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Wild Food

Foraging: Embracing nature’s harvest

Peter from PJ Taste tells us all about foraging and shares how we can make the most of the seasons.

Foraging
PJ Taste

PJ Taste began championing local producers in 2006, when they started with a coffee shop on Glossop Road in Sheffield. Since then they’ve developed into a catering and events company with their own premises in Attercliffe.

They provide catering for corporate clients and weddings throughout South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, as well as selling Sheffield-made hampers online and hosting the occasional feast and forage event.

We spoke to Peter from PJ Taste to learn more about foraging and to get some top tips on ways to do it safely and sustainably.

Foraging should be done with consideration for the land

You should always pick responsibly – a rule of thumb would be don’t take more than 5% of a particular plant in a particular area.

It's illegal to uproot plants and there are local by-laws and Sites of Scientific Interest where there will be additional rules and restrictions. Do your research.

Foraged dandelions
PJ Taste

Pick safely and learn from quality resources. A great book to read is Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook, a guide to the edible plants of Britain. This, combined with a field guide to wild plants, is a good bet.

Be careful to collect from clean areas, away from main roads, pollution issues and animal and human interference.

Gathering wild food has always appealed to my nature

After twenty years of traditional allotment growing, I started to realise that wild harvests are not only abundant but much less work than tending annual seedlings. Being predominantly perennial they also tend to be more hardy, more nutritious (those deep roots tap into mineral reserves) and available over a much longer season.

They give year round ground cover, which is not only good for the soil but also helps carbon capture as well as often working symbiotically with fungus as part of the wood-wide web.

Foraging also gets you into the great outdoors, providing a direct connection to nature. At PJ Taste this appreciation of the seasons helps us write our menus, encourages us to develop preservation techniques and is a key in helping us run a zero-waste kitchen.

How to get started

Once you tune your eyes into what we may have previously called ‘weeds’, it's amazing what can be on your doorstep or within your immediate vicinity.

Forager and author Alys Fowler has written a book called The Thrifty Forager – Living Off Your Local Landscape that shows the variety of edibles that can be found in the typical urban landscape. Some good examples are nettles, elderflower, blackberries and rosehips, giving interest from spring through into the autumn.

Elderflower champagne process
PJ Taste

But first, could your garden be a salad bowl?

Before you venture too far from your house, you may be lucky enough to have a garden and may have space to let at least part of it run wild. Simply letting your grass grow can quickly yield a variety of edible plants and herbs.

During the spring, I have been picking dandelion leaves, common sorrel, plantain, yarrow, hedge garlic, wild garlic, daisy leaves, sow thistle, cuckoo flower and hogweed shoots from our lawn! These have given herb teas, salad ingredients and in the cases of hogweed shoots, a superb alternative to asparagus; simply steam it for a few minutes and serve with melted butter or olive oil.

This habitat has also provided forage to the huge variety of native pollinators it has attracted; it has improved the soil and eliminated my mowing duties!

Even without a garden, it is easy to grow some herbs or even perhaps carrots and potatoes in an old bucket or container. Even a windowsill will yield pea and corn shoots within a week to ten days.

A good tip is to buy great value marrowfat peas or popping corn in the supermarket and simply cover with a layer of compost in a pot or tray – a fraction of the cost of seed at a garden centre.

You will probably find that very quickly the seeds of some airborne ‘weeds’ such as bittercress or sow thistles will join your outdoor plantings. Why not let these establish and you can then pick them alongside your original crops?

What to look out for throughout the year

Nettles – stinging or dead nettles

Starting as early as March, nettles are a superb edible that have been used as a food, medicine, fibre for clothes and vegetable rennet for centuries. Pick just the young top leaves and shoots before flowering, avoiding the stinging hairs. The sting is said to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis but does leave a certain tingle! Heating or crushing does however disarm them.

Nettles are highly nutritious. Data from Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods shows that when compared to curly kale, nettles have four times more iron, three times more calcium and more than twice the magnesium – truly a superfood!

