A walk on the wild food side

Anyone for a bit of chickweed and rocket salad, or maybe a pie made with hedgerow blackberries? Sheena Grant finds out more about foraging from expert Jon Tyler

IF PROOF were needed that we’ve lost touch with our culinary heritage it comes in a tale related by forager and bushcraft expert Jon Tyler.

Every time Jon visits his local supermarket he – along with every other shopper – passes a whole bed of rosemary shrubs near the entrance. Yet no-one seems to think about cutting off a few sprigs to use in their cooking – for free. Instead, anyone who wants rosemary buys it, encased in plastic and stacked in a chiller cabinet to try to preserve something of its freshness, from the shelves inside.

In the same chiller cabinet will be mint, thyme and other herbs – probably blackberries too – almost certainly available for free nearby, if only we had the desire and knowledge to seek them out.

“It’s madness really,” says Jon.

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He started foraging when he was young and his interest grew from there, until it turned into a way of life that now provides him with a livelihood but more importantly a chance to pass on some of his passion for wild food to people whose connection with the natural world has often become tenuous.

“Foraging for me started in childhood, really,” he says, “holding up buttercups to see if someone ‘liked butter’ and then moving on to chewing bits of grass. I seem to remember endless blackberries too when I was a child.

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“For me it is like going back in time, to when we would have eaten a huge variety of wild plants. Now we might have about 15 to 20 food sources, whereas we would have had up to 400. You can just wander out and find interesting things to eat, even in your back garden, and you can transform these things into something tasty.”

Later, he studied conservation management at Otley College before going on to run an environment centre in the New Forest.

“Along the way I got into plant and mushroom identification,” he says. “I started to try out things and assumed that lots of people did it. I subsequently learned they don’t. I think that reluctance is to do with confidence, competence and the fact that in supermarkets things are so readily available. You’ve got to get the right balance between that confidence and competence because if you eat something that could give you an upset stomach you are not going to have the best experience. It is getting that confidence and starting small.”

That’s where Jon’s expertise can help.

Now living near Norwich, he runs an array of wildlife awareness, mushroom identification and wild food courses across East Anglia – including many in Suffolk.

On September 15 he will lead a Suffolk Food Safari wild food day at Sibton, near Saxmundham. It’s billed as a perfect introduction to the abundance of wild food found in our countryside, hedges, fields and even in gardens.

The land at Sibton has never been farmed intensively and the ancient hedgerows are awash with nuts, berries and seeds, while the fields and woodland fringes are home to edible weeds and wild herbs such as chickweed, fat hen, wild sorrel and mint.

Jon, who is also leading Food Safari mushroom foraging courses in October and has other events lined up at Rendlesham Forest and Thornham Walks this autumn, will teach identification tips on the day, share culinary uses, historical facts and folklore. The idea is that participants learn how to forage sustainably, legally and with an awareness of the dangers of picking poisonous or contaminated plants.

Afterwards, the group’s finds will be taken back for Food Safari chef Peter Harrison to prepare some wild food dishes to be enjoyed as part of a three-course foragers’ feast.

Jon hopes people who attend this – or any of his courses – will be inspired to carry on foraging and learning as they go.

“You won’t be instantly proficient,” he says. “But you shouldn’t expect to be. It is about starting off slowly – even with things like herbs.”

And that leads us back to his supermarket anecdote.

“There are lots of herbs planted around the place in public spaces these days – even in towns,” he says. “They are reachable and easy to identify, even if not strictly wild. Herbs are a good place to start. You can’t really confuse mint with anything else. It is always magical when you pick something that you have found yourself and it is surprising what there is out there. It may well be different in taste to what we are used to – many wild plants have a more intense flavour.”

He advises beginners to get an identification book and if possible go foraging with someone more experienced. And he promises that the more you go foraging the easier it gets both to find and identify plants.

As well as knowing what to look for and where to find it, it’s also advisable to have an idea what to do with your wild fayre before you go gathering – otherwise you could find yourself left with two kilos of rotting fruit.

