First off, I am in no way a foraging expert and you should always do as much research as possible when starting to do it as a hobby. I have always fancied doing a bit of foraging, but could never find the time. Then last year that suddenly changed and, like a lot of people, found myself with a lot of spare time. With nothing open, we had to find a way to fill our day whilst only being able to go for walks (my version of exercise).
I found myself starting to point out items to my wife, but never having the confidence to pick them, so the research started. There is so much information online plus some excellent (and cheap) books.
I still only keep my foraging to easy to recognise items such as, wild garlic, nettles, chestnuts and elderflower. This is because when I went foraging for mushrooms in the New Forest with an expert and a bunch of chefs from bartlett mitchell, the guy that took us really knew his stuff, spent most of the day telling us what would make us ill or even worse kill us and as we all know mushrooms are the worst!
But I am confident to pick Ceps, Hen of the Woods and Chanterelles; after this I stay well clear. There is a great spot in the forest to pick Ceps but that will remain a secret among those of us who went on the trip – first rule of foraging, you never talk about foraging……. If you find a certain place that is abundant with a favourite item you don’t tell anyone else about it! Not strictly true, I’ve had some great tips from the likes of Annie and Neil in bartlett mitchell.
Simple rules to Foraging
What to Avoid
While the foods that are outlined above are a relatively safe bet in terms of identification, it goes without saying that you need to be 100% sure that what you’re eating is definitely what you think it is. A very helpful website is wildfooduk, it is a shop, but they also have a lot of recipes and great pages on what to look out for.
Look at buying a handbook to help you out with what to look for, here are a couple:
- The Forager’s Handbook, a seasonal guide to nature’s wild harvest, as recommended to me by Robin
- Forager’s Notebook by our very own Yuki Solle
- Hedgerow (River Cottage Handbook No 7)
Where Not To Forage
When foraging along public footpaths, be wary of spots that could possibly be at ‘dog lavatory height’. Also be mindful of areas that are near busy roads as the taste of exhaust fumes won’t be a great addition to your wild supper. Finally, if you do find a special patch of an amazing wild food, pick with discretion – this isn’t just about leaving some for other people. Only pick from areas that have a plentiful supply. Look for areas where you can find food in abundance and then only collect a small amount for personal use. Never completely strip an area as this could damage the species and deny another forager the chance to collect.
When to start looking
The time to forage changes, depending on the weather a couple of weeks before.
Here is roughly what will be available and when:
January to February
- Crab apples
- Hazelnuts – if you can beat the squirrels to them
- Blackberries – some may still be available
- Alexanders – Alexanders belong to the Umbelliferae family, which has some deadly members, such as hemlock. It’s quite easy to tell the difference between alexanders and hemlock at a glance, but always consult a guidebook to be safe. Alexanders flowers in late spring, has yellow flowers and a celery-like smell. The deadly hemlock, on the other hand, has an unpleasant smell resembling mouse urine, and its flowers, which often appear in early summer, are white.
March, April and May
- Common sorrel
- Wild Garlic
- Cow Parsley
- Garlic Mustard
June and July
This is when a lot of foraging ingredients start to come to life.
- Wild Strawberries
- Wood Sorrel
- Sheep Sorrel
- Dandelion Flowers
- Sea Buckthorn.
- Hawthorn Berries
- Wild Strawberries
October, November and December
- Oyster Mushrooms
- Winter Chanterelles
With mussels make sure that you are foraging on a clean shoreline because mussels filter water. Never forage near sewage outlets or beaches that have a low environment rating. Try to look for Blue flag beaches
Watch the tide, mussels are at their best at lower tide. Look up the tide timetable and make sure that you have plenty of time
Simple things to forage
These are the best things to look for if you are new to foraging
One of the easiest wild greens to identify, a pair of thick gloves in the foraging bag are a must when picking stinging nettles. Early spring is the best time to pick them; choose young, pale green nettle tops – after about late May/June onwards they’ll be getting a bit tough and stringy. Never pick when they are in flower and handle with care until cooked – this will remove the sting.
A real lover of wet ground, you’ll often find wild garlic (or ramsons as they are also known) carpeting the banks of streams and rivers. Pick young leaves from late March onwards, while the little white flowers that appear later in the season add a gentle garlic flourish to a spring salad.
If ever there was a flower to mark the move from spring to summer, its elderflower. Find them from around late May to early July. The most common use is to make them into a cordial and other drinks.
Many people can remember picking blackberries in their childhood. They’re easy to identify and pretty abundant in the autumn months. I find that they freeze well and I always make sure to have a frozen stash at hand to last me through the winter.
There are plenty of wild nuts to be had during autumn, but the squirrels get most of the hazelnuts near me so sweet chestnuts are my go-to crop. Great for pesto and stuffing or simply scored, roasted and eaten on their own
- Nettle Pesto
- Nettle Soup
- Wild Garlic Crusted Salmon
- Wild garlic salsa
- Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam
- Blackberry and Bramley Pie