Inspired by Melissa’s post A Walk On The Wild Garlic Side, we held a foraging evening for the Scouts. Two hours is not quite enough time learn the basics, forage and cook the bounty; so I had a little bit of prep to do beforehand. In fact my daughter ended up doing a trial run for the Scout meeting, and then repeated it for real a few hours later!

forage, stinging nettles, wild food

Greeted at school with rubber gloves and carrier bags, we foraged our way home. The Marigolds were vital for picking stinging nettles, although I had forgotten that the girls were all in summer dresses – ouch! We picked half a carrier bag full of nettles and a selection of other edible leaves: dandelion, beech, lime, goosegrass, cow parsley and hawthorn. These were our “examples” for showing the Scouts later, the nettles were for soup. We were careful to only pick the younger shoots of all these leaves, especially the nettles which become coarse and stringy the larger and older they become. We also observed all the rules of foraging: not over picking, picking from unpolluted spots (away from busy roads and obvious places where dogs might wee!), and making sure we had identified everything correctly. See below for a list of foraging dos and don’ts.

My well-thumbed copy of the River Cottage Cookbook has a nettle soup recipe which I hadn’t tried before. Some years ago I was served up someone else’s version of nettle soup and vowed never to go near it again. However this recipe is delicious! Basically you start off sweating a sliced onion, chopped celery sticks, garlic and a carrot, add stock and your washed nettles. At this point I added a tablespoon of uncooked white basmati rice and a handful of frozen peas. Hugh F-W uses cooked rice or rice cakes, neither of which I had; however the uncooked rice was done in the time it took the nettles to soften. While we were picking our nettles a passerby advised us not to cook them for too long because they become slimy and yucky. This was probably what went wrong with the soup I tried before. Our version was a vibrant green and was reminiscent of watercress soup. Both my girls thought it was yummy, in fact we’re making more this weekend!

So on to the Scout meeting. The Scout Leader gave a little introduction to the concept of foraging and specifically what is available in our local park, and what you can do with it. He also outlined the dos and don’ts, most importantly “Don’t eat anything until you have had it checked by a Leader!” After that, armed with their rubber gloves, they set off on a foraging tour of the park.

In the meantime our Assistant Group Leader was setting up a camping stove to warm up the soup and for making elderflower fritters. Unfortunately we were just a few days too early for the elderflowers. I imagine in a day or two with some sunshine some of the trees will be festooned. To give the Scouts a taste of elderflower we had cordial so they didn’t miss out completely.

Once back from their walk, and having identified all their forage, it was time to have a taste. Most of the Scouts seemed to enjoy the tree leaves (lime and beech) which can be eaten raw. Goosegrass and cow parsley need to be cooked. One of our Assistant Leaders made a classic error with cow parsley: he mistook it for the plant of the pignut (a bit of a delicacy in foraging circles) and attempted to dig it up looking for the nut. He obviously hadn’t read his foraging book very well, pignuts are much more delicate than cow parsley and don’t grow in the vast swathes that cow parsley does. It should also be noted that cow parsley, although edible, can be mistaken for hemlock or fools parsley which are poisonous.

Back to the Scouts and the salad leaves were washed down with elderflower cordial, my family and l will be out picking and making this year’s batch in the next few weeks! It’s a shame that we couldn’t fry up some elderflower fritters, they are really delicious with just a basic tempura type batter. We did fry up the batter though, which was served in blobs with the nettle soup. This was a great hit; the saucepan came home completely empty!

Foraging Do’s and Don’t’s

  • Do… respect the environment. Leave it as you found it. Adhere to the Countryside Code.
  • Don’t… take it all! Just because there is an abundance of food for free does not mean that you have the right to strip the land. Leave plenty for others and most importantly the animals who rely on this bounty as their only source of food throughout the winter.
  • Collect from unpolluted areas: avoid roadsides with heavy traffic, areas likely to be weed on by dogs etc.
  • Do…your research. Always go prepared. Take guide books for identification. Take waterproofs, warm clothes, water (especially for the dog!) and something to eat. If foraging alone in remote areas tell someone where you’re going.
  • Don’t… pick anything if you are unsure of it’s identity. This is particularly relevant when picking fungi. It’s best to be wary and safe than adventurous and sorry.
  • Do… find out what’s going on in your area. Most parts of the country have groups and societies who organise walks and events, for example mushroom identification and foraging.
  • Don’t eat anything until you have had it checked by a Leader!

When I was doing a bit of research I found this useful Forager’s Calendar, I also used Food For Free by Richard Mabey which is probably the classic foraging book!

If you have top tips, recipes or interesting foraging experiences, I would love to hear them. We’re planning an autumn forage too so ideas for this would be very welcome!