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Foraging for food in Hertfordshire hedgerows and woods

Jane next to an elderflower bush. <i>(Image: Julie Lucas)</i>
Jane next to an elderflower bush. (Image: Julie Lucas)

Forager Jane Simmons is on the hunt for food that’s fresh and free, and she takes Julie Lucas with her on an exploration of Herts hedgerows and woods to find out what they can unearth

I am in the middle of Hitchin town centre, in Butts Close an 11-acre park. Forager Jane Simmons picks up some common knapweed and explains the pretty purple flower petals are edible and add colour to salads, she then hands me some oxeye daises, I have a taste - they have nice bitterness about them. Next Jane picks up yarrow, a medicinal herb, nice with gin and tonic apparently. We have barely walked 100 yards. ‘You don't always have to be in the wild to find wild things,’ says Jane. ‘You just have to find a space that's slightly neglected.’

Jane, aka the Hitchin Forager, began foraging in her 20s but started passing on her knowledge and taking people out around six or seven years ago. ‘In the 70's there wasn’t the same distraction of television or phones, so we used to go on nature walks as kids with my parents. We would pick things like sloe and blackberries; my mum would always be making jams and chutneys from the hedgerows. I can’t bare to see food rotting and going to waste. If you can use the plants around you it’s infinitely better; it’s free food.’

Great British Life: Jane with a group of foragers. Photo Jane SimmonsJane with a group of foragers. Photo Jane Simmons

The 55-year-old is a member of the Association of Foragers and follows their principles; the four Fs, foliage, fruit, flowers and fungi can be picked but she stresses, only take what you need. Steer clear of areas of scientific interest and don’t dig up anything or take plants away without the landowner's permission.

‘We are part of nature, we need to be living in symbiosis. Being in nature is so mindful, people need to spend more time outside. If you are picking and learning as you go, it makes walks more interesting and you will begin to see what is growing around you. There are so many things around us that are edible, but people just don’t realise.’

For first time foragers Jane advises ‘never munch on a hunch’ or ‘if in doubt leave it out’. Her advice is to consult good plant reference books, go out with a forager and check things on the internet to be 100 per cent sure. ‘When learning to forage you need to use your senses, you need to use your eyes to identify things but also need to use your nose. Wild garlic smells of garlic and it can't be anything else, but its looky likey plant lords and ladies, an arum lily, doesn't smell like garlic.

‘It’s like being in a foreign country. You may not have seen the sorts of fruits and vegetables before because you're not familiar with them. Once you start to identify them you appreciate the difference between things.’

Great British Life: Wild food goodies. Wild food goodies. (Image: Julie Lucas)

As we continue on our walk, Jane presents me with a plantain plant. ‘Give it a good scratch and sniff, really macerate it together and you might find it smells of either banana or mushroom.’ I get banana. The plant also has antiseptic properties - so it's good for insect bites and especially stinging nettles. ‘If you have something really mushroomy, add it as herb,’ she adds.

Jane incorporates a little bit of wild food into her everyday diet. ‘My garden is a bit of a forest garden. By eating a bigger variety of plants, adding nettles, wild garlic, garlic mustard or herbs like wild sorrell it helps with your diet and your gut microbiome.’

It’s a topical subject and to test the theory a group from the Association of Foragers are currently taking part in The Wildbiome Project. The group of 26 will be eating only wild food for three months to see the impact on their gut microbiomes and overall health. The results are due to be released in September.

What’s her favorite time of year to forage? ‘I love spring because you can have such an amazing array of salad from beech leaves to lime leaves. I love July for lime flowers because you can make beautiful cordial and tea and autumn for the hawthorns; I make hawthorn ketchup.’

Great British Life: Homemade blackberry ketchup. Photo Charlotte MurphyHomemade blackberry ketchup. Photo Charlotte Murphy

Continuing our wander we come to the common or garden nettle. It’s the bane of gardeners but its seeds are full of vitamin C and other nutrients. Interestingly nettles can be made into fiber – but it's not considered viable like linen. The leaves also make a refreshing tea.

‘The female seeds which hang down are bigger and more nutritious,’ explains Jane. They have a nutty texture to them. ‘Let them out dry out, then eat them as they are or sprinkle them into your salads - you can toast them and add them as a seed like chia.’

Another common plant is the sticky weed or cleaver – it's the stuff everyone stuck to each other at school. ‘In the springtime before it flowers, the young leaves are very good for the lymphatic system,’ explains Jane. They also taste like fresh peas; it’s lovely added to water.’

Great British Life: Jane searching for wild food at Butts Close, Hitchin. Jane searching for wild food at Butts Close, Hitchin. (Image: Julie Lucas)

She then points out one thing not to eat, Hemlock, it's toxic. It looks remarkably similar to cow parsley but can be identified by its smell and stalk. ‘We don’t go around poisoning our royalty anymore, so no one takes any notice of it,’ says Jane. ‘It can be identified by its hairless stalks which have red splatters.’ It doesn’t smell nice and feels like the plant is almost warning you.

Within half an hour I am introduced to plants that I would walk past every day but have fantastic flavours. We pass a tree laden with hazelnuts, they can be toasted or eaten raw; elderflower, the flowers are good for cordial or fizz and blackberry bushes.

‘You don't necessarily have to be a hunter gatherer to add a wild element to your food. You can collect things that are easily available. All these types of plants can be used in everyday cooking and we walk past them daily. It's on your doorstep and it's free. ‘

My walk certainly changed my perception of the plants around me. I go off to enjoy a glass of Jane’s delicious lime flower cordial.

August/September - look for damsons and blackberries with walnuts and hazelnuts ripening. For details of Jane’s guided walks go to

Great British Life: Homemade blackberry ketchup. Photo Charlotte MurphyHomemade blackberry ketchup. Photo Charlotte Murphy

Blackberry Ketchup

There are so many possibilities for the humble blackberry (rubus fruticosus). Here is my take on a savoury sauce/ketchup. Depending on how thick you wish the sauce to be will depend on it being a sauce or ketchup.


1kg blackberries or 500g blackberries and 500g


500ml white wine vinegar

1 red onion, chopped

1 large piece of fresh ginger, grated

1tsp ground nutmeg

1tsp ground allspice

Salt and pepper to taste

120 -150g dark brown sugar (depending on the preferred sweetness)


Prepare the berries by removing leaves and stalks, washing, draining and pat drying

In a preserving pan, combine the berries, vinegar and spices and simmer over a low heat until the mixture has reduced by half, approximately 1.5-2hrs

Transfer mixture to a sieve and press the pulp through the sieve to separate the puree from the seeds.

Pour the puree back into the pan, add the sugar and bring back to the boil.

Simmer until thickened to desired thickness.

Transfer into warm sterilised bottles and seal immediately.

Store in the fridge once opened


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