1. What sparked your interest in foraging? How did your first forage go?
I grew up in the countryside and my interest in foraging was sparked by my mum. She taught me a number of wild edibles, including Blackberries, Elderflowers, Wild Garlic, Sloes and various wild mushrooms. I think the thing that really got me hooked was finding a Morel in our garden when I was ten years old. This was a seriously tasty mushroom, all three mouthfuls of it! Alas, it would be years before I came across another of these elusive little treasures.
2. Why is Bristol such a foragers’ paradise?
In Bristol we are lucky enough to have many wonderful green spaces, each offering an abundance of wild food.
I’ve so far counted some eighty or so tasty wild edibles growing in my local park. To add to this, many plants have multiple crops occurring at different times of the year. For example, with Wild Garlic you have bulbs, leaves, flower buds, flowers, stems and seeds, each of which have their own culinary uses.
3. Are there any particular foraging hotspots in Bristol and what are the best times to be there?
With your ‘green vision’ switched on, you’ll start noticing numerous, seasonal wild edibles all through the year.
In the spring and summer there is an abundance of vegetation in Bristol’s parks and green areas. Some of my favourite foraging spots are Blaise Estate and Ashton Court, but friends’ allotments often prove to be fantastic wild food hotspots too. In autumn, Leigh Woods is not only a lovely place to go for a stroll, but is also a perfect place to discover many kinds of edible fungi. Any time of day is good for foraging but I particularly love gathering wild salads just after a downpour, when leaves look their freshest, having been cleaned by the rain.
4. How do you make foraging sustainable for both the people and the wildlife of Bristol?
On my walks I educate people about wild plants encouraging them to forage species that will grow back more vigorously after being picked (Nettles being a good example). I advocate harvesting in ways will benefit species and only picking small quantities from each area. I remind people that some species are scarce, and also that it’s important to leave plenty for other creatures to enjoy. I advocate a similar approach to foraging for fungi.
5. What would you say to the amateur forager just starting out?
Try to keep an open mind, slow down and pay attention. Revisit a favourite local spot each week, observing the minute changes that occur through the seasons. Get some good reference books and go out with an experienced guide who can show you what to look for.
Be mindful of where you are foraging, avoiding picking from the sides of busy roads, from old industrial sites, near sewage outlets etc. Do some research into the areas where you forage regularly to see if there are any known issues. Avoid rules of thumb and old wives tails – these can be misleading and dangerous… and on the subject of safety, never eat anything from the wild unless you are ONE HUNDRED percent certain you know what it is!
A good thing to do is to take three plants you already know, for example Nettle, Dandelion and Elder, and get to know them better. Note the shape, texture and colour of the leaves and whether they are growing in a particular pattern? Also, where is the plant growing and is it alone or in a group? Does it have a smell and if so does this remind you of anything? What other characteristics are notable? Make and annotate drawings, press leaves, take photos and compare your descriptions to those in guide books. With this approach, you will then find it much easier to begin to identify species you don’t know. Lastly, make something with each plant…Perhaps a Nettle soup, dandelion leaf salad or some elderflower cordial?
6. Of all the food that you’ve foraged, what’s your personal favourite?
I would be very hard pushed to choose just one favourite, so I’ll tell you my top three wild edibles. Despite its drab appearance, Elder has to be one of the most incredible wild plants. With two distinct crops, both of which have a multitude of uses, this is indeed an exciting tree. From the flowers I make cordial, champagne, panacotta and a tincture to combat hay fever. In autumn I use the berries to make all sorts of things including a delicious fruity balsamic vinegar- this goes with pretty much everything! My favourite mushroom, prized for its texture, is the Hedgehog Mushroom, so called because it has spines instead of gills. Of the seaweeds, I particularly love Peppered Dulse- with a wonderfully strong umami flavour somewhere between lobster and Truffle.
Fancy foraging at Food Connections? You’re spoiled for choice! As well as Martin’s events at Blaise Estate on Sunday the 1st of May and Brandon Hill on Saturday the 7th , Flora Arbuthnott is hosting two foraging walks for food, dye, and medicine on Tuesday the 3rd and Wednesday the 4th of May. There will also be a Tastes in the Wild foraging walk around Bristol’s iconic Arnos Vale cemetery on Sunday the 1st of May.