Treat the world as your larder, says Helen Moat, and you'll gain a whole new understanding of your destination
There’s something wonderful about foraging for food – whether it’s close to home or abroad. As a child I picked blackberries and field mushrooms with my father, later clambering trees for crab apples with other feral friends to cook over a campfire by the stream. These were my first adventures away from home.
Grown up, and on an inter-railing trip with a friend, we collected blueberries on the edge of a Swedish forest. Back at our red-painted lakeside cabin, so typical of Sweden, we washed the berries and ate them with yoghurt, crossing all our fingers and toes that the berries were actually what we thought they were – and not some poisonous variety.
On another autumn trip to the Swiss Alps with my boyfriend (now husband), we noticed the ground below the treeline was packed with fungi: all shapes, sizes and colours. We collected a variety of them, knowing there was a book on mushrooms back at our apartment which would help us identify them. But it was an impossible task: one perfectly edible mushroom looked just like another deadly poisonous one. In the end we threw the whole lot into the compost bin.
In contrast, my brother-in-law’s mother-in-law regularly scours the Sardinian countryside for food with confidence and knowledge. She’s spent her life foraging for food on her Italian island. Mushrooms, wild asparagus and fennel; roots, leaves and seeds: nothing escapes her beady eye. Here in Derbyshire, she’s been horrified when we’ve driven past road-kill such as pheasant without stopping to pick it up.
We think nothing of spending a fortune in the delicatessens, yet on our travels we walk past the tastiest wild food without noticing it. I learned this from a foodie friend on the Isle of Skye one Halloween. He took us foraging along the seashore packed with mussels, cockles and whelks. Back at our harbour-fronted house in Portree, we ate one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Ok, we had to bribe our children to eat the seafood – with the kids putting it down to the Halloween experience along with creepy pumpkin faces and ghost stories.
Fast forward, to last year when we were trekking in northern Thailand. Our guides stopped along the way to gather mushrooms as big as dinner plates. We arrived at our destination, a Karen village, wet and miserable (caught in a relentless Monsoon downpour) and covered in leeches, but soon cheered up when the cook presented us with the best yellow curry I’ve ever eaten – courtesy of the rainforest.
So last week I arrived at Hartington’s School of Cookery in Bakewell, tucked away in the eaves of an old mill beside the River Wye, more than ready to participate in a foraging course run by wild food experts, Chris and Rose Bax from ‘Taste the Wild’ based in Yorkshire. It was a grey, mizzling autumn day, not the most promising start for a day scouring hedgerows and woodland for wild food; more like a day for curling up under the duvet. But negative thoughts soon melted away as we headed up to the Monsal Trail and on into Manners Wood, squelching under damp russet leaves as Chris shared his passion for wild food.
Soon someone had spotted our first fungi – Jelly Ears growing on an Elder tree. We continued on to find LBJs (It seems ‘little brown jobs’ are not just confined to the birding world), most of them too small to eat – or poisonous. Continuing on we spotted Dead Men’s Fingers, blackened digits rising out of the earth, and Candle Snuff looking exactly like their name, alongside Deer mushrooms and Pink Spur. At the other end of the scale, Chris identified Dryad’s Saddle, protruding from a log like a broken dinner plate.
“You have to be a mushroom detective,” Rose told us. “You need to check all the clues, from the mushroom’s dimensions, colour, smell, location, along with the appearance of the cap, gills and spur print.” Chris added: “When you first start looking for mushrooms, don’t go out looking for your dinner. Spend time learning to identify the mushrooms.”
Returning to the Monsal Trail, we found an assortment of edible seeds, roots and leaves from common weeds that make for delicious ingredients: The roots of Ground ivy; wild cress; the seeds from Hogweed with their wonderful aromatic flavour akin to cardamom; Wood Sorrel with its lovely fresh, lemony twang, making for a delicious garnish - and surprisingly, the haws from the ubiquitous Hawthorn that are excellent in jellies, jams, syrups and compotes.
Back in the kitchen, Chris cooked up a storm: marinated mushrooms on toast; partridge with elderberry jus and polenta, and a mouth-watering dessert utilising the haws and Hogweed seeds we’d collected.
“When you’re foraging, you’re really engaging with nature and the world you live in,” Rose said at one point. And it’s true. I know from now on in, I’ll be travelling much more slowly: whether I’m walking along a thyme-scented Mediterranean coastal path, or wandering through a Scandinavian forest - or just down a weed-lined track in my own Derbyshire. Going for a walk may just take a little longer…
Have you ever forged in your travels? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.
Main image: Hand holding mushrooms (Shutterstock)