Free food: foraging for beginners

Whether it’s to save money, broaden your palate or find a new snack for your tortoise, it’s easy to track down tasty things to eat in our fields, woods and hedgerows

Foraging: Sylvia Thompson picks mugwort at the Organic Centre’s workshop. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8

Foraging: Sylvia Thompson picks mugwort at the Organic Centre’s workshop. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8

Tue, Sep 10, 2013, 01:00

Twenty people make their way along the narrow, windy roads of north Co Leitrim to the Organic Centre’s foraging workshop. As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness descends, they want to learn more about the abundance of natural foods in our hedgerows and fields.

For some the goal is to find herbs to enhance the food they cook. For others it’s to know what grows around them as they walk the countryside. There are a few hunters, who want to know what they can eat when they’re camping in the wild, plus a dairy farmer who wants to better understand what his cows eat.

One woman says she has a tortoise that wants something different for his tea. Another says she is here to save money by learning how to use what grows for free in the countryside.

For me the desire to forage has been a long time growing. I picked mushrooms as a child with my dad, made jam and sold it to a local shop as a teenager and, more recently, picked elderflowers and made cordial. I haven’t yet had the confidence to pick dandelion leaves for a salad, however.

Jörg Müller, a Czech-German medical herbalist and tea blender, has been running the foraging workshops twice a year for about a decade. He went on foraging trips as a child.

“My mother was a traditional herbalist from the Czech Republic, and we had many fun outings, picking mushrooms and wild herbs, in the autumn. We would meet about 20 other families doing the same thing, so you had to be quick to find good foods.”

Foraging is growing popular again in Ireland, helped in part, perhaps, by the arrival of Poles, Czechs and other eastern Europeans and in part by the use of wild foods in some of the world’s smartest restaurants, which has made Irish chefs keen to use some themselves.

JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey, restaurateurs from Galway, have come to enhance their knowledge of wild foods for the menus at their restaurants Cava Bodega, Eat and the Michelin-starred Aniar. It’s also “a way to spend time together – in fact it’s our wedding anniversary and my birthday today,” says McMahon.

We set out to wander the lanes and fields surrounding the centre in search of free food. “You’ll already know about 10 wild herbs,” Müller says as we begin to forage. He shows us mugwort, dandelion and chickweed, all of which add interesting tastes to salads.

He encourages us to taste the small flowers under nettle leaves, which taste a little like white pepper, and enthuses about the plant’s iron content – 25g of nettles will meet your needs for the day. We also taste hawthorn leaves, which he says go well with beetroot in a salad.

We learn to recognise water celery (perfectly suitable for use as a vegetable), giant hogweed (the main food of Roman-era soldiers as they crossed the Alps), cow parsley (a flavouring for soup and sauces) and comfrey (whose leaves make a tasty wrap for baking soft cheese in). We admire hearty red rose hips and talk about using them in teas, jellies and jams.

In total we gather about 35 wild foods, figuring out as we go whether they are best suited to sauces, soups, salads, smoothies, sorbets or ice creams. It’s a challenge to identify tiny plants such as field cress, which are so similar to other tiny plants. But we persist.

“It connects you to your surroundings. You can start by taking samples and pressing them, and once you start appreciating what grows around you, you will feel more empowered to pick things,” says Müller.

One big advantage of wild foods is that they have up to 20 times as many vitamins and minerals as their cultivated equivalents. Hogweed, for example, has three times more calcium than Swiss chard. “They also have four to six growth cycles a year. They are very productive because they are often 100 per cent adapted to the habitat they are in,” says Müller.

Once you understand the habitat, you can learn to differentiate between poisonous and safe plants. “Certain plants, like comfrey and foxglove leaves, look the same from a distance, but if you touch them and smell them you’ll see that foxglove leaves have a soft, smooth underside while comfrey leaves have a spiky underside.”

As we gather indoors after half a day of foraging, Müller advises us to choose five wild foods to look for at first. “Go out again soon, so you don’t lose your newly found confidence to find foods in the wild, and bring children with you: they learn much quicker because they use all their senses, as well as their curiosity, to understand the environment.”

He also makes us a delicious smoothie from the wild foods he has gathered, combined with yogurt and honey.

Hans Wieland of the Organic Centre tags along on the workshop because, he says, he keeps forgetting things. His advice is to find a place of your own and return to it again and again throughout the year.

“Get to know your own wild-foods trail, and you’ll learn where it’s safe to pick things and where it’s not. And don’t tell anyone where you go, because there’s plenty of countryside for us all to have our secret places.”

Wild and Free: Cooking from Nature by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín (Wolf Hill Publishing): This contains an A-Z of wild foods and recipes, with useful black-and-white drawings to help with identification.

Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Collins): The classic handbook for foraging, with beautiful colour illustrations of 240 wild foods from the woodlands, fields and seashore.

Extreme Greens: Understanding Seaweeds by Sally McKenna (Estragon Press): McKenna’s sea kayaking gave her an interest in foraging for seaweed. She identifies different types and offers a huge range of recipes.

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