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Foraging for the beginner

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 17:16 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

Guest blogger: Andy Hamilton is an expert on home grown food, wild food and brewing. He has foraged for The Eden Project, at literary festivals, end of the world festivals and eaten his way through much of Bristol's wild flora and fauna as well touring the country in search of the great British homebrew.

After your first climbing lesson you would not go out and try and tackle the OId Man of Hoy, nor would you think you could run a marathon after jogging for the Number 32. Alas, many people think it is a great idea to go out and pick mushrooms after only seeing button mushrooms in the supermarket.

Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton feasting on nature's bounty (photo: Roy Hunt)

I have seen people armed with a small mushroom book of hand-drawn pictures entering woodlands in search of food. Taking the family on an outing can be great fun but alas, this can sometimes lead to serious poisoning or at worst (although relatively rare) death. I only wish I could spend an afternoon with these mushroom pickers to show them that there are far safer and equally as enjoyable ways to forage without any life threatening consequences.

One of the first things I ask the groups of people who I take out foraging is whether or not they have foraged before. Most will say no and then I ask if they have picked a blackberry or an apple from a tree. Suddenly most of the group are in agreement that they have not only been foraging but they have been since they were children.

I imagine that most people have also been stung by a stinging nettle, used a dock leaf to rub on it and even sat on a thistle. Believe it or not, all of these are edible. As a simple first step into foraging I would suggest trying at least one of them out as a food. Nettles can be made into a whole variety of things from a soup to a beer and even a nettle haggis.

The watchword when trying out nettle recipes is spinach, not because it tastes like spinach or even wilts down to the same degree as spinach but merely as an easy short cut to your recipes. Although don't make the same mistake as one lady I met did and put them raw into a salad.

Young dock leaves can be eaten raw but in my opinion are far better cooked. My favourite meal using them is to use the dock leaf as if it is a vine leaf and make stuffed vine leaves.

Lastly, the thistle. Each part of this can be eaten. I tend to eat the roots raw when I am digging away on my allotment plot. When rid of their spines the leaves can be eaten like a celery. The stems when peeled, steamed and drizzled in butter are a welcome addition to any meal.

So before you dismiss your garden weeds as just that do a bit of research and see what foods you might be throwing on the compost heap year in year out!

Update: Andy was on Autumnwatch Unsprung on 14 October showing off his culinary skills live. Watch the clip below to see him foraging around the city of Bristol or go to Unsprung on iPlayer to see what he cooked up.

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If you're feeling inspired, try some of his fantastic foraging recipes: Dandelion and wood avens coffee, Stuffed dock leaves or Braised thistle stem.


  • Comment number 1.

    we go out with the dog and find many good things we can cook or make drinks or meals from, lately after moving out into the countryside we have picked elderflower and elderberries and used them to make cordials or jams and juices. picked no end of blackberries and rose hips with these we have made jams and syrups, drinks. we often finf apples and pears so they come home to. we hope to expand our food store of wild plants and fruits.nuts will be next!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Please please please can we have the recipe for the Rosehip and Beetroot soup as shown last night? Looked delicious...I also have a queue of friends also desperate to make it!
    Nettle haggis? Bring it on!
    Great show and loved this foraging item.
    Thank you.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant programme last night, most entertaining thing I have watched for a long time. Please provide the recipe for the beetroot and rosehip soup, there are some juicy rosehips around at the moment just asking to be used...

  • Comment number 4.

    Les - sounds great and anything made with elder flowers or berries is great to take with the onset of a cold as it help reduce the severity.

    As for the Rosehip and beetroot soup, that should be going up either today or on Monday on the BBC food pages.

  • Comment number 5.

    we have lots of hedgerow's and at this time of year, i am waiting for the first frost so i can start picking the sloe's and damsons. for a nice dessert, make damson crumble. add ground almond in the crumble and a drop of almond essence (or liquor) in the fruit. make it the same way as you would for any crumble. but before you put the top on, try and scoop/sieve out as many stones as you can. it is delicious

  • Comment number 6.

    Andy - any chance of your recipe for autumn flower champagne?
    I've made a nice fizz from elderflowers but would love to try something new.
    Good year for sloes I notice, and wagtail's recipe is a must.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't wait for the first frost and use my freezer instead. It does the same job!

    I'm afraid that Autumn flower Champagne is going to have to stay a closley guarded secret until my new book (Booze for free, published by Eden project books) is out this time next year. To be fair anyway the ingriedients are just going out of season anyway so you would have to wait until then before you could make it anyway.

  • Comment number 8.

    Andy, I've got an old cookbook dating from around 1650 that has been handed down through my family since new, with about 600 handwritten recipes in it using all kinds of wild things of one sort or another. I've been trying to photograph and decipher all the pages - would appreciate any guidance in trying them out, do you have a webpage I could contact you at?

  • Comment number 9.

    I used to go scrumping as a child, and my father would do it to make wine, but reading the main article on the BBC news page where it states that scrumping for personal use is legal use (exempt if local council has a bylaw in place) but what if this scrumping is on private land? Surely the land owner could prosecute for trespass!

  • Comment number 10.

    Hello Ed, sounds like an interesting project here is my biog page on my site https://bit.ly/dvGjiD

    Lesley, thats the Countryside act of 1982 which roughly says you can pick for your own personal use and not commercial use. Of course if you jump a fence or a wall and start nicking apples from someones back garden that is really different than taking a few at your local park.

  • Comment number 11.

    What a shame that here in the USA most people would not even think of what one can get for free.The magazine "America's Test Kitchen" had on its back cover edible weeds but the list was not included in the hard cover book covering the year.The only chef on any of the cooking shows was andrew Zimmern on his show "bizarre foods"He and Chris cosentino are the only chefs who make use of animal parts that were once common ly used for the working class and rural poor but are impossible to find in modern day supermarkets.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'd love to go foraging, but would like a seasoned forager for company to advise me on what can, can't or shouldn't be eaten. I have heard that most mushroom foragers are very secretive about their 'patch'.

    Are there any organisations I can contact re this? I live in the West Midlands.

    Thanks, Andy

  • Comment number 13.

    Alas, as I live in Tenerife and do not subscribe I do not get the programme, At only 64 years young I can remember all the free food collected by me and my chums for our parents, Out before dawn for the horse mushrooms and collecting from the fairy ring. Wild herbs in abundance for flavour or cure. Morerecently, in North London open spaces, collecting Blueits on a weekend. Here we have free figs, almonds, cactus fruit and much more free food. I do miss blackberries and sloes though. Champion on before all the knowledge is lost. If ever we hit post holocaust some of us will survive!

  • Comment number 14.

    Hedgehogs are nice and fat after foraging all summer. They used to be popular at this time of year for country folk. They even bred them in the early part of the C20th to my certain knowledge.

    They still are popular with some according to the Epping Hedgehog Rescue



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