Follow in the footsteps of people as diverse as survivalist Ray Mears and renowned chef Rene Redzipi to discover the fantastic food to be found in your local forest, says Norman Miller.
Foraged food ticks several contemporary boxes. Worried about food miles? Then swap supermarket aisles full of imported produce for nearby wooded glades. Want to try a more natural way of eating? Then a ‘pluck ‘n’ bite’ approach on the forest floor beats a tin of processed fodder, and also embodies the credo 'local and seasonal'. Hunting natural nosh is also a sure-fire way to invigorate body and mind. And as to 'no such thing as a free lunch', seen any checkouts in the woods lately?
A mountain of column inches, meanwhile, has spotlighted chefs smitten with found food, such as Rene Redzipi, whose foraging-infused menu has helped Copenhagen's Noma become 'The World's Best Restaurant'. Add to that prime time telly like ‘Jimmy's Forest’ and ‘Tales from The Wild Wood’, and Richard Mabey's constantly reprinted 1972 book Food For Free. There's even a foraging App (foragersapp.com) for your phone. It is official: forest food is cool.
What’s more, a food hunt in the woods provides year-round sensual stimulation, and not just for your taste buds. Enjoy swooshing through a Technicolor carpet of fallen leaves, watch forest critters flit through the undergrowth, smell the floral forest aromas, and experience the ancient tactile pleasure of scraping earth from a newly dug mushroom.
Go with a trained forager on one of the many guided outings around the country, and you'll learn too – knowledge conveyed with warm enthusiasm by someone who does something interesting with passion, and for a living.
A Place of Plenty
In his foraging bible Food For Free, Richard Mabey spotlights over 200 kinds of wild British food – not bad for a free larder.... So, forget your local supermarket. If you go down to the woods today, your big surprise could be ingredients for every course - and drinks, too.
Experiment by scooping up wild garlic or nettles for soup. Uproot deliciously diverse fungi for buttery sizzling, or pluck lemony wood sorrel for sauces. Dandelions and young beech leaves turn salads into talking points, while freshly-fallen chestnuts make memorable instant snacks. Gather succulent berries for pudding, grab crab apples for spicy preserves, and use rose-hip for jellies.
Thirsty? Pine and meadowsweet make energy-boosting teas, elderflower and burdock underpin classic summer cordials, while damson is perfect for wine. For something stronger, slip hawthorn into vodka for a novel Mother Nature Schnapps, add berries to brandy, or enjoy the classic pairing of sloes and gin.
As for mushrooms, they deserve an article of their own – not just to glory in their multitude but stress the deadly pitfalls of getting it wrong. Unless you really know your stuff, go with an expert if fungi is your thing. Then fill a wicker basket fret-free with porcini and puffball, chanterelles and ceps.
And don't forget truffles. Yes, truffles. You don't have to head for Perigord in France or Alba in Italy for the gold standard of forest foodies. Anywhere from August to December between Devon and Yorkshire, pay extra attention if you're by beech, oak or hazel trees, especially south-facing woods on chalk or limestone. And as English truffles grow closer to the surface than their continental cousins, sharp-eyed scanners may even spot them poking through the forest earth. They may look disconcertingly like dried-out doggy-do but they'll smell a lot better.
Did you know? Juniper berries – the key flavouring of gin – were once believed to protect against countless diseases, including Black Death. Time for a G&T!
Pretty in Green
Woods are some of the UK's most beautiful and evocative spots. The New Forest reaching down to the south coast, legendary Sherwood Forest and Forest of Dean in the heart of England, the arboreal edges of the magnificent North York Moors and Argyll's magnificent loch-filled Caledonian hideaways all have a soul-inspiring quality.
Britain's woods are repositories of history and folklore, too. Norman kings created the Forest of Dean and New Forest as ancient hunting grounds, while myth celebrates Sherwood as the haunt of Robin Hood. Folklore speaks of woods as places of dark mystery, the haunt of witches and magical creatures.
There is a little of this magic as I forage on the ground in Wales myself, turning to watch a red kite wheel gracefully above a wooded hilltop looking over the Vale of Glamorgan. Beside me, master forager Raoul Van Der Broucke plucks something from a hedgerow, and I forget the view as I get my first taste of wild sorrel.
Strolling on through sunshine dappled glades, Raoul plunders comfrey and sweet cicely, while reeling off the year-round possibilities of the foraging calendar. Even in the cool crisp days of January, I discover, winter walkers can find seasonal treats like wintercress, chickweed and yarrow among the perennial bounty.
Each forest also has its own vistas and memories, sheltered valleys filled with drifts of wild flowers, hillsides alive with the rustle of rabbit, fox and badger, high plateaux where aerial hunters circle over deer-filled groves.
Wild ponies wander the New Forest, breathtaking birds of prey command the woods of Scotland, while Sussex and Kentish copses bristle with wild boar. It’s an enigmatic landscape, one that can be delicious woodland food for professionals to bag, and amateurs to learn to love.
Did you know? Experts estimate that between 4,000 and 7,000 of the world's wild plants are edible.
Chefs on the prowl
“Foraging is treasure hunting,” Rene Redzepi has said. The chef behind The World's Best Restaurant began his love affair with natural nosh during childhood forages in his father's native Macedonia, and his menu at Noma remains replete with berries, nuts and fungi. But ever thought of eating moss? “The moss on trees and bushes has a mushroomy taste,” Redzipi told The New Yorker magazine. “We deep-fry it, like potato chips. But the ones growing from the ground have the taste and texture of noodles.” So now you know.
Not far from Copenhagen, British Michelin-starred chef Paul Cunningham's idyllic seaside inn Henne Kirkeby Kro is another shrine to food from the doorstep. “Pine, birch sap, new beech leaves, herbs & flowers, all from the forest across the road. I'm like a kid in a sweet shop,” he enthuses.
Some top UK menus also read like foraging worksheets. At The Foxhunter (Thefoxhunter.com) in Wales, Matt Tebbutt draws on Raoul Van Der Broucke's finds for his daily-changing dishes, while The Pig (thepighotel.com) in the New Forest boasts a 'Fifteen Mile' menu of locally-found goodies, alongside guided foraging outings for diners to work up an appetite while finding their own meal ingredients.
Michelin-starred London restaurants also celebrate found food. At North Road (northroadrestaurant.co.uk) Danish chef Christoffer Hruskova serves dishes garlanded with wild herbs, flowers and berries, while Claude Bosi's Hibiscus (hibiscusrestaurant.co.uk) might pair scallops with wood sorrel, followed by crab apple and rosehip sorbet. Mark Hix's eponymous Soho flagship regularly draws on seashore ingredients alongside woodland plunder like rowan and wild chervil.
The acclaimed Restaurant Sat Bains (restaurantsatbains.com) near Sherwood Forest uses over 70 local flowers and herbs, and has one dish based on flavours from the lane just outside. Meanwhile, Simon Rogan at starry Lake District outpost L'Enclume (lenclume.co.uk) dispenses with a menu, glorying instead in “the violent frequency” of raw ingredients, with dishes changing (unusually) throughout each sitting. North of the border, the Edinburgh Larder (edinburghlarder.co.uk) offers year-round foraging courses in search of what it calls “Plants with Purpose”. It's a great phrase for something that's educational, stimulating – and fun. What are you waiting for?
Top five most unusual forest ingredients
1. Pignut: Look for its feathery leaves and white flowers growing near bluebells - the 'nut' is the edible root. Be careful not to eat a toxic bluebell bulb by mistake.
2. Beech leaves: Picked in spring, the soft new leaves add a