Collecting edible treasures: ‘why I love foraging’

When you know where to look, each season provides a generous spread of tasty treats ripe for the picking. Foraging can be an adventure for the whole family, writes Tiffany Francis, whose new book is designed to make foraging accessible to all

When I was writing this book, I was asked countless times by friends and family to explain exactly what foraging was. Most knew it involved gathering fruit from the hedgerows and seeking out the first wild garlic leaves of spring, but I was also asked if I’d be scrumping pears from private orchards (no comment) or scooping roadkill up for a hotpot (no ethical objection here except my vegetarianism). In truth, foraging is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable hobbies there is, and one which I believe anybody can get stuck into, from the tiddliest child to that bizarre friend who can’t tolerate dirt.


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For me, it simply means learning about the wild plants in your local environment, gathering the edible ones, and eating them in the most satisfying way possible. To collect edible treasures from our native trees and simmer them down into dark, sticky jams; to bite down on the earthy crunch of hazelnuts fresh from the husk; to taste the salt crystals hidden in a frond of seaweed; or to gather silver mushrooms under a sky scattered with stars.

Elderberries in Chalton, Hampshire

The art of foraging is almost as ancient as humanity itself. One of the first adaptations made by our species was the transition to hunter-gatherer status; we taught ourselves to hunt wild animals and gather plants to feed our families, a habit so essential to our survival that it lasted for 90 per cent of human history, before farming was introduced at the end of the stone age. In a world before online shopping and takeaway pizza, foraging was a vital part of daily life for our ancestors, and one on which they depended to stay alive. Now we have such secure, affordable and varied food production, why should we bother to forage for our food? Why seek out blackberries, hazelnuts or thyme when we can find them all in the vegetable aisle?

Brown crab illustration by Tiffany Francis

By examining how far we have strayed from our primordial roots, it becomes more and more obvious why we must reconnect with nature and our wild origins. In Stephen Moss’ 2012 Natural Childhood report for the National Trust, it was revealed that on average, British children watch more than 17 hours of television a week and spend more than 20 hours a week online. While there are positive benefits of screen time, the belief is that children are not being given the freedom to escape outdoors and enjoy the natural world; access to nature has also proven to have positive effects on the mental and physical health of adults. It is essential that we switch up our weekly schedules and spend more time in the beautiful landscapes our country has to offer, and foraging is the perfect way to do it.

It is essential that we spend more time in the beautiful landscapes our country has to offer, and foraging is the perfect way to do it

We are also living in a world where more and more people are keen to know where their food has come from. Cheap products with dodgy labels are all very well, but many now rightly insist on understanding the background of their food, particularly in terms of animal welfare, environmental costs and unethical ingredients. When carried out sustainably and respectfully, foraging is an incredibly environmentally friendly choice, as there is no reliance on chemicals and pesticides, the food is seasonal, and there is no carbon footprint from importing and transportation. It can literally be harvested fresh from the ground and carried lovingly to your own kitchen, ready to be savoured and devoured.

When I scoop a thick blob of blackberry jam onto a piece of warm toast, my mind fills with recollections of misty autumn walks, and the kitchen cupboard is transformed into a scrapbook of delicious memories.

A river path in Chagford, Devon

Recipe: wild garlic and cheese scones

The smell of wild garlic in spring is one of my favourite woodland experiences, and a sure sign that warmer weather is on the way. The leaves can be used in a multitude of ways, but I can’t imagine anything nicer than a warm, garlicky scone oozing with cheese on the kitchen table.

The cheese I’ve used in this recipe is Old Winchester, a vegetarian alternative to parmesan with a Gouda-like sweetness and a caramelised tang. It’s my favourite way to create the earthy richness of parmesan without using animal products, but if you can’t find this specific cheese, omnivores can simply exchange it for parmesan or Grana Padano to conjure similar flavours. I like these scones with plenty of butter, strong cheese and hedgerow jelly.

Ingredients

250g self-raising flour, sieved
Pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp dried thyme, chopped
1 tsp baking powder
60g salted butter
100g extra mature cheddar, grated
10g Old Winchester cheese
100ml whole milk
30g taleggio cheese
6 wild garlic leaves, chopped
1 tsp English mustard

Method

Preheat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a baking tray. Mix together the flour, salt, thyme and baking powder, ensuring ingredients are thoroughly combined. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the bowl of flour, before rubbing the mixture together using your fingertips to create a breadcrumb-like texture. Add 60g of the grated cheddar and Old Winchester and stir well.

Then make a well in the middle of the bowl and pour in a little milk before stirring well. The aim is to keep adding dashes of milk until the mixture forms a soft but firm dough. Then, using your hands, add the taleggio, wild garlic and English mustard. If the dough becomes a little sticky at this point, add a sprinkle of flour to firm it up.

Next, lightly flour a smooth surface and roll out the cheesy dough to about one inch thick. Use a medium cutter (I sometimes use a mug) to cut out circles in the dough and place these on the baking tray. Glaze each circle with a little milk and sprinkle a little of the remaining grated cheddar over each one before placing the tray in the oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Wild garlic and cheese scones

Francis is an author and naturalist from Hampshire who specialises in writing about wildlife, landscapes and rural heritage.

Food You Can Forage: edible plants to harvest, cook and enjoy by Tiffany Francis is out now, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife

All images and illustrations: Tiffany Francis


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