Food & Drink
by Aspect County

Foraging with chef and author, Ian Dowding

If anyone ever talks about going out and collecting food in the countryside it usually involves blackberries and field mushrooms; should you live near the coast you may go prawning. These days foraging is a pleasant diversion; to our Neolithic ancestors it was a matter of survival. Hunting required skill, strength, and stamina – and it was dangerous. For foraging though you need sharp eyes, knowledge, memory, and perseverance, and of course the right time of year – autumn being the best as it’s full of fruitful bounty.

Forage2

If anyone ever talks about going out and collecting food in the countryside it usually involves blackberries and field mushrooms; should you live near the coast you may go prawning. These days foraging is a pleasant diversion; to our Neolithic ancestors it was a matter of survival. Hunting required skill, strength, and stamina – and it was dangerous. For foraging though you need sharp eyes, knowledge, memory, and perseverance, and of course the right time of year – autumn being the best as it’s full of fruitful bounty.

Forage1

f anyone ever talks about going out and collecting food in the countryside it usually involves blackberries and field mushrooms; should you live near the coast you may go prawning. These days foraging is a pleasant diversion; to our Neolithic ancestors it was a matter of survival. Hunting required skill, strength, and stamina – and it was dangerous. For foraging though you need sharp eyes, knowledge, memory, and perseverance, and of course the right time of year – autumn being the best as it’s full of fruitful bounty.

We’ve evolved as hunter gatherers over millions of years, then we became farmers – so foraging is in our DNA​.In autumn, the hedgerows are laden with bounty – sloes, haws, blackberries and rose hips. At the sea you’ll find sea blackthorn or harvest the young shoots of seakale. In tidal estuaries you’ll gather samphire and sea purslane. If the tide is out you can search for winkles and whelks in the rock pools or delve into the sand for cockles or clams to cook up a Spaghetti à la Vognole when you get home. 

In October and November, look out for sweet chestnut trees in any mixed deciduous woodland. You may have competition though – this time from squirrels. Split and roast the chestnuts on the fire; they make the best comfort food which are equally good in soups, stews and used in stuffing. 

In spring there’s wild garlic for soup or an alternative pesto. They are plentiful; you can see their distinctive white flowers growing along road verges, although you may prefer to gather them in the forest.

Sorrel and nettles can also be collected in the right season. Nettles need little identifying and the tender tops are like spinach. Sorrel can be gathered in wild meadows if you know what it looks like. They make a sharp lemony sauce that works well with trout or salmon. 

What foragers most prize in autumn are wild mushrooms. It seems most people are happy to gather field mushrooms but shun the idea of stepping under the forest canopy of Dingly Dell to gather their woodland cousins. Perhaps it was the ancient Druids who handed down dire warnings about it along with wild swimming and stepping on the cracks in the pavement. Admittedly care must be taken owing to there being a few poisonous ones, but with a good book and a rule to not eat anything until positively identified you can find some fantastic prizes.

There is an unwritten rule amongst mushroom gatherers that you don’t give away specific locations, but we are spoilt for choice in this corner of the England. So, all I’ll divulge is to find either mixed or ancient woodland. Go when the first rains of autumn arrive and the ground is wet, which can be late August or early September. A good book for identification is essential. 

If you are new to the game don’t gather everything you see just pick a few species. When you get home try identifying them and keep a record. It may seem impossible at first to tell one from the other but in time you’ll get your eye in’ and wonder at the time when you couldn’t tell the difference between a Blewit and a Russula. After several forays you will not only be able to identify numerous species, you will know the sort of habitat they like. 

Two candidates for easy identification are the Hedgehog Fungus (Pied de Mouton) and the Cep (Porcini or Penny Bun). The Hedgehog Fungus is easy to identify because it has spines on the underside as opposed to gills. They grow under pine trees in the soft needle bed. They are bright white, meaty and usually free of bugs. 

Ceps are easy to identify too as the whole boletus family have a sort of spongy underside instead of gills, and only two out of the group are poisonous and are easily distinguishable. I remember eating them for the first time – sliced, fried in butter, and served on sourdough toast – it was like tasting mushrooms for the first time, and it blew me away. 

So woven into the fabric of mushroom folklore are some of the best colloquial names like the aforementioned Penny Bun; but also: Slippery Jack, Plums and Custard, The Destroying Angel, Liberty Cap and Dead Man’s Fingers to name a few.

You may also have bought dried porcini in the supermarket (and blanched at the price at the same time) and noticed that on drying they develop a deeper flavour faintly reminiscent of mushroomy marmite. If you are lucky enough to get a good bagful you can dry them, and they will also take on this flavour after a couple of months in a jar. I usually get enough to make a quantity that’ll last me through the year. They are useful for all kinds of things including soups and stews, and for adding to regular mushroom dishes for extra flavour. If I have a few over by the time the new season starts I grind them to a powder and use it for sprinkling on grilled mushrooms or steak.

As is the norm, everything must come with health and safety warnings. As already mentioned, do not eat anything that hasn’t been positively identified. Reading the description in Roger Phillips book Mushrooms’ on how ingestion of the Death Cap’ will kill you should be warning enough. Always follow the country code when foraging and check out local bye laws.

Happy hunting!

Best foraging books: 

  • Wild Food by Roger Phillips (the mushroom guru) 
  • Mushrooms, also by Roger PhillipsFood for free, by Richard Mabey
  • Wild Food, by Ray Mears