Why Foraging is Becoming Increasingly Popular in Britain
Foraging has surged in popularity over the past year, and is rapidly becoming a mainstream activity – we explore the reasons behind Britain’s love of wild food
Foraging, the act of gathering wild food for free, is becoming increasingly popular; so much so that it’s all over Instagram and TikTok. But this wasn’t always the case.
“Back in the 90s, foraging was very fringe; something for hippies and oddballs. I’d occasionally get disparaging comments – people thought you were going through the bins,” explains professional forager Dave Hamilton.
But in the past decade, he says, things have changed dramatically. Foraging is now close to becoming a mainstream practice; there are television programmes dedicated to it, and increasing numbers of chefs are using ‘wild’ ingredients in their cuisine.
“I’d say interest in foraging really peaked during the financial crisis, and has increased year on year,” Dave explains. “It shot up during lockdown; I think because a lot of people had more time on their hands, and spending it outside.”
“It’s fascinating seeing how world events affect people’s relationship with the outside world. During the 70s there was a huge oil spill, and it sparked a renewed interest in becoming self-sufficient,” he adds.
Dave first became interested in foraging when visiting friends in Wales in his early 20s, and helping them collect wild garlic and other greens. Today, he’s considered an expert in the field, having written several books and teaching Guardian Masterclasses on the subject. He’s even taught celebrities such as Ben Fogle and Mary Berry how to forage. The latter, he says, needed a little more convincing.
“The turning point came where we picked some sumac, and she tasted the fuzzy red berries. You can use wild sumac to make a delicious, berry-tasting lemonade,” Dave says.
Mary Berry and Ben Fogle are far from the only chefs interested in cooking with wild foods. Simon Rogan’s two-Michelin starred restaurant in the Lake District, L’Enclume, has been working with foraged ingredients for more than two decades. His main inspiration, he explains, is Marc Veryat, a chef from the French alps renowned for his use of alpine herbs and flowers.
“My chefs have learnt to understand exactly what can be achieved by using produce that has been grown, nurtured and foraged in the natural environment that surrounds many of our restaurants,” Simon explains.
Dishes currently on his menu include seaweed custard with Porthilly oysters and homemade caviar, and a cabbage dish accompanied by Hen of the Woods ( a wild mushroom), horseradish and English truffles.
Harriet Mansell owns Robin Wylde, a restaurant which serves a hyper-local menu and uses lots of foraged ingredients (pictured)
“Part of having a seasonal food offering is to spend the time looking at the world around you, and what’s available on the doorstep,” she says.
“My team and I are always in pursuit of new and interesting flavours, ingredients that we can preserve, pickle or ferment. We’re a short walk from the beach, so we forage a lot of herbs and seaweeds from it. We also create vinegar out of pine and larch tips, make sugar out of meadowsweet and dehydrate fig leaves – the list goes on.”
Foraging for Wellbeing
Cook and food writer Valentine Warner believes that deepening our connection with nature is vital to our wellbeing.
“We lead very frenetic lives; we’re blasted digitally all day long. Whether or not we choose to partake in this, I don’t think it’s right for the human condition,” he says.
“Green places are our default setting. Nature is what we’re from and it’s where we go back to. It’s a currency that we’re increasingly forgetting - the link is getting frayed.”
Foraging, to Valentine, might not necessarily be vital to our survival, but it is an amazing way to learn about the land we live on.
“It’s wonderful to be standing somewhere and to know that there’s some wild horseradish or a cobnut tree I can harvest. If nature does provide the whole meal for me, then so much the better. Fool is the man who said ‘nothing in life is for free’; you can go on a 20 minute walk and come back with a whole meal.”
Belinda Blake is a nutritional therapist who trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, and has become increasingly interested in working with foraged foods.
“Unlike packaged supermarket salad, which may have been sitting around for some days, foraged food is really fresh and, if eaten soon after harvesting, will be unaffected by the detrimental effects of long storage on nutrient levels,” she explains.
“Foraging also means that you eat more seasonally, and nature has a wonderful way of providing what you need, when you need it.”
Spring, for example brings tender new leaves to wake up the digestive system after a calorific winter. The summer elderflowers and nettles are natural hay fever remedies.
“Autumn brings rosehips and elderberries, rich in polyphenols and antioxidants to help support a strong immune system during the more challenging winter months, plus apples, cobnuts and sweet chestnuts to squirrel away for leaner times,” she adds.
But as well as being good for your body, Belinda believes that foraging is also good for your soul.
“There is something intrinsically grounding about foraging. For me, it is a moment of complete mindfulness; a time to use all five senses, submerge myself in nature and focus on what is around me. At a time of so much uncertainty, foraging has helped me to step away from my worries and has given me a positive focus – helping to put things into perspective,” she explains.
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