The time is yet again here for foraging. The chapter for October in my foraging book is intimidating to say the least – all sorts of lesser known worts and fungi to get to grips with. Where to begin?
Like many pursuits in the natural world, the more you know the more you see. Knowing the name of a hornbeam, a long tailed tit, or giant puffball make these things much more visible to us, standing out against the backdrop of general unidentified British greenery.
For me, I find that as soon as I know the name of something, it jumps out at me from an otherwise indistinct prickly hedgerow of spines and shiny leaves and undergrowth of…weeds? When I can identify something, the little lobed leaves in the middle of the bushy scrub now become the focal point and I’ll look for them again each time I pass, like I might a familiar much-loved house or tree.
With this in mind, the foraging guide serves two purposes – one to provide a source of food and new flavours, the other to refocus our vision of the plants all around us.
On a trip to Russia a decade ago I was amazed to see the numbers of people in the woods at the weekend, looking for wild food on the edges of their dachas. City businessmen who spend their weeks in traffic-entombed supercars were joining the baboushkas in collecting wild strawberries and mushrooms. I bemoaned my native England and its pre-packaged blueberries, devoid of connection with the natural world and where eating wild foods – with the almost sole exception of blackberries – was no longer acceptable in polite company.
Almost inevitably, this increase in popularity has been met with an increasing number of people clamouring for further regulation of this pursuit, claiming that unfettered picking and weak enforcement of rules is leading to areas being ‘stripped clean’.
“Picking and cooking wild foods has become a lifestyle choice – something that can not only feed you, but also nourish your wellbeing and reconnect you with natural seasonal rhythms.”
It would seem that, while it’s certainly encouraging to see more and more people discovering local plants and engaging with nature, there are limits however to how many people can pursue this idea in a sustainable way. Last month Epping Forest in Essex handed out fines and confiscated mushrooms from overly-avid foragers who were selling their goods to high-end London restaurants. This is a real threat and I join the chorus of those who say that commercial foraging should be banned, starting with the restaurants who buy and then openly advertise foraged ingredients. Many wildlife species rely on fungi from the forest. In turn, the forests themselves rely on these fungal networks to communicate and share nutrients. The effects of overharvesting is currently unknown, likely only to be felt years down the line.
In general, I celebrate the rise of foraging in the UK, and I count myself as a recent enthusiast, ready to sample new flavours from the verge. It is easy and exciting to learn about new edible things growing out of your garden wall; it is less easy to learn the need for moderation and humility in the face of our growing appetites.