“I would say to people just starting out ‘go for the most common things that you probably already know’,” he says. “It is also crucial that you know when to take certain things. There is no ‘use by’ date on wild food.

“This time of year it’s best to look for fruits and nuts in hedgerows. You can often use them in similar ways to fruits you buy in the shops: in pies for instance. Plums are around at the moment and are often growing in hedgerows, as are crab apples and other kinds of apples. You can’t eat crab apples raw but you can use them in cooking. Then there are hazelnuts, although they are not as abundant as they used to be and squirrels get most of them, but they are easy to recognise.”

Other hedgerow fruits, such as rose hips, can be used but might be best left alone by the beginner – they take a lot of work to turn into something edible. Jon also advises caution with elderberries, which can’t be eaten raw.

Then there are sloes and a fruit called bullace, which look a bit like small plums or big sloes.

“Some are sweet enough to eat as they are but others do need to be sweetened quite a lot,” he says. “You can also make bullace gin with them.”

As for mushrooms, there’s obviously the need for more caution, as misidentification can leave you with an upset stomach at the very least and in the worst cases can even be fatal.

“But once you know what something is and are competent about it there is no problem at all,” says Jon. “In other cultures people are much more confident about it than we are here. In Finland, for instance, they even have a sort of national holiday every autumn where everyone goes out and picks mushrooms and in France you can take mushrooms to pharmacies and they will tell you if it is OK to eat.

“If you have eaten a field mushroom in the past and are happy about identifying them they are a good place to start. There is really only one they can be confused with and that is the yellow stainer, which goes yellow if burst or cut. It won’t kill you but could give you an upset stomach.

“Chickweed can also be foraged and is available any time of year. The only caution with that is where you pick it and what condition it is. There are lots of plants that look similar, too, so you’ve got to be confident about identification. Chickweed and rocket salad is fantastic.”

Among Jon’s favourite wild fruits are billberries, the wild cousin of the blueberry and sadly not growing wild in Suffolk. “If you’re going out of the county you might find them,” he says. “They’re the best wild food you can get: so sweet and with an intense flavour.”

As you would expect, Jon still forages a lot of his own food.

“I do it every week at least,” he says. “I would like to do it every day but time doesn’t always allow. Rather than having a meal made entirely of foraged foods, which would be difficult, I try to have at least one wild thing to add to a meal.”

Many wild foods can be used as a substitute for cultivated varieties and a lot of it tastes good dipped in batter and fried – nettle leaves and elderflowers, for instance.

“They’re really good and surprise a lot of people,” he says.

The unopened flower buds of alexanders – abundant in East Anglia in springtime – are among the best wild foods. The stems can also be peeled and cooked as you would asparagus.

“We have become so detached but there are all these tasty and interesting plants out there that we would have used in the past. This is a chance to have the extraordinary ordinary. It is like a safari on your doorstep and I think it makes life more interesting.”

For more information visit www.foodsafari.co.uk/ or www.wildforwoods.co.uk/. Jon is also leading a Food Safari walk as part of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival: www.aldeburghfoodanddrink.co.uk/fringe-events/event/workshops/

Jon’s top plants for beginners

Quite often the garden is the best place to start for a foraging novice. Here you might find:

Nettles: Common and easy to identify. Spring is the best time to pick fresh green shoots – once they are big enough to be identified – but they can be picked at other times of year too. In autumn they often have another growing spurt. Pick the most tender fresh shoots – wearing gloves! Cook them as you would spinach.

Dandelions: These take a bit of work but if you have patches in the garden you can “force” them in much the same way as you would rhubarb. Take the leaves off the rosette and cover them with plastic, harvesting the leaves that grow back. Dandelion leaves can be used in salads.

Further afield you could look for:

Hedgerow fruit such as plums, sloes and apples. Sloes (blackthorn) can be made into sloe gin and many wild fruits can be used sweetened in pies, jams and other desserts.

Blackberries: Abundant at this time of year and easily recognised. Use them in pies, crumbles and jams, alone or with other fruit. You might also find wild raspberries at this time of year.

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