How to pick food out of your back garden

Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty
Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty
  • Want to make the most of our natural larder? Phil Penfold takes a stroll with expert forager Chris Bax, who believes that, when it comes to food, we should all be a little more wild.
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Many of us can claim to have a few pots of herbs on the patio. Some might have a healthy vegetable patch in the back garden. A few boast a modest orchard, while others have acres to nurture. Chris Bax, however, sees the whole of Yorkshire as his larder.

What Chris doesn’t know about foraging could be written on the back of a postage stamp and still leave room for a dissertation on husbandry. However, the South Wales-born, Wetherby-raised master on all things wild didn’t grow up yearning for the outdoors to provide for the pot and the table. Far from it.

Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty

Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty

“When I left school, I went off and did my degree in 3D technology at Middlesex University,” he explains. “And that’s what I became – a designer of technology. A couple of decades back, it was a boom industry, but I was unfulfilled and unsatisfied. I used the good money I was earning to grab the opportunity to travel, and it slowly dawned on me that I’d be far, far happier being a chef.

“I’d had absolutely no formal training whatsoever. Not the slightest qualification to my name, but I was fantastically lucky that Hazlewood Castle, near Leeds, seemed to believe in me. They took me on for a trial period, and then gave me a permanent position.”

It was just over 15 years ago that 48-year-old Chris met up with Rose, now his wife. “It is one of those odd stories of being in the right place at the right time, and paths meeting,” he laughs. “I found myself between trips and signed on with a temping agency to do relief chef work. They told me to report to one of the big hotels in Harrogate, but when I got there it turned out I wasn’t needed. At the time Rose was running an outdoors pursuit shop in the town and as I trudged back up the hill, I noticed a sign in the window saying ‘part time assistant wanted’. I went, got the job, and the rest is very happy history.”

The pair set up Taste the Wild in 2008, and they now operate from an 18-acre site between Boroughbridge and Easingwold. It was Rose who introduced Chris to the wide and wonderful world of flowers, plants and trees – she had learned all about them from her mother and grandmother, and passed her knowledge on.

Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty

Foraging expert Chris Bax in woods near Knaresborough, searching for edible wild plants. Picture: James Hardisty

“I always loved the wild things around me and everywhere I went I was always curious about what grew where, and how. But I was pretty clueless, back then, about what all these things could be used for. Rose opened my eyes, and now, well, we research everything meticulously.”

Slowly – and with the aid of Rose’s enviable skills with a chainsaw – they are transforming their site from a mainly conifer wood into native broadleaf species. Now, on the many courses that they run throughout the year, which range from foraging to butchery, bakery, cooking over an open fire and making your own clay oven, they attract well over 700 people who want to learn more about the world around them.

Over the years Chris has painstakingly identified well over 300 edible species of plant in the UK and many of them can be found in Yorkshire. “Of those, I’d say that there are about 128 which could be extremely useful to put on the table, and are also flavoursome, and nutritious. The trouble is that so much knowledge has been lost and I think that this goes way back to our own industrial revolution. People who had been little more than peasants on the land knew all about what the countryside had to offer them for free. But when they moved in their thousands into the towns and cities, within a generation or two, all that learning had been forgotten.

“During the Second World War people began thinking about what they could get from the land again – because there was such harsh rationing. Although I know a lot of elderly people who lived through the war who won’t touch rabbit because they ate so much of it during the war.”

More recently, the plethora of television cookery programmes like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage have whetted our collective appetite for alternative foods.

“It really saddens me to think back, when I was first doing chef work that while we were always striving for excellence, I don’t recall ever thinking about seasonality, sustainability, or the provenance of food. In fact, I can clearly remember one Christmas, when I was planning a menu, thinking about doing a dish with strawberries. Where on earth did I assume they came from? Flown in at massive expense from Peru or somewhere like that. I must have been crackers. But I wasn’t alone”

What gladdens his heart today, he says, is that just about every pub, restaurant and farm shop is yelling about where they source their food. “They’re telling their customers that the pork pies are made just down the road from pigs bred in the field next door. That the cheeses are created at the farm three miles away, that the jams and chutneys are made from fruits, berries and vegetables either picked by their staff, or from a local market. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me – and I think that we are doing our bit by showing more and more people what they can find in the fields around them.

“Actually, change that. What they can find not only in the fields and woods nearby, but also in their own gardens. They can sometimes find edibles growing alongside the pot plant that they’ve just bought from the local garden centre. What they think are useless weeds can often be a lovely little nibble to pop into a salad. You’d be amazed at what you could pick out of your back lawn.”

And foraging is not something peculiar to the countryside. Chris recalls that he was once in London waiting for a bus when he spotted a little plant called bitter cress growing in the brickwork of a wall. “I went over, picked it and ate it. Lovely. Very enjoyable. And then I became aware of a dozen pairs of eyes, all looking at me, and they were all obviously thinking ‘I hope I don’t have to sit next to that nutter when the bus comes along’.

Another time, Chris was contacted by a US TV channel, which challenged him to find free food within sight of the Olympic Park. “It was all part of an ‘old world meets the new world’ idea that they had. I was glad to help out, and yes, I found dozens of things that could grace a Thanksgiving table.”

It’s worth pointing out here that the pictures we are using on these pages are of a place that Chris doesn’t want identified.

“It’s not a secret location,”he explains. “Far from it. In fact, it’s about a mile from the centre of one of the county’s best-known little towns, and a lot of people stroll here, jog here. But if you reveal where it is, people will come down in their droves, and the result will be that it will be spoiled completely. When you do go out foraging, I beg everyone not to graze the hedgerows and greenery. If you are going to pick, do it lightly, and in many places. Don’t be greedy. Think of the environment. And, if you are on a farmer’s land, always have the courtesy to ask his or her permission first. And show your appreciation.”

Then he says with a slight grimace: “It might also be wise not to pick things that are growing alongside trees next to a path where folk walk their dogs… for obvious reasons.”

As we chat, Chris is gathering plastic bags of leaves, all of which will be on the table that evening, when he and Rose entertain friends for dinner.

“I can think of nicer than sitting down at a table with some good mates and offering them things that were growing wild that morning,” he says. “The creation of food, and then the sharing of it, is just wonderful. I hope that I don’t sound pretentious when I tell you that doing what I do feeds my soul, as well as my belly.”

Unsurprisingly, when Rose and Chris take a break, they travel to places where their knowledge of food can be expanded. “In Morocco”, he laughs, “we were lucky enough to meet up with a leading botanist who took us to an oasis, where we found lots of plants that could be enjoyed in cooking. But I picked up one, and the chap said ‘No, you can’t eat that. That’s not edible’. I said ‘Oh yes it is’. And I did. The look on his face...priceless.”