Foragers explain why they love ingredient picking – and how to be safe

Foraging food – as in, going out into the wild and taking food from its natural source – was once a way of life.

Our distant ancestors simply foraged because that’s how certain foods were found. They foraged because they had to.

Then it became a thing for fancy chefs and restaurants with a botanical theme to do – a bit of a posh gimmick.

But Wild Food UK, which runs foraging courses in the UK, revealed that in 2020 their visitors increased by around 25%, and they saw a huge increase in sales of their foraging pocket guide.

TikTok demonstrates this growth, too. Search ‘foraging’ into the platform, and you’ll soon see millions of videos of people – young and old – finding mushrooms, edible plants, and berries in the woodlands.

Foraging has become a mainstream trend, and a movement that’s set to keep growing.

But, unlike our ancestors, people are not only foraging for free food, but for connection to nature and mental health benefits.

Gardening has shown to support good mental health by lowering cortisol levels (which reduces stress and anxiety), so it only makes sense that foraging – going into the woodlands and fully immersing yourself in nature to pick the best pieces – would do the same.

The free food at the end is just as an added benefit.

Chelsea, a 31-year-old who creates content about sustainable living on her Instagram, loves foraging for the reconnection to nature.

She tells ‘I mostly forage wild garlic in the spring, which gets me out of the house on cold days.’

Right now, she’s foraging blackberries as they’re in season.

She adds: ‘That gets me out on the hot days.’

Chelsea also thinks there’s a class element to her love of foraging, adding ‘we didn’t really have much biodiversity close by growing up, just a bare playing field, so I didn’t even realise foraging was a thing until my mid-20s. Now it’s a really seasonable part of my life and has been for the last few years.’

Lynn, a 68-year-old, adds that she likes foraging because ‘it’s almost like a game’ and it reminds her of foraging for berries with her family when she was a child.

Lynn adds that she’s worked hard to educate herself on safe practices as she’s foraged since 1977. She points out that certain foods that might seem edible, like certain types of berries and mushrooms, can be very toxic.

And foraging in the wrong places can land you in trouble. ‘I only forage on public land, never on a farmer’s land. I also never pick anything I’m not sure of,’ she says.

While Harry, a 27-year-old chef, enjoys foraging around water in woodlands to find wild garlic.

He explains: ‘I like foraging because it feels it’s been around for all of time, for as long as cooking has been around. With the right knowledge and safety, anyone can just go outside, find some delicious ingredients and prepare something amazing with them.’

The last time Harry foraged, he found wild garlic at a national park near his house, and made homemade aioli and garlic pesto.

‘There’s something so satisfying about cooking with ingredients you found yourself,’ he adds.

As Harry mentions, there are dangers to foraging and it’s important to do at least a little research before heading out and going full animal crossing mode.

There are key steps you should take.

How to forage safely:

Bobby Pritchard, chef and owner of Smokey Grill BBQ, says food foraging can be a great way to find fresh, local food, but there are some dangers to consider.

He explains: ‘It’s important to be aware of what plants are poisonous and which ones are safe to eat.’

It’s also important to avoid areas that may be contaminated with pesticides or other pollutants – bacteria and other contaminants can cause severe illness, so you want to be sure that the food you are eating is washed thoroughly before use and cooked properly.

Don’t pick anything you’re not sure of

If you’re feeling funny about a plant, trust your gut. There are a lot of toxic plants out there and even foods that look friendly, like mushrooms and berries, can be extremely toxic if the wrong ones are foraged.

Liz Knight, a foraging instructor and author of Forage, suggests investing in a good foraging guide book, or going on one of the many walks hosted by foraging instructors to get an idea of how to recognise plants.

‘When you’re confident to head out on your own, remember to only gather plants you can 100% identify from clean, unpolluted areas,’ she says.

Seek permission

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which spots of land are open to the public and which have a landowner.

Most of the time, you can check online or with your local council. If the land is owned, seek permission before pinching their fruit.

Forage from spots with plenty of supply

Remember that you’re not the only one who needs free food. There will be wildlife living in around your foraging spot, which need to eat the plants and fruits more than you do.

Liz adds that you should ‘only collect plants that are in abundance and not protected, making sure you only harvest small amounts of a plant, not uprooting them and leaving plenty for the other animals that rely on them.’

And in the interest of protecting wildlife, familiarise yourself with what woodland animals’ habitats look like – so you can ensure you’re not destroying someone’s home as you forage.

Don’t forage protected species

Britain’s wild plants are all protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which makes it illegal to dig up or remove a plant.

Brush up on the laws surrounding plants, fruits before you forage.

It is also important to be familiar with the areas you are foraging in, as some areas may be more dangerous than others. Try to only gather as much food as you can eat in one sitting – so that you don’t have to store any of it as improperly stored food can spoil and become dangerous to eat.

Bobby adds that foraging for food can be a fun and interesting experience, and it can also provide you with some great food options for a summer barbecue.

If in doubt, why not take part in a foraging class with an expert and learn the basics?

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