Harvesting wild foods from meadows, woodlands and hedgerows enlivens our natural hunter-gatherer instincts, says Sarah Woods, who takes a look at Guernsey’s well-stocked natural store-cupboards.
Now that the warmer weather has arrived, the Channel Island’s landscape is a forager’s fantasy: with lush, green leaves sprouting; plump berries fruiting; mushrooms appearing in the woods, and hedgerows drooping with budding blooms.
Once, I would have viewed Mother Nature’s pantry as a food source for wild birds and bugs. Today, after attending a talk on foraging in the countryside for human consumption I am eying up the hedgerows with a more selfish need; my own rumbling belly. The fertile landscape of the Channel Islands is a smörgåsbord of tasty gourmet delights.
Foraging is all part of the growing UK movement that is much more than scavenging the woodlands. As thousands of devoted foragers will concur, it’s about making positive steps towards being better connected to nature. Most aren’t seeking out a prize-gold trove of truffles or a delicious species of lesser-known sea algae. The goal is simple: to search out nice-tasting natural produce - in the soil, by the shore or in the sea.
“Mother Nature has laid on a huge array of edible plants for us that are equally as delicious, if not more, than the veggies and salads we routinely buy in supermarkets,” enthuses D’Arcy who co-owns Wild Guernsey with his wife Tara and runs foraging workshops from a vehicle-free, organic farm at the edge of a beautiful bay. “Once you get into a nature-friendly state of mind, you’ll stop seeing the hedgerows as banks of weeds - it will start to look like lunch or supper.”
For most of us, foraging requires learning more about what’s available; what’s safe to eat and how the variety of flavours and textures around can bring mealtimes a new dimension. Picking plants by hand means charting the flow of the seasons. Part of the joy of unearthing wild foods is feeling the wind, rain and sunshine on your skin. And, unlike when I trawl the aisles supermarket shopping, I instinctively only pick what I need. Reading Alys Fowler’s The Thrifty Forager helped the penny drop regarding the perpetual cycle of over-buying, then throwing away, bags of food each week. Foraging promotes a return to seasonal and local foods and supports a wide-spread desire to obtain food in manageable quantities: to not be dictated to by supermarkets who spin BOGOF deals to bribe us into buying more, and more, and more. Using Fowler’s model, I am already a better meal planner - once I’ve gathered what I need for three meals or so, I leave the rest for others. The wealth of edible plants and mushrooms across a diverse range of habitats feels utterly liberating, from sea beet and kelp in sandy soils to cow parsley in green meadows and sheep sorrel in sun-dappled leafy glades.
A key to early foraging success is to learn a few easily identifiable plants to get started, D’Arcy explains - there are plenty to choose from in the Channel Islands. “Seeking the advice of seasoned experts is a good way to learn - and there are plenty of accomplished foragers in the Channel Islands,” D’Arcy enthuses. “This way, you’ll be able to bring a greater variety to your diet, more quickly. At Wild Guernsey we run regular foraging courses that teach wild food basics. Children love to be part of foraging and it is a real thrill to see them so passionate about the countryside and food too.”
Many of the foraging walk-and-talks run by Wild Guernsey are family orientated, from the hikes, and cooking courses to the seashore excursions. You’ll also find courses in Jersey, including the Jersey-based coastal forays and bushcraft trips run by Kazz Padidar from Wild Adventures to the regular wild food safaris organised by The Alderney Wildlife Trust. Workshops are social affairs that include an hour-long stomp through woodlands for an insight into the 15,000 types of wild-growing fungi plus the innumerable array of tasty leaves, nuts, berries and shoots. One key golden rule is never eat anything unless you are 100 per cent sure what it is – a good reference guide is: www.wildfooduk.com/ (this was my bible for at least a month).
Around the Channel Islands, wild food recipes are traded like Top Trump cards. Notable chefs collect them and are keen customers of professional foragers with a sustainable model like WildFood. Some of the region’s award-winning signature dishes owe their exquisite flavours to foraging. Rooting around for earthy wild fennel, fresh rock samphire and wild sorrel with its lemony tang can be the difference between an ordinary or outstanding meal. Who would have thought that plants we might pop on the compost heap could be an ingredient worthy of a main dish at a Michelin-star restaurant or that blanched nettles go so well with green pesto and plump, white fish?
After a day of foraging, I feel vital and more alive. Hunting and gathering my supper seems to have sharpened by tastebuds and my children, with nails black and faces muddy, have definitely enjoyed the back-to-nature effect - and I have never seen them so willing to eat their ‘greens’.
Wild Adventures (Jersey)
Stocks Hotel (Sark)
National Trust Jersey
Alderney Wildlife Trust
WHAT TO PICK?
NETTLES packed with vitamin C and iron, the heart-shaped leaves loose their sting once they’ve been blanched - pick them young (April- June) and sauté in olive oil. Or brew for tea.
GOOSEGRASS find these straggling plants with sticky buds in abundance along roadsides and hedges. Pick fresh stems (less than 10cm) and steam quickly, adding garlic butter for a delicious veggie side dish.
PRIMROSE use the flowers and leaves of this pretty five-petalled plant as decorative garnish for salads, or add to a stir-fry - being sure to keep them crisp and green.
DANDELION add the chicory-like leaves to salad or fry the flower buds in light batter and serve with home-baked bread and a tangy dip - delicious!
ELDER Pick the white cotton-bud flowers or berries but leave the rest - as it is poisonous. For cordial, add citric acid to the delicately scented flowers. Combine berries with strawberries in a fruit jam.
HEDGE GARLIC part of the mustard family, this hedgerow plant has white flowers with yellow centres - tear the leaves and use in salads, sandwiches and wraps.
CHICKWEED found in abundance all over the Channel Isles, and commonly used in healing. The curved, dome-shaped lime-green leaves pep up salads and are delicious served with meats and cheese.
MALLOW This mild-tasting flowering plant can be eaten stuffed with bulgar wheat or rice. Young leaves are a substitute for lettuce; older leaves can be cooked like cabbage.
PENNYWORT This green, round and dimpled leafy plant is commonly found on Guernsey’s granite walls - eat the crisp leaves raw as a salad vegetable or sandwich garnish.
FORAGING TOP TIPS
- Stay off the beaten track, avoid areas people walk their dogs.
- Never pull plants out by the roots - only the leaves and stems.
- Never trespass on private land when harvesting plants.
- Be mindful of pesticides, herbicides and traffic fumes.
- Always double check the identity of the plant (use more than 1 source of reference).
- Not sure what it is - don’t pick it. Plants can be poisonous.
WILDFOOD BOX SCHEME
Staying in Guernsey and self-catering? Then order a box of local wild foods from WildFood - a community supported agriculture (CSA) partnership with local farmers that brings exciting, fresh healthy food to encourage people to feel more connected to the land of the Channel Islands.
See the Soil Association website: www.soilassociation.org
FORAGING SKILLS COURSE
Keen to learn more? Then sign up for a WildFood Guernsey 2-hour workshop to learn all about how to pick, prepare, cook and enjoy a menu of local Channel Island plants - you’ll even be given a box of local foods to take away to try at home. Cost per person, £20. Also WildSeashore and WildHerbal workshops.
The National Trust run foraging courses too: see www.nationaltrust.je