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A Beginner’s Guide to UK Foraging in Spring

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We work closely with partners around the world who champion local produce, with experiences varying from joining top chefs for foraging and wild picnics in South Africa, to hunting for Italian truffles in Piedmont, or catching and smoking fresh salmon with a Norwegian family. But for now, we’re staying closer to home; we’ve ‘gathered’ tips and ideas from knowledgeable foragers here in the UK, to find out how you can bring this free and seasonal produce into your home kitchens.

A recent YouGov report discovered that more than 19 million of us in the UK (38%) say we are cooking more from scratch and 17 million are throwing away less food. And 6% (3 million people) have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time. So to accompany your bounty of foraged goods, it’s the perfect time to discover who grows quality fare near you and show support to local producers. Since the lockdown of the hospitality industry, many farmers who usually rely on trade with restaurants are now selling to us at home and delivering their produce locally.

With the usual ‘coming and going’ of our busy lives temporarily paused, we’re focusing on the importance of re-connecting with the local environment – and that includes exploring the pockets of nature that are right on our doorsteps. Let’s make this a permanent trend past lockdown – letting nature take centre stage and looking at how we can produce and consume food more sustainably.

Lara Rodgers – A Guide to the Hedgerows in May

I have been lucky enough to work in places, such as The Newt in Somerset, where the menu is an extension of the main story: seasonal produce. When you focus on the seasons and what’s growing locally, you are guaranteed to have fresher food that hasn’t been on long journeys or been picked ahead of ripeness for preservation on shelves.

Spring is naturally an exciting time, with the return of colour to the landscape and the first shoots appearing in seed trays. It is the perfect time to start to add in wild and foraged foods to your meals. As we step into May, we head to the hedgerows which are bursting with edible weeds. Framing every lane, we can find nettles, wild yellow rocket, Creeping Charlie, wild mustard leaves, cleaver and dandelion. As you delve into woodland you are sure to find carpets of wild garlic – the punchy aroma giving it away. The streams will soon welcome watercress, and elderflower is appearing in umbrella formations.

What to look out for:

  • Elderflower grows on the elder tree, which is common in the UK and flowers from May to June, with tiny cream coloured flowers growing in umbels (clusters of flowers with stalks coming from a common centre) on pale green stems. The oval leaves are lightly serrated, usually in clusters of five, and they have a distinctive, floral aroma. You may have sampled the infused produce before – but now it’s time to create your own. Most commonly made into cordial or champagne or eaten in fritters, you can read on here for my Elderflower, Lemon and Cardamom cordial recipe.
  • Cow Parsley grows from the ground, flowering in umbels too. It grows widely in the UK and its leaves can be used for fresh pesto, while the flowers look beautiful on top of a Victoria sponge. Not to be confused with hemlock (read how to spot the difference here) or fool’s parsley, which is very similar in appearance but has more delicate fern-like leaves with an unpleasant smell if rubbed. The stalks are finely grooved but smooth, while the cow parsley’s stem is slightly hairy.
  • Wild garlic grows in moist woodland areas and prefers slightly acidic soil, appearing in abundance from April. The leaves are spear shaped and are usually about 3-4cm wide. Growing from a bulb, each plant has a single white pompom-like flower, the bud of which can be picked and pickled, or if opened up, can be scattered in salads or is great on top of lamb. To identify, rub the leaves and smell a mixture of garlic and chive. While its leaves are similar to Lily of the Valley (which smells beautiful though poisonous if consumed), their flowers and aroma make them easily distinguishable.
  • Cleaver, more commonly known as sticky weed, loses its rough texture when wilted and can be infused as tea, paired with rosemary and nettle for an antioxidant rich tonic.
  • The entire dandelion plant is edible – the root often used for tea and the leaves can make up a salad or be wilted like spinach. I love to make a Dandelion Omelette Soufflé and decorate it with plucked yellow petals.
  • Small daisies often growing in lawns and meadows are edible and are a great source of vitamin C. The flowers can be sprinkled in salads, look pretty in a cocktail or can be drunk when made into a tea. Try freezing them in ice cubes and use borage flowers to make pretty cocktail decoration. Make sure the ground you pick from is likely to be clean and not treated with any weed killer, and always wash whatever you pick thoroughly.
  • Garlic Mustard – also known as ‘Jack-by-the-hedge’ – is also a tall plant, growing up to a metre. It has broad, jagged heart-shaped leaves and small, white flowers with four petals in the shape of a cross, which grow in clusters at the ends of the stems. Pick high leaves just after flowering for the best flavour as they can be bitter. Balance bitterness, in any picked leaves, with salt, fat (butter) and acid (lemon or vinegar).

Craig Evans – A Guide to Coastal Foraging in the UK

My love of coastal foraging began as a child, growing up in the same region I live now and exploring the coastlines of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales. From a very young age, my father would take me with him fishing, picking nuts and collecting beach cockles.

The species you will find is completely down to the type of coastline: with rocky shores and rough waves you won’t find clams, but plenty of crabs that can cope with the conditions; and oysters only grow in sheltered areas like harbours or estuaries. Even on the same beach, different tidal zones provide habitats for varied species. Plantlife along the coast is an excellent place to start for beginners (before you get stuck into stunts like catching crabs with your bare hands!) and I always start my courses guiding people through the local woodlands, picking up some wild garlic on the way as the perfect flavouring for the day’s catch.

