Foraging for food

Last updated Sunday 4 January 2009

Seize a salad in the local park

Contrary to popular opinion, urban 'wildernesses' such as scrubland, parks and hedgerows are peppered with edible greens. Given that the price of lettuce has jumped by as much as 60% in the last six months, is it time to find out whether there's such a thing as a carbon-free lunch?

Warning: Eating foraged foods should only be undertaken if you are certain you have correctly identified the thing you intend to eat. If in doubt, don't eat it. Incorrectly identified foraged foods could be harmful to your health.

The climate impact of the average bag of prepared salad is sky-high due to all of the fertilising, artificial heating, packaging, storage and transport it requires. Food in general accounts for a fifth of the UK's CO2 emissions.

Abandoning the supermarket altogether to forage for your food could knock more than 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year off your carbon footprint (according to the University of Chicago paper 'Diet, Energy and Global Warming'). That's as much as cycling to work instead of driving.

Whether or not you could stomach a diet of steamed burdock root, nettle soup and the odd roadkill badger (when you get lucky) is another matter. Scavenging is also fairly time-consuming, so is it a wild goose chase if you're a deskbound nine-to-fiver?

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Photo: Foraging for food

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Pub Fact

  • Rose petals are edible
  • The Victorians commonly used wild flowers to flavour their cooking

Keep an eye peeled for these common salad plants, vegetables, nuts and fungi.

  • Chickweed. Add raw leaves to salads
  • Nipplewort. Commonly found on roadsides and in hedgerows, the raw leaves can be used in salads
  • Comfrey. Found in ditches and other damp places, this plant can be substituted for spinach
  • Dandelion. Produces a zesty salad leaf resembling chicory.
  • Nettle. To make nettle soup, remove stalks and fry the leaves with onion and butter. Add stock and a pinch of nutmeg
  • Hedge garlic. The leaves of 'Jack-by-the-hedge' taste like garlic and grow on the edge of woods and in hedge banks
  • Burdock. Cut young stems into 5 cm segments, peel off the outer skin and fry
  • Horseradish. The roots of this common plant found throughout England and Wales can be peeled, grated and mixed with cream to make horseradish sauce
  • Beech nuts. These tiny nuts are packed with protein and can be eaten as an alternative to shop-bought hazelnuts. Peel and roast the nuts to eat with salads
  • Acorns. Once they have been soaked in water to remove the tannins, acorns can be ground into flour or coffee
  • Chestnuts. Eat them raw in late October after removing the shell and inner casing. You can also pierce the outside and roast until soft. Chestnut puree can be used as an alternative to butter
  • Fungi. Exercise caution and be certain you have correctly identified your fungus. Look for Jelly Ear, Giant Puffball, Parasol Mushroom, St George’s Mushroom, Chicken of the Woods and Field Blewits
  • Chamomile. Pick the flowers when they are in full bloom, ideally in the morning on a warm day. Remove dirt but try not to wash them or they will lose their taste. Spread them on a tray and let them dry in a warm place. Lastly, infuse a handful of flowers in half a litre of boiling water

Focus on overgrown alleyways, building sites, waste ground, parks, hedgerows, riverbanks and gardens. Rosehips and blackberries tend to be particularly common near train stations, while mounds of soil at building sites frequently host chickweed, goosefoot, oraches, rocket and mustard. Gardens tend to be rich in dandelions, wood sorrels and hairy bittercress. Try growing your own varieties

The sea shore is one of the best places to scavenge for free food:

  • Cockles. Look for them in mid-tidal, muddy sand
  • Edible crabs. Look in rock pools when the tide is out
  • Mussels. Gather them at low tide from unpolluted stretches of coastline
  • Winkles. Abundant on rocky shores
  • Dulse. Use raw in salads or fry the fronds
  • Sea holly. Peel and boil the roots until soft
  • Sea spinach. Use the leaves in soups and as tart fillings

And if you're feeling adventurous, the following wild animals can also be eaten fresh:

  • Squirrels. Can be roasted or stewed
  • British frogs (not toads)
  • Snails. Let them graze on lettuce for a few days prior to eating, then eat only the protruding 'foot'

Before you head off, make sure you at least have a detailed photo guide to edible plants and animals with you, or better still someone with expert knowledge. Many of the plants listed above are identified in this edible plant identification guide and BioImages provides photos of a wide range of British flora and fauna.

And remember:

  • Never eat a plant or animal that you haven't first identified as being safe to eat
  • Harvest just the foliage and flowers. It's illegal to uproot any wild plant in the UK
  • Check the history of your foraging grounds in your local library to ensure the site isn't toxic
  • Choose plants at the centre of a clump as dogs and foxes tend to 'make use' of the outskirts

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