There are some obvious wild foods that most of us can easily spot, including blackberries, elderberries and wild garlic (you will know this because of the pungent aroma). But did you know that there are hundreds of other edible foods growing in woodlands, hedgerows, on riverbanks and at the coast in Britain?
These foods are very easy to spot if you know where to look and can identify them, although it is vital that you are also able to avoid the toxic variety. The best place to start on a wild food adventure is to join a foraging outing.
Across the UK, there is a growing number of expert forgers who are very happy to lead amateurs on walks and strolls to discover more about out amazing natural larder. I joined Scotland’s only full-time forager Mark Williams, of Galloway Wild Foods, for a truly fascinating journey through woodland and along the coast of southern Scotland.
So many wild foods to eat
It was the huge number and array of wild foods that surprised me – and the amazing range of tastes that can be found from nibbling leaves, stems, flowers, bugs and berries.
In a woodland area, Mark showed us many different edible plants, most of which looked like weeds. However, these weeds tasted incredible, with flavours of spicy horseradish, delicious cress and spinach. Three of these plants are identified as hairy bittercress, greater cuckoo flower and large cress.
Mark was very keen to also point out a less favourable plant, too. The deadly hemlock water-dropwort. The plant kills by relaxing the body’s muscles. Although horribly toxic it is also easy to identify.
At the edge of a lake, Mark reveals that bulrushes (reedmace) also offer a tasty treat. Inside the outer case is the lightest and most delicately flavoured wild salad ingredient I have ever tasted. It’s also a good idea to know about another plant that grows near reedmace, the poisonous yellow flag iris.
Mark says: “While there are some plants that need to be avoided in the wild, these are easy to spot if you know what you are looking for. And the vast majority of plants are perfectly safe for consumption.”
Some of Mark’s favourite foods are found on the elderberry tree. He says: “Most people know about the berries for making wine or jams. But there’s much more to forage. The elderflowers are one of nature’s finest edible treasures and the buds offer an orange peel type spice.”
The taste extravaganza continues with the coconut flavour of bramble buds, a tart “aspirin” in Meadowsweet and the mustardy flavour of Common Scurvy Grass.
Closer to the sea, I am stunned by the aniseed sweetness of Sweet Cicely. It’s possible to eat the leaves and the flowers and each offer a different level of aniseed flavour.
Lying on the beach nearby is bladderwrack seaweed with “grapes” that taste like subtle capers and in the rocks we find Sea Kale, which tastes like a saltier version of ordinary kale.
Laws of the wild food larder
Foragers do need to take note of the law. Mark says: “In Scotland, the right to roam law is a good guidance as to where you can forage. Foragers in general have permission to forage fruits, nuts, seeds and plants for our own consumption but not to sell.
“Foraging should also be done with a great deal of environmental sensitivity and sustainability.”
In any case, most of the leaves and flowers that we pick during the foraging walk are “hyper-abundant” according to Mark.
Cooking up our wild foods
Our foraging leader is also a great outdoors cook. Our lunch, which we eat on the edge of beautiful Carrick beach near Gatehouse of Fleet, is a kedgeree of locally sourced smoked haddock, smoked eggs, barley rice, reedmace, wild leeks, sea beet, crow garlic and laver seaweed.
Mark hand rolls wild sushi made with wild garlic, more reedmace, scurvy grass, elderberry vinegar and nori seaweed.
The feast is supplemented with jars of pickled marsh samphire and magnolia leaves, elderberry vinegar, hogweed seed parkin cake, “quick, quick” sloe gin and elderflower champagne. I have never tasted a fresher and more delicious picnic.