Is there such a thing as a free lunch?
They say “There is no such thing as a free lunch” – that may hold true until you discover foraging!
Little did I know when my father took me picking wild mushroom at the age of 6 that I would end up on the island of Ireland, picking much more than just mushrooms. Nowadays, I collect wild foods from forests, hills, meadows, seashore and the sea.
Foraging has undergone an unprecedented renaissance and not only in Ireland. However, for me, it is much more than just the collection of wild food. It brings me in contact with nature; it is the equivalent of a good workout; it allows me to be reflective and mindful while I am out and about it also stimulates my senses. There is nothing quite like smelling the mineral, truffle and sea notes while you are picking Pepper Dulse at low tide or coming upon the strong aroma of Porcini or Girolle mushrooms while walking through the forest. Once in the kitchen, the flavours of wild mushrooms and plants are so varied and often intense, that similar shop-bought items cannot compare or even get close to the flavour profiles or aromas.
If we imagine a 15-meter-long timeline with the earliest ancestors of man gathering food about fifteen million years ago, the beginning of the cultivation of plants would only occupy the last seven millimetres, demonstrating the extremely long history of foraging.
It is the Hunter-Gatherer in us, something that may be part of our genetic makeup, that makes foraging so enjoyable, apart from the fact that the wild foods you pick are available for free.
How to get started with foraging:
- The best way to start foraging is to go with an experienced forager.
- Wear the proper footwear and correct clothing (e.g. bring gloves if you are going to pick nettles).
- Have a basket and a pocketknife with you.
- Be aware of the seasons as both mushrooms and plants can appear very different depending on the stage of their lifecycle. Many mushrooms can have symbiotic relationships with trees (Birch Bolete grow under or near Birch trees, Larch Bolete grow under or near Larch trees).
- Be patient - if you visit a forest at some time during the year and you did not see any mushrooms, do go back after a few weeks or after a few rain showers and that same forest could be full of mushrooms.
- Some edible mushrooms are very easily identified, like the Hedgehog fungus (Pied de mouton in French) with their downward-pointing spines underneath the cap, unlike most other fungi that have gills or pores. The same holds true for Scarlet Elf Cups which are scarlet red in colour and cup-shaped, and are in season throughout the winter, an otherwise quiet time for fungi.
Give yourself time to learn slowly, for my part I am happy to increase my knowledge by one wild edible mushrooms and one wild edible plant species per year, giving me ample time to familiarise myself with the individual characteristics.
Mushrooms (for details visit www.gallowaywildfoods.com):
Pick foods that are easy to Identify like the below examples -
Seashore plants (for details visit www.gallowaywildfoods.com):
- Many of the boletus family (Ceps-Penny Bun, Birch Bolete, Larch Bolete, Slippery Jacks) with a spongy surface of pores on the underside of the cap with only a few poisonous species which are well identifiable
- Hedgehog fungus
- Scarlet Elf Cups
- Many members of the Chanterelles family (Girolles, Winter Chanterelle)
- Giant Puffballs
Seaweeds (for details visit www.gallowaywildfoods.com):
- Sea beat (sea spinach)
- Scurvy grass
- Marsh and Rock Samphire
- Sea Radish
Hedgerows, Meadows and Forest (for details visit www.gallowaywildfoods.com):
- Sea lettuce
- Sea Spaghetti
- Kelp and Sugar Kelp
- Many fruits like Blackberries, Sloes, Elderberries and Rosehips
- Sorrel - Sheep and Wood variety
- Wild Garlic
- Three-Cornered Leek
How to forage sustainably and responsibly
- When picking any plants, seaweed or mushrooms try to cut them above the base rather than pulling them out, as you want them to reproduce every year.
- Use a Picking wicker basket to hold mushrooms when picking, this will facilitate the dispersing of spores, ensuring continuous growth of mushrooms
- Be aware of the reproductive cycle of seaweeds, avoid picking during that period
- Leave at least a 40% of the wild foods you find behind for wildlife relying on those plants or fungi, as well as ensuring next year’s regrowth
- Only pick what you need.
- Leave nature the way you found it, clean and unspoiled
The don’ts and what to look out for when foraging
- If in doubt throw it out, as the saying goes “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old – bold mushroom hunters.
- You can eat any mushroom, however some of them only once, be absolutely sure of what you are picking.
- Never mix mushrooms that you can identify, with unknown ones in the same basket.
- Be aware of lookalikes especially when it comes to mushrooms, as some edible varieties have very poisonous twins (try to stay away from those species unless you have experience with identification, and you are 100% sure).
- Stay away from the carrot family of plants, as this includes alongside edible species some of the most poisonous ones that can be easily confused.
- Do not pick wild foods in Nature and Wildlife reserves.
- If you are visiting forests watch out for ticks (I have a very strict regime that I follow which can take up to an hour before and after returning from the forest), as a large amount of ticks are carriers of Lyme disease, which can be a life-changing illness.
- When picking seaweeds be aware of the tides, pick on days with very low tides and start foraging the seaweeds with the lowering tide ensuring you give yourself enough time to return to the shore prior to the tide coming back in.
- Ensure you are not trespassing on private land.
What to do with your foraged foods
There are endless possibilities for your foraged foods.The things I like to do are:
- Vinegar Infusions (Meadowsweet, Wild Rose, Elderflower, Pineapple Weed, Wild Mushroom, Seaweed)
- Spirit Infusions (Elderflower, Elderberry, Blackberry, Damson, Sloe)
- Syrups (Elderflower, Elderberry, Blackberry, Pineapple Weed, Damson, Rosehip)
- Pickling (Wild Garlic seeds, Elderberry, Blackberry, Pineapple Weed, Seaweeds, Sea Radish seeds when young, Samphire)
- Preserves and Chutneys (Blackberry, Damson, Crab Apple)
- Fermenting (Wild Garlic leaves and seeds)
- Dehydrating (Wild Mushrooms, Seaweed, Wild Garlic)
- Salts (Wild Mushroom, Seaweed, Wild Garlic, Wild Oregano, Wild Thyme)
- Smoking (Wild Mushroom, Seaweed)
My Favourite Resources for foraging:
Wild Food (Roger Philips), Mushrooms (Roger Philips, advanced), Food for Free (Richard Mabey)
www.gallowaywildfoods.com by Mark Williams, a fantastic blog that has very specific detail on edible wild foods regarding identification and seasonality, and due to its close geographical proximity, it is a good indicator to what is happening in Ireland.
VILD MAD a project initiated by MAD, giving good detail on identification and recipes, however, be mindful that the app is designed for the Danish Landscape so there may be slight differences regarding seasonality.
www.instagram.com/thallifoods Thalli foods are one of my favourite Instagram accounts, with excellent pictures of wild foods in their natural habitat, and very detailed descriptions of when and where to find them as well as how to use many of them. As Edward and Avery, the couple behind Thalli Foods are based in Co. Clare, it gives any followers interested in foraging a good Idea what you can find when out and about in the wild at any given time.
5. Food market:
The Milk Market Limerick, for the weeks, when you don't get out to forage, you can find Ballyhoura Mountain Mushroom (Mark and Lucy), selling a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms and excellent mushroom products, You will also find Thalli foods (Edward and Avery) selling foraged edibles and a selection of condiments made from wild foods.
There is such a thing as a free lunch if you are willing to get out there and look for it, and with the wild garlic season in full swing at the moment, it is only a matter of time until the hunter-gatherer instinct should awaken in you.
Happy foraging!Ulrich Hoeche