I’ve cooked plenty of times on the beach, often using a Solva Stove (Swedish Candle) made from a log. A great recipe for beginners would be to steam mussels with wild garlic and white wine (and you could buy the mussels if you weren’t able to forage them). Sprinkle pepper dulse seaweed on top, then serve with navelwort salad and rock samphire.

What to look out for:

  • Sea beet (also called sea spinach) is one of the easiest plants to find. This glossy evergreen plant is a wild ancestor of sugar beet and beetroot and can be found on the shores all year round, but is in abundance at the moment. Hundreds of years ago, it was a vital source of people’s vitamin C. If you break the stalks, it will smell like the familiar beetroot, and when cooking you can treat it as an ingredient in the same way you would spinach.
  • Rock samphire is very common at this time of year yet is a totally different species to marsh samphire (which can only be found from the end of June to September). It’s a member of the carrot family and tastes intensely of carrot, but is a crunchy leafy vegetable with an appearance like fingers. Many years ago, it used to be sold in markets and you’d find it across London – so much so that there became a shortage as too many people were picking it. It’s one of the first plants you’ll find above the tideline, as it can cope with the splashes of seawater, but please don’t venture around any cliff faces to retrieve it.
  • Sea scurvy is for you if you like something with a bit of a kick. It was (thankfully) given its interesting name due to its high vitamin C content and being a common snack for sailors to combat scurvy. As a member of the cabbage family, it’s great in salads, and has a strong taste similar to wasabi. To avoid it being overpowering, I like to make a salad with wild lettuce, pennywort and a couple of sea scurvy leaves for a kick.
  • You’ll find pennywort along shady parts of the coast, as well as many stone walls across the country and more inland. They have a round disc-shaped leaf which is fleshy and has a ‘navel’ indentation in the middle. They’re delicious eaten raw, with the flavour somewhere between mange tout and cucumber, and I often give them to people foraging with me to nibble along the way.
  • Perfect for beginners is seaweed, as no variety in the UK is poisonous. You can eat them all if you want, although some are tough and taste horrid! One great variety which is very common, and often people’s favourite seaweed, is the pepper dulse (or sea truffle). This species of red algae is only an inch long and has a flavour which I say is a mixture between garlic, truffle and a hint of chilli. It’s fantastic as a garnish, as all of the flavour will disappear if cooked, and best sprinkled over a dish like linguine.
  • With cockles and mussels we’re delving into shellfish – options that are easy to pick and collect straight from the rocks. With bivalve shellfish such as oysters, cockles, clams and mussels, there is always the slight risk of food poisoning. The key is only gathering where you are sure that the water is clean (certainly not from the Thames!) and you must always ensure they’re thoroughly cooked before eating.
  • More determined foragers can always keep a look out for crustaceans – they’re harder to find but it’s always worth being aware of habitats they might be in, lifting rocks and searching pools. This time of year is when the bigger crabs and lobsters are heading back to shore, as they go out to sea during the colder months, yet all year round the shores will be teeming with smaller ones, with 12-14 species in my local rockpools. You can also push along a prawn net like a broom handle to sift through the water in rockpools and find shrimps and small prawns.

First time foraging? Some key tips…

  1. Wear gloves to protect from any stinging, prickly or irritating plants.
  2. Take secateurs or scissors, as the tops of plants tend to have the most tender leaves, and you want to avoid pulling out the root which will prevent its return the following year. It’s actually illegal to pull up plants by the root unless you have the landowner’s permission.
  3. Never eat anything before 100% confidently identifying it as safe. If in doubt, don’t eat it!
  4. You are allowed to collect edible plants from most common land. If it is private land or farmland, ensure you have the landowner’s permission.
  5. The younger leaves are less bitter and tough, so look for the smaller ones. For flowering plants, if the buds have not yet opened, this is a good indication that it’s a young plant.
  6. Only take what you will use, taking from a variety of spots so as not to clear out a whole patch of growth. We need to respect the ground that feeds us, and the wildlife needs wild food too, so never take more than what you need and don’t return to the same spots.
  7. The most important thing when going onto a beach is knowing the state of the tide, as it’s very easy to get cut off on sandbanks or within a shallow area of a bay. The tide will change every day, so look at local tide tables, heading out at high tide and then following the tide out.
  8. For safety, when going out along the coast ensure you take a phone, never go alone, and don’t venture under cliffs where could be the danger of falling rocks.

Lara Rodgers

Lara is an experienced chef, most recently working at The Newt in Somerset, who is using her time out of work to make the most of all Spring has to offer. From local foraging to cooking over her fire pit, she is regularly updating her Instagram with recipes and inspiration for spending time outdoors and in the kitchen. Lara is looking forward to life after lockdown when she will be cooking in Corfu on a Pilates and Yoga Retreat.

Craig Evans

After a few careers – including a former life running a business to provide seaweed for spa and beauty products – Craig now spends his time guiding people about the art of coastal foraging, exploring habitats to share my knowledge. He’s explored every nook and cranny of 120 miles of coastline, from sand dune systems to rocky coves, estuaries to woodland coastal paths.

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