Nature’s Larder

Children adore an Easter egg hunt. So, this spring, why not treat them to some wild food foraging as well, and who knows, they might learn to love their greens as much as they do chocolate.

Fancy tucking into a slice of nettle pizza? What about nettle, leek and potato soup, or nettle frittata?

Okay, so perhaps not nettles with everything, but according to the country’s seasoned foragers, regardless of where you live – town, country or somewhere in between – there’s a whole larder of fresh, natural ingredients waiting to be discovered. And, not only are these packed full of edible goodness, we’re also restoring our family’s connection to the living world around us.

Having become anaesthetised to the convenience of buying pre-picked, ready-washed leaves, searching for the wild food that’s growing amongst our hedgerows, woods and grasslands could sound like hard work. It must surely take the bushcraft skills of Ray Mears to scout out a tasty supper, or the chef’s brain of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to conjure-up something remotely appetising. Think again. As winter’s icy chills subside and the tender green shoots of spring appear, it’s a great time to get some tips from a local expert before embarking on a foraging foray of your own.

“Children find it quite magical, that it’s possible to pick some things and then make food out of them,” says Caroline Davey, ecologist, mother of three and owner of the Fat Hen wild food cookery school. Come April, she’ll be taking youngsters from five years and upwards on a gentle foraging walk, seeking out some of the more easily identifiable herbs such as wild garlic and sorrel, which young taste buds enjoy. “Sorrel is probably one of the things that children love the best. It seems to be the first thing that they’re willing to try from a hedge because it’s got such a lovely lemony flavour,” Caroline recommends. And to anyone unsure about sampling the raw arrow-shaped leaves she says, “Actually, it’s not bitter like some plants, it’s sour; more like vinegar.”

With the days lengthening, most edible young leaves are bursting with both minerals and vitamins A and C. Uncooked, they often work well in salads and in pesto, or steamed, are a satisfying substitute for spinach.

Even the most experienced forager, however, will exercise caution before picking as it’s essential to minimise the risk of mistaken identity. Hogweed’s young shoots might be prized, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to hemlock, and you certainly don’t want to confuse ground elder with the toxic members of its plant family. Aside from learning what’s safe to eat and when and where to look, an organised forage brings other benefits. There’s usually helpful advice on foraging sustainably and on keeping within the law, as well as lots of interesting stuff about plant folklore and natural remedies.

Wild Food UK’s Eric Biggane has noticed that once they’ve had some practice, children are particularly eagle-eyed and will pounce on the most unassuming ‘weed’ as if it’s new-found treasure. “They run around all over the place and are really good at spotting things,” he says. “We had a couple who brought their six-year-old daughter along and she loved it so much she insisted on coming back two weeks later. She was actually pointing things out to us and telling us their names.”

And having understood the ground-rules, there’s little kit needed: a decent plant guide book with good photos or drawings for identification, plenty of carrier bags or old ice-cream tubs according to what’s being foraged; and if you need to cut rather than pick, a folding garden knife or kitchen scissors will do. Depending on the weather conditions, children might need waterproof clothing and walking shoes, boots or wellies. And if small hands are likely to be catching on prickly stems or brushing against stingers, then gloves, ideally rubber ones, will offer some protection.

As foraging uses so many senses – sight, touch, smell and taste, getting closer to nature means it won’t be long before the whole family starts to tune in to the changing seasons. Garry Eveleigh, who accompanies small groups, suggests it’s not just about gathering food. Spending time together outdoors, he observes, is always stimulating, “Birdsong, wildlife, it’s the whole experience.”

Should younger family members start to get bored, games can be played listening out for the first cuckoo, spotting insects in the blossoms – a sign perhaps of wild plums to follow later, or tracking an animal that’s left behind nibbled leaves.

And if despite a pleasing harvest, a child still refuses anything that looks or tastes remotely like greens, try making fruit leathers together. At this time of year Caroline Davey uses Japanese knotweed – its sour ‘apple’ flavour is a real winner. Like many regular foragers, she also preserves the pickings from previous seasons, so, elderflower cordial can be transformed into an irresistible ice cream at the drop of a hat. “It’s about giving children that connection with the land that we’ve forgotten; it’s a really fulfilling experience,” she says.

Picking and eating wild foods was second nature to our ancestors and while we no longer need to be full-time hunter-gatherers, spare a thought the next time you write a shopping list. Foraging means no unnecessary packaging, you know exactly where your food has come from, and it’s free. Perhaps there is another way.

Family foraging checklist
• Accompany children at all times, so they can first check what’s safe to pick and eat
• Seek guidance if you’re pregnant, some wild foods contain chemical compounds best avoided
• Choose easy to find, recognisable plants, in good condition
• Ignore plants with a dangerous lookalike or any that are threatened species
• Pick only what you need, avoid stripping plants bare and damaging natural habitats
• Don’t dig up a plant without the landowner’s permission
• Stick to footpaths and public areas. Foraging restrictions apply in national parks, nature reserves and elsewhere
• Avoid roadsides and sites with possible soil or water pollution/ treatment; stay clear of dog fouling and other animal/bird waste.

Get foraging for spring greens
• Chickweed
• Common and Wood Sorrel
• Dandelion
• Hairy Bittercress
• Hedge Garlic
• Oxeye Daisy
• Primrose
• Stinging Nettles
• White Dead Nettle
• Wild Garlic
• Winter Cress

Some edible plants grow year-round; check guide books such as Richard Mabey’s Food for Free (publisher Collins Gem) and foraging websites for the long list of seasonal highlights.

If you do collect wild foods to eat make sure that detailed identification checks for each species are carried out. The author and publisher have made every effort to ensure accuracy in this article, but responsibility for eating any wild food must rest with the individual.

Join a London foraging expert… may include edible plants, flowers and mushrooms
Victoria Park E9: 23 March 10am-1pm
Clissold Park N16: 6 April 10am-1pm
Forager John Rensten leads city- dwellers on a walk of horticulture, health and healing. Adults £30 (one child free per paying adult).
✽ 07958 304 287 

Elsewhere…North London
For foraging events around the city –

Further afield…
West Cornwall: 11 April 10am-2pm
Caroline Davey delves into ancient hedgerows offering foraging and cooking sessions for children aged 5-12 years. £35 per child (sibling discount). Family walks available.
✽ 01736 810 156

The National Trust:
The Forestry Commission:
The Woodland Trust: have foraging events and advice.