Go Wild with Forager Liz Knight
Forager Liz Knight shows us how to make the most of our seasonal hedgerow harvest
(Photo: For the Love of Food)
“Pick one wild thing a day.” This is a well-known foraging mantra, according to Liz Knight. She’s a professional forager who spends her days sourcing ingredients for restaurants, teaching courses, and creating artisan products from wild foodstuffs.
“It’s so important to eat wild food because it’s the most sustainable ways to eat. This is the way people have been eating for thousands of years and in many countries they still do — it’s what your body craves,” she explains.
“Eating foraged food is incredibly emancipating. It feeds you twice over, nourishing your body and your soul. Your perception of the world changes. What was formerly just an overgrown verge or piece of waste ground suddenly becomes a rich source of delicious food.”
Liz is, however, realistic enough to know that in today’s time-poor world, it would be impossible for someone to get out every day, or even every week, to forage. Instead she recommends searching close to home — in your back garden even — for well-known wild plants to enliven salads, soups and even sweet dishes.
“Teas or infusions are a fantastic way to add a little bit of wildness to your diet. Spring stinging nettles make a delicious infusion, and they’re rich in antioxidants,” she says.
It’s also possible to dry the plants that you forage and use them throughout the year; you can make elderflower cordial with dried blossoms, for example.
Liz explains that there are several important guidelines to follow when getting involved in foraging.
The first of these is to hone your plant identification skills (her own book, Forage, will help you with this).
“It’s an exhilarating experience to discover that there are so many wild foods within arm’s reach, and the temptation to run out and eat everything can be strong,” she says. “But before you begin your foray into becoming a gatherer of food, take time to properly identify plants — some are so toxic that a leaf will cause serious damage to vital organs or worse.”
Liz recommends beginning to gather plants that you 100 percent know, and slowly broadening your knowledge. It’s also necessary to be aware that plants change their appearance throughout the year, from buds and shoots to blossoms and seedheads, and to become aware of these changes.
It’s necessary to be aware of potential allergies. “Each body is unique, and reacts to food in different ways. Once you have identified an edible plant, introduce small amounts of it into your diet at a time to avoid an allergic reaction,” Liz says.
She also advocates foraging legally and responsibly, and learning the regulations around wild plants.
“In England and Wales you can gather wild plants, apart from protected species, for personal use, from public land (unless it is a protected area),” she explains.
Her final foraging commandment: gather only what you need. Wild food supports a range of other animals, and should be gathered in small quantities.
“If you find that you have bags of harvested leaves and fruits going mouldy before you use them, you’ve probably gathered too much,” she says.
Liz Knight’s wild recipes and tips are featured in her new book FORAGE: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat (Laurence King, £20)
What to forage in April
“This is the month for hawthorn. It’s the first hedgerow plant to come into season. You know that spring is coming when the hawthorn leaves open and dapple the hedges in luminescent patches of green. Hawthorn leaves have a mild, nutty peppery flavour. Villagers used to call it ‘bread and cheese’ and nibble it on the way to school. It can be added to salads or used in soups (in place of parsley). I also use it in fishcakes and gremolata.”
“At the end of April the blossoms open. It looks like snow, creating a beautiful white light across the countryside. The blossoms have an almond flavour, and can be used to flavour syrups, Turkish delight or even gin. All parts of the hawthorn tree are excellent for stabilising blood pressure.”
What to Forage in May
“Elderflower can be gathered from the beginning of May to late June. The nice thing about elderflower is that it blossoms all at once, so you can harvest it easily. All the flavour of elderflower is in the pollen; make sure you gather blooms with yellow pollen, not brown. Don’t wash elderflower, because then you’ll get rid of the pollen. Instead, lay it out on a piece of parchment paper, giving time for any bugs to crawl away!”
“Elderflower cordial and champagne is very popular, but I like to use elderflower as a savoury ingredient, as it has a flavour similar to thyme. I use elderflower to stuff trout, and I also make a delicious elderflower and fennel salt.”
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