Foraging in Surrey - food for thought from local countryside
- Credit: Amy Murrell
Autumn is here and the woodlands and hedgerows are brimming once more with nature’s harvest. Tim Glynne-Jones gets an induction to the wonderful world of foraging – and discovers how we can enjoy this relaxing pastime in a responsible way
Claudio the forager plucks the tip from a stinging nettle, folds the leaves carefully between his fingers and then pops them casually in his mouth. I wait for the screams but he just grins his cheery grin, swallows and then informs me, “They don’t sting you inside the mouth, only on the skin.”
This is just one of the many eye-openers you learn when you go walking in the countryside with Claudio Bincoletto – chef, ethno-botanist and wild food expert. Here’s another: “If you run out of chickens, you can survive on nettles; they’re one of the best food sources around.”
Claudio’s expertise doesn’t stop at nettles either. In the space of an hour, I learn that burdock leaves taste good boiled like salsify, cow parsley flowers can be dipped in batter and fried as tempura, dandelions produce a second flush of leaves in September that are delicious when sweated down like spinach, and haw berries are good for the heart (if a little fiddly – try medlars instead).
For Claudio, the health benefits of wild food are a given. “I always connect eating natural living things with being healthy,” he says. Having grown up in a small farming family in the Veneto, north-east Italy, and learnt about wild food from his grandfather (“We didn’t call it ‘wild food’, just ‘food’”), Claudio has taken a passionate interest in nature’s harvest throughout his 50 years. Today, he conducts educational foraging walks in Richmond Park, on behalf of Petersham Nurseries, and knows the Surrey woodland well – indeed, he informs me that there are truffles in them there hills – if someone tells you where to look and you’re lucky enough to know a good pig.
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But Claudio is reticent about encouraging foraging these days. What began as a healthy revival in interest for the edible leaves, berries, nuts and fungi that abound, especially at this time of year, has mushroomed (pardon the pun) into something of a feeding frenzy, particularly for the more exotic wild foods that have become regulars on the menus of fashionable restaurants. He prefers to call what he does “gathering”, drawing the distinction between picking a few treats for yourself while out enjoying the countryside, and going out on a mission to scoop up as much free food as you can carry.
“By instinct, we’re greedy,” he says. “We see something for free and we fill up a bag, but three-quarters of it ends up in the bin because we don’t have time to cook it.”
The gastronomic trend of the last decade or so for seasonal, local and natural ingredients, coupled with increased interest in the health giving properties of these foods, has triggered a foraging mania, to the extent that even the supermarkets are cashing in on the craze. For Claudio, this is cause for serious concern. “There’s a big demand for wild food and it’s creating too much pressure,” he says. In short, our woodlands are being ravaged.
Stories of people being apprehended with sackfuls of illegally foraged mushrooms have appeared in the news with increasing regularity in recent years and commercial foragers have assumed the role of latter day poachers, wantonly harvesting prized delicacies like wild garlic and fungi to sell to restaurants for high prices, with no concern for the ecosystem they’re denuding. But they are not the only culprits. The rise in interest in scarce mushrooms, for example, has brought out more hobbyist foragers in search of these treasures and some of their populations are in decline as a result.
So says Andrew Wright, the National Trust’s countryside manager for Surrey Hills East. Andrew is responsible for protecting the flora and fauna at popular sites such as Box Hill, Headley Heath, Reigate Hill and Limpsfield Common and it’s not just the plant life that’s under threat. “One of the biggest problems at Box Hill is people collecting the giant Roman snails,” he tells me. “These snails are part of the reason that Box Hill is a specialist habitat protected by law. You actually need a license to even handle them. On occasions, they have been collected for profit, sold to local French and Italian restaurants. Anyone doing that wants to look out because if they get caught there’s a serious fine.”
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, you could face a fine of £2,000 if you’re caught collecting Roman snails. The authorities are serious about protecting these rare species, but that doesn’t mean foraging is completely forbidden. On the contrary, it’s positively encouraged, provided you’re considerate about the foods you collect.
Enjoying the outdoors
“I’m a big supporter of foraging,” says Andrew. “It’s a great way of getting outdoors and close to nature. I don’t think there’s a problem with someone walking along a footpath somewhere in the countryside and picking a few brambles off a hedgerow or sloes to make sloe gin, or some elderberries, crab apples, rosehips etc. I would always encourage parents to take their kids bramble picking – for many of us, it’s the first memory of being in touch with the countryside. Where it does become a problem is at these big ‘honeypot’ sites like Box Hill, where you get lots and lots of people mushrooming, say, for more scarce fungi in the woods.”
As long as blackberries continue to adorn the hedgerows and the chanterelle shows her coveted face among the autumn leaves, the instinct to hunt and gather will always drive us to the countryside and rightly so: there are few more pleasant ways of spending an autumn afternoon than strolling in the woods and meadows, soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of nature and going home with the promise of blackberry and apple pie on your mind. But this year the message is clear: forage responsibly.
While the authorities go after the snail poachers, we can all do our bit to ensure the countryside continues to offer up its rich wild harvest year after year.
For more information on the foraging walks organised by Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, see the panel on the right or pay a visit to their website at petershamnurseries.com
5 for the autumn pot
Hazelnut Also known as cobnuts, these are a rich source of energy, fibre, essential fatty acids, folate and vitamin E. Look for the trees in hedgerows or on the edge of forests. Dry the nuts in the sun for two weeks and shell just before eating.
Sweet chestnut Cut them open and roast on an open fire. Chestnuts are low in calories compared to other nuts, as well as being a rich source of vitamin C, fibre, essential fatty acids and folates.
Chanterelle As a rule, yellow fungi should be avoided, but this orangey-yellow mushroom has a sweet, honey flavour and a smell like apricots. It’s also rich in vitamin D, minerals and fibre. Pan fry with butter, salt, pepper and whole garlic cloves.
Sorrel These tangy lemony leaves are lovely teamed up with fish or in salads. They’ll also quench your thirst if you’re out on a walk and are a good source of vitamins and minerals too.
Elderberry Elderberries can be very bitter but pick them ripe, when the weight of the fruit is bending the branches, and they make a lovely syrup without the need for too much sugar. They’re rich in vitamin C and are believed to help lower cholesterol.