If you take a wander out there in the woods and green spaces, you'll see there's plenty of free food at the moment. There are some simple to identify things which you can forage, and it doesn't take much to find them.
The act of foraging is so gratifying - a primal, inbuilt and somewhat lost (for some) need to gather food, prepare and store away. There's a feeling you get when you go out foraging, a connectedness to nature and the land. It has a grounding effect which is needed, and so welcome in this era of artificial, high-stress environments and routines.
The simple act of foraging reconnects you to so many natural spaces, whether it’s hedgerow or woodland. It makes you slow down and take in the natural world, and you see your part of the town or outskirts in a different light. Suddenly, weeds aren't weeds anymore - they become useful, with their own historical back story. Some are food, some can be used as medicine, and most are both. Through foraging and just being in nature there are psychological, emotional and health benefits. I think everyone would benefit from getting some dirt under their nails whilst out in the woods - it's immune boosting.
Normal everyday life for most people is so fast-paced - be up at this time, then eat these meals at this hour. Be here, be there. It can be non-stop – work, work, work, and then the day is gone. It's important to take time out though, to just be. Everyday problems will always be there, something new will always come up demanding your time.
It's amazing how much more observant you become when searching for edible or medicinal plants. You start to really notice how the wheel of the year turns, and you become very in tune with the seasons. As different plants and fruits ripen and ready during different months, you'll notice a kind of "wave" that crosses the foraging year. Many greens are available in the early spring and onwards, with plums and apples following later, along with the various berries, and then the nuts.
I think many people have an inbuilt fear of gathering for themselves, about picking the wrong things, eating something poisonous, or they just don't like the look of wild foraged fare. Most people are used to store-bought fruit and veg which is always fresh-looking and perfectly plastic-packaged. You have to stop and remember: our ancestors and the rest of mankind were getting food from the wild for far longer than modern supermarkets have been in existence. I don't think there's any real emotion or connectedness to be taken from supermarket shopping, for most it's a pain. Getting out there into the woods and foraging is a totally different game - you're becoming part of nature.
Although you won't be able to get your complete shop by foraging, you can at least snack as you wander along, or if you're more prepared it's easy to make more of a simple meal. A lot of foraged food can be dry, or moisture-sapping so it’s always worth taking a bottle of water with you, a flask if you want to be a bit more fancy.
The really good side to foraged food is that it's organic, hasn't been processed and will be better for you than what you buy in the shops. Again, it might not be as pretty, but it'll be full of flavour and bursting with micro nutrients. It even comes in its own biodegradable packaging!
Remember, you’re taking part in an activity that has been carried out by the human species for millions of years, but you live in an age where you don't really have to because meals aren't scarce for most of us. Nowadays, food is very readily available and, as long as you have the means to purchase it, there's a glut in the supermarkets. There's still an internal drive though - something in us that excites, or soothes our souls when we wander in nature, and even more so when foraging, and also with the further act of preserving your haul.
That glow you get from being in nature and being able to harvest your own food is priceless. It's a forgotten skill just waiting to be rediscovered. Once you get a small haul, the act of stopping and sitting still helps you to become part of that space, both physically and in mind. People have done this many times over and hazelnut remains have been found in excavated prehistoric fire pits. Forage, harvest, re-group with your tribe, sit, share, eat, talk, and reconnect in spirit and place. A timeless cycle which is so worth renewing.
After a while, with regular foraging sessions you'll start to remember the locations of fruit-bearing trees and bushes, and you’ll become aware of the different micro climates in and around woodlands where things grow better, stronger. You'll also start to make mental notes of how far along things are, and a timescale of when they can be gathered.
During your forays into the outdoors, it’s always worth also taking the time to study the plants which aren’t in their foraging season. If you learn how to identify the midwinter hazel tree by its bark and shape alone, you’ll feel much more confident about recognising it complete with leaves and nuts in autumn. You’ll also be able to then spot more of them on your travels, whenever your journeys occur, ready to revisit and gather from them when the season is right.
If you've never really been foraging before then now is an excellent time to get out there. There's all sorts ready at the moment - for a starter blackberries. There are also wild raspberries, dewberries, various types of apples and plums, many of which can be turned into jams, chutneys and booze that'll be ready by Yule.
Obviously, you need to be sure of what you’re gathering, and investing in a good book (or a few) is well worth it. Take them out with you, and use them often. Some foods are very easy to spot and are pretty fool proof, but others can require a bit of care. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of looking at similar plants and to remind yourself of any differences between them. Be kind to yourself, and begin with the really easy foods to forage if you’re just beginning and build your confidence (and knowledge) gradually.
One of the food types that's particularly plentiful this year is hazelnuts. Right about now, they're ready to eat and make an excellent snack as you wander along. You'll find them on the hazel bushes in the hedgerow, or along the paths in woods. They're very easy to identify but can be tricky to get into. There's a bit of a knack to opening them with your teeth. Be warned though, nuts are well known for breaking teeth so only open them with your teeth if you have strong gnashers! Hazelnuts have a flatter side. Try crushing this first and then turn them to crush the shorter side. Doing this, the shell should crack and you'll be able to see the edible nut inside. Alternatively, get hold of a nut cracker - they're readily available online.
Blackberries also make a really good snack as you wander along, easily identifiable too, just watch for the thorns on the bramble vines.
Getting out there and foraging gives us an appreciation of the countryside around us, the wildlife that uses it and all that grows there. I'm certain there's some kind of positive energy transfer that occurs when you spend time in nature. Just like tree hugging, there's a healing quality that aids you on many levels. Nature can embrace you and positively alter your frequency and vibration. Nature itself is a medicine.
Always worth a mention - The Rules of Foraging
It’s always worth remembering that there are unspoken rules of the land about foraging, and there's more out there than your human eyes can see - be respectful ;-)
- Always know what you're picking, and even if you need to take a book to help with id, be sure of what you're gathering.
- Never consume a wild plant unless you are absolutely certain of its identification.
- Only collect flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds where they are in abundance. It's very easy for an area to become depleted through over foraging.
- Always leave plenty behind, take no more than you plan to consume.
Once you get the knowledge and knowhow for foraging, you'll soon learn to look off the beaten track a bit where you'll find the real gems!
Finally, the most important rule of foraging for wild food or medicinal plants: if in doubt, leave it out.