Early in the spring, I like to make nettle and potato soup, and nettle tempura is always a surprising crowd pleaser as a nibble or appetiser. For a recent foraging foray, I handed round nettle and coconut muffins, which went down well.

Elderflower
PJ Taste

Elderflowers, (and berries)

Elderflower is an easy-to-identify tree with its distinctive umbels of white flowers from May and burgundy clusters of berries from June/July.

It's interesting to see how much later most plants and flowers develop simply by moving from the city centre to higher elevations close by in the Peak District. This is worth bearing in mind for the tardy forager who has missed the harvest in the city!

The flowers and berries are edible, however the berries should not be eaten raw as they contain cyanogenic glycosides, as do the leaves and twigs. Look out for Jelly Ear fungus, which partners with elder, whilst picking - particularly on older and dying trees.

Great uses of elder are the classic cordial from the flowers and, even better elderflower champagne. The berries make great vinegars by simply steeping in a good quality apple cider vinegar or make jams, jellies and fruit leathers.

Blackberries

Blackberries are not one plant but are in fact a collection of over 300 micro-species, again ensuring a long flowering and subsequent berry-harvesting period. Before this, early in the spring, the tender young leaves can be nibbled or used in salads. The leaves can also make a simple herbal tea or be dried for keeping later into the year.

We must have all picked blackberries at one time or another. The ripest and sweetest can be enjoyed fresh in desserts with cream or made into either fabulous summer pudding with other red fruits like strawberries and redcurrants, or used in an Eton Mess.

As they are quite pippy, jellies tend to work better than jams or infuse them in gin to make a beautifully flavoured drink. Simply put 350g of ripe blackberries into a large Kilner jar, add 150g sugar and pour in a 700ml bottle of gin. Give it an occasional shake for the first few days and, after three weeks, strain off the fruit (use this for an amazing trifle) and enjoy the gin.

Wild Roses

Our commonest wild rose is the rather unattractively named dog-rose but it redeems itself by its pretty pink flowers, which appear in May. A thorny climbing plant of hedgerows and scrub, the petals can be used to decorate salads, drinks or desserts or they can be infused in a sugar syrup flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest.

In the early autumn, the fruits - in the form of rose-hips - start to ripen and the delicious rose-hip syrup can be made.

During the second World War, the Ministry of Food published the recipe in its pamphlet, ‘Hedgerow Harvest’ to encourage the populace to benefit from the high vitamin C content in the absence of imported fruit.

The process is simple. Take 500g of rosehips, pulse in a food processor to thoroughly mince and add to 750ml of boiling water. Bring back to the boil and then switch off the heat to infuse for 15 minutes. Strain off, measuring the juice and adding as many grams of sugar as you have ml of juice. Boil for 3 or 4 minutes and bottle in a preheated sterilised jar. It's great for adding to desserts as a drizzle, using as a cordial or experimenting with in a cocktail.

You need to use your common sense and follow safety advice when foraging

Be 100% sure of your identification. Some plants are extremely poisonous and can result in fatality. Please take care: some plants are just better not picked.

Other points to note are:

  • Some plants have both edible and non-edible parts. An extreme example would be yew: most parts contain a glycoside which breaks down into cyanide and yet the flesh of the berry is harmless
  • Be aware of the reaction of some foods with alcohol, e.g. the common inkcap is known to cause a severe reaction if eaten with alcohol
  • Take extra care for fungi foraging. You need experience and must be 100% sure of a correct identification before eating any fungus. Don’t rely on others or identification via a picture or over the internet
  • Learn some basic ID principles, e.g. my favourite mushroom, the porcini, has pores rather than gills
Recommended resources

People often start with the classic Food for Free by Richard Mabey or Wild Food by Roger Phillips. Websites with further information are below.

On Instagram, follow Monica Wilde Forager, MarkWildFood Galloway Wild Food and foraged.by.fern.

There are lots of podcasts too: Nature and Nourish with Becky Cole, On Jimmy's Farm, Eatweeds, Worldwild and the Doorstep Kitchen.

PJ Taste is at 54 Staniforth Road, Sheffield S9 3HB

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