Life in the city means I don’t get to see much of the countryside, but for a few sunny months last year I lived on the outskirts of London, surrounded by stunning wildlife. In that time, I took to finding wild food to eat – and although I didn’t pick up much, I really enjoyed going out on a Sunday to walk through the woods, park, and unruly golf course to find a few gems here and there. What could be better – local, organic, in season food that is totally free?
Now that we’re coming full swing into berry season, I thought it’d be helpful to post a quick guide on do’s and don’ts for foraging. While it’s pretty hard to regulate, there is an etiquette to it that means you preserve the wildlife and also don’t get in trouble with the law!
Do: Scout around
The first step is to go out and look for fruit-bearing wildlife. In fact, you could be looking for mushrooms, veggies, and herbs too, but I’ve only ever gone for fruit as it’s easier to spot, and also harder to get wrong. When you’ve found a few prime locations, make a note for your next trip back.
Do: Research your food
When I was little, I remember a boy eating lots of red berries from a bush in the playground and being sick on the concrete. His raspberry ripple vom (sorry!) was my first lesson in nature; not everything is edible, or suitable for human consumption. It’s especially easy to confuse red berries and mushrooms, so I’d recommend picking up a little guide such as Food For Free by Richard Mabey – the pocket version of this is super easy to flick through and you can take it out and about too. I also like the free Urban Foraging eBook from the Wild Food School.
Don’t: Harm the plant
Did you know, it’s illegal to uproot any wild plant without ‘permission’? It’s also illegal to harm or even harvest fruit from a protected plant, so it pays to know what you’re doing. My rule of thumb is to only ever pick the fruit cleanly and when it’s ripe. If it doesn’t come away from the plant easily, it’s not ready to be eaten.
Don’t: Go trespassing
It’s important to know what is public land and what is not. Growing up in the countryside, I remember once sneaking onto some farmer’s land with a friend and being chased off by two yapping dogs – that’s not even the worst case scenario for trespassing either. Even if a plant is considered a weed, you cannot harvest it if the land is private without permission of the owner.
Don’t: Take everything
As a mark of respect for the plants, as well as any other keen foragers, and the fauna in the area, limit yourself when foraging. You want the plant to continue to thrive after you’ve left! A lot of the time, I would take blackberries from large brambles (carefully, the thorns are a bit scary and there are lots of little bugs to watch out for) and only a small handful at a time. You can see in the photo the tiny harvest I would usually get.
Do: Check your food
This works two-fold: you want your fruit, foliage, and flowers to be fresh, clean, and not sick. You also need to observe your surroundings, check that plants haven’t been sprayed recently (this happens by the roadside a lot) and that they aren’t growing in unsanitary conditions (near landfill sites, foul water, sewage, etc.)
Do: Treat your harvest well
This is the final and probably most important part. When you have your fruit in hand, you need to make sure you clean it very well (try a natural washing solution of lemon juice if needed) and also put it in extra special recipes! I didn’t ever pick up a lot, so a small batch of sloe jam (or bullace jam, using those teeny yellow plums) is a real treat. Last year I popped my best blackberries in my strawberry overnight oats and it was a real treat!
So, there’s my tiny guide. I’m no expert, but it is fun to go off into the relatively wild woodlands of the British Isles and pick your own.