Despite being an enthusiastic forager, Lucy Oates finds she can learn a lot more about wild food.
Exploring the countryside and foraging for wild food is a real passion of mine, so I was thrilled when a friend invited me on a Wild Food Walk that she’d organised as a birthday treat for her mum. Our expedition was led by foraging guru Mina Said-Allsopp, who is based in Leeds.
Since moving to the UK from Kenya to attend university, Mina has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of our native wild plants and fungi. She first began foraging after spotting a friend’s damson tree and making jam with the plums. Her interest gradually became something of an obsession and, these days, she’s constantly on the look-out for wild food.
She explained: “Every waking moment – when I’m not at work – is spent foraging. I jumped off a bus in Bath once when I spotted a Medlar tree. We’re really blessed in this country when it comes to wild food.”
She jokingly added: “It does become addictive – I think that’s why I took so long to finish my PhD!”
By day, Mina works as a research fellow at the University of Leeds, but in her spare time she stages Wild Food Walks in and around the Leeds area, which attract participants from all over the country.
Mina also plans bespoke walks for larger groups and, on this occasion, she travelled over to Howden in East Yorkshire to show us the rich pickings to be found on our doorstep.
Before setting off on our walk, Mina reminded us of the first rule of foraging; don’t eat anything until you’re completely sure what it is. She added: “If you’re unsure, it’s worth checking in various sources to positively identify a specimen. Check in a book and also check on the internet; don’t rely on one source.”
Other useful tips included a reminder to forage on a dry day and to avoid picking anything growing under or on a poisonous yew tree as the toxins can leach into the soil.
Our three-hour walk followed a route that I take with my dogs several times each week. We wandered through Howden Marsh, a local nature reserve made up of reed beds and marshland, and then out into open countryside, where we scoured the hedgerows and field sides, before picking up a path that led us into an area of woodland.
The abundance of wild food that Mina pointed out – things that I’d previously overlooked – was a revelation!
Although I knew that you could eat nettles, I’ve never tried them myself. Mina describes them as a ‘powerfood’ packed with vitamins. The leaves are best picked young and can be used in soups, pasta dishes and risottos; think of them as an alternative to spinach. Mina also recommends drying the seedheads, pushing them through a sieve (wear gloves for this part) and collecting the seed.
The seed can be ground in a spice mill, mixed with honey and drizzled over your porridge to help the body cope with stress.
Mina described a clump of meadowsweet, which is prolific during the summer months, as the ‘one herb she couldn’t live without’. She uses it to make cordial, mixes it with strawberries to make jam and dries the flowers out to make tea. It’s said to help to break a fever and ease IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Chickweed – a plant that plagues gardeners and one I’ve never thought of eating – is apparently delicious in salads, as are the flowers and leaves of white dead nettle. Horsetail, another plant often regarded as a weed, is one of the richest natural sources of silica, which is great for your nails and hair. Dry it and use it to make tea.
Rowan trees are laden with berries at this time of year and Mina suggests mixing them with crab apples to make a tasty jelly or stewing, straining (to get rid of the seeds) and blending them with onion, vinegar, sugar and spices to make a ketchup that goes well with cheeses and meats. Apparently, these recipes work with hawthorn berries too.
I’d heard of mulching comfrey leaves down to create a homemade tomato plant feed, but was amazed when Mina declared that she’d be making us comfrey fritters. Sure enough, when we returned to my friend’s house after the walk so that Mina could show us how to turn our foraged ingredients into a meal, she dipped the leaves into a light batter mix and deep-fried them. They were delicious – it was a little like the Italian recipe for deep-fried courgette flowers.
Mina reminded us: “When picking comfrey, look for the flowers so that you can correctly identify the plant as the leaves could easily be mistaken for those of the poisonous foxglove.”
We spotted clumps of horseradish growing in abundance on a roadside verge. When the leaves die back, dig up the root and grate it. Put the resulting pulp into a clean jar and cover it with vinegar.
I’ve used this recipe myself; the horseradish can be stored like that for a year or more and you can take out a little as you need it, mixing it with cream to make your own horseradish sauce.
We also found blackberries (or brambles) and crab apples, and Mina pointed out the not-quite-ripe fruits of the guelder rose, which can be cooked and used in jellies, jams and other recipes, in much the same way as elderberries.
To find out more about Mina and her Wild Food Walks, visit: http://msitu.co.uk/
Safe ways to eat mushrooms
Like many people in the group, I’ve always avoided picking wild mushrooms because of a lack of knowledge about which ones are safe to eat.
According to Mina, to correctly identify a mushroom, you need to consider a number of factors; the surrounding habitat, the mushroom’s appearance and its spore print.
If you find a mushroom that you’ve yet to identify, transport it separately because, if it is poisonous, the spores could be transferred onto your other mushrooms in transit, making them all unsafe to eat. They should ideally be taken home in paper bags or wrapped in cloth.