Today was the day. Our tutors for the day were Millie and Mark, both avid foragers. Millie had also studied herbalism and nutritional therapy and was particularly interested in the medicinal side of plants. Mark is a qualified "bushcraft"instructor. The 8 participants met in the small main building and we started with a a cup of herbal tea, made from herbs dried over the winter by Millie - dandelion, nettle and cleavers - delicious.
We then had a talk on foraging generally, the rules and environmental concerns and, of course, a warning not to pick anything you're not absolutely sure about! The consequences of getting it wrong can be fatal.
So - the rules. You can't pick anything from a designated National Nature Reserve or from an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) unless you have permission. You can't pick from private land without the permission of the landowner (though of course, if you're on private land, you're already trespassing!) Foraging is covered by the Theft Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The environmental impact - you shouldn't just help yourself to armfuls of plants just because they're there in front of you. A general rule of thumb is to take no more than 20% of the leaves from any one plant. Some plants can only withstand light "grazing" - perhaps 5% of the plant.
The dangers - many and varied. For example, if you pick from near water, you could pick up the "liver fluke parasite" which lives in cattle and other grazing mammals. So if there are cows or sheep around who drink from the river/stream/pond, give it a miss. Another lovely possibility is Weil's Disease - passed on through the urine of rats, cattle and pigs. Again, if infected urine is present in or around the area and you have any cuts on your skin, it can get into your system. A non-animal related problem is "phytophotodermatitis". Some plants can leave a substance on the skin which, when the sun hits it, causes severe blistering. Another good reason to be careful when picking anything with your bare hands. Bizarrely, some of the plants which cause the worst blistering topically on the skin are incredibly beneficial when ingested.
So - what can you pick? Well, "The Four F's" - foliage, fruit, flowers, fungi. This course concentrated on foliage, mainly because of the time of year. Fruit and flowers are covered on different courses and fungi-picking is a very specialised area.
After the talk, it was time to venture out into the April sunshine (yes, sunshine finally happened in the UK!). Almost as soon as we walked out of the door, Mark spotted our first few edible specimens and for the next hour, we discovered just how much food is literally right there under our feet and our noses. Apologies for the state of the pictures, I only had my phone with me:
Hawthorn - eating the baby leaves early in the season is best but the berries can be dried. Great for the heart and the circulation:
Cleavers - they have tiny hooks so if you throw them against your clothing, they'll stick! Must be cooked before eating. Good lymphatic system cleanser:
Daisy leaves - light flavour, good in salads:
Plantain (not the exotic fruit) - the ribbing pattern under the leaves tells you you have the right plant. It can grow on very compacted soil and it's sometimes the only plant on what otherwise appears to be dead ground. It can draw out toxins so if you have an insect bite or something with pus (mmm, lovely), chew up a leaf to soften it and then wrap it around the problem area:
Wild chives - pungent and very tasty:
Ground elder - a cross between a herb and a vegetable. Very tasty:
Meadowsweet - only to be picked in small quantities as it can't withstand over-grazing:
Bitter cress - a little like mustard and cress. Peppery flavour. Voracious grower so OK to pick quite a lot. Best picked with small scissors:
Ground ivy - part of the mint family but tastes a little more bitter:
Common sorrel - tiny leaves at this time of year (resembles dock leaves). Fascinating taste - almost like apple skin:
The main edible plants of the day were wild garlic and nettles. I think we all know what nettles look like so I didn't bother photographing them. They can be picked with bare hands but it's not the most comfortable thing in the world. Always pick nettles before they flower. Leaves with purple tinges can be very bitter and older leaves can damage the kidneys. There's some evidence that nettle stings can be good for rheumatism because the sting brings blood to the affected area. Once upon a time, being covered in nettles was a common medical treatment. April is the best month to pick them when they are young and tender. It is possible to eat them raw - rub the leaf hard between the fingers to destroy the little hairs which cause the stinging sensation and you can then pop them in your mouth. However, they're probably better either cooked or mixed raw with other foods.
We didn't see wild garlic during our walk but the guides had picked a huge basket of it beforehand. It is a fantastic food to forage though - incredible garlic flavour so if you can find it, get some. Here's what you're looking for:
And now for the warnings! Hogweed is one of the plants which can cause phytophotodermatitis so avoid this:
Many plants of the carrot family (umbelifferae) must not be eaten. Avoid anything which looks like those fluffy carrot tops you occasionally see still attached to carrots when you buy them. The family includes cow parsley, wild chervil but, surprisingly, cumin, coriander and dill. However, the main issue with this family is that it includes hemlock which is a poison. Here is hemlock water dropwort and yes, it will kill you:
Wild arum absolutely must not be eaten . It can be confused with sorrel (when sorrel has bigger leaves) so be very careful. If it looks like this, don't pick it:
So those were our plants for the day! We headed back to the classroom/impromptu kitchen with our basket of goodies and started making lunch. Mark was in charge of nettle pakoras - ridiculously simple: a colander full of washed nettles, roughly chopped, 100g of gram (chickpea flour), a spoon of baking powder, a chopped onion and some of the wild garlic, all mixed together and shallow fried. Delicious. Millie made wild garlic pesto - two good handfuls of wild garlic (which I happily chopped), a small amount of chopped nettle, crushed pine kernels, olive oil and parmesan. All simply mashed together in a pestle and mortar and served raw with some plain crackers. Divine!
Interesting fact (I hope I get this right or Cathy will have words): some plants like spinach or rhubarb contain oxalic acid. This acid can hinder the absorption of the calcium which is also contained in the plant. However, this problem can be overcome in a very handy way. If you combine the foodstuff with another source of calcium, the acid doesn't affect the calcium in that food. So what do we eat with rhubarb? Yup - custard! Generally made with milk. And with spinach? Indeed - cheese. So whether we know it or not, we're combining the right foods when we have a bowl of rhubarb and custard or a lovely spinach and feta salad.
All in all, it was a fascinating three hours and I'm seriously contemplating signing up for the autumn foraging course too.