
“I had a brilliant time but being among the first women to go to sea was very difficult., There was a lot of resentment among some of the men others would give you unwanted attention. It was a massive learning curve and I think it really helped me deal with some of the chefs I come across now.
“It is still a male- dominated profession with some very strong characters and I think my time in the Navy gave me the confidence to handle myself. Really it is about gaining the respect of your peers – it is definitely more than just knowing how to pick weeds – I know my stuff and once the chefs know that then we all get along.”
After leaving the Navy, Vasey settled in Cornwall and learnt about coastal foraging. She also went back to school having left with one O-Level in Art.
An access course led to university to study law. But on graduation she realised it wasn’t for her, so she returned to Yorkshire and worked in social care until fate took a hand.
Inspired by her grandfather she developed an obsession with truffles, a passion she still has today, although it was puffball mushrooms that were her first commercial foraging success.
After posting some pictures of puffballs on social media she was contacted by a professional forager she has since dubbed Mushroom Martin. He couldn’t keep up with demand and so Vasey filled the gap and she realised that there was a demand for foraged produce.
Now she picks more than a hundred different types of wild food for the chefs she supplies, much of it from around her home near Doncaster and from the woods and moors of her childhood near Ripponden. With husband Chris and the help of her mum, Vasey launched Yorkshire Foragers 10 years ago.
But supplying foraged produce to chefs is a huge challenge, “They demand consistency,” she says. “You need to know that different weather and different times of the year will have an effect later on. I am able to warn chefs not to expect certain things if the weather has been too wet or too hot. This allows them to plan their menus.”
She has no map to follow, as all the best sites in and around her South Yorkshire home and beyond are all in her head.
“You learn what grows best where and in what soil types. It is actually very scientific and I love that side of it and spend a lot of time in my shed experimenting.”
Vasey also makes her own produce in her shed. She successfully made and sold a Christmas Tree Cocktail Syrup to Lakeland and The Yorkshire Forager gin will come out soon with all foraged botanicals. She is also currently working on a woodruff champagne.
She thinks more of us should go back to nature for our food, so long as you show respect and know what you are doing.
“I seek permission from the landowners before I go foraging where I can and I am always careful to leave more than I take,” says Vasey. “It is all about sustainability.”
To this end the second half of her book is dedicated to her foraging year in which she gives useful information on the most common foraged plants and fruits.
“Witnessing the cycle of life through flora and fauna I find is good for my soul. When you are one with nature,as I am you can become the person you are meant to be.”
But it isn’t just nature that is a challenge for Vasey. At the moment she and husband Chris are furloughed from Yorkshire Foragers – the business they set up ten years ago – because business dried up when lockdown happened.
On the plus side the reduction in pollution has seen nature thrive, although she says the countryside has never been busier with walkers.
The launch of her book, which has been two years in the making, could not have come at a better time for Vasey. She also enjoys appearances on television, including Countryfile and with fellow Yorkshire local James Martin. She hasn’t ruled out more television appearances and sees it as an ideal way to pass on the knowledge that was handed down from her grandfather.
The Yorkshire Forager. A Wild Food Journey by Alysia Vasey is published by Headline £20. www.yorkshireforagers.co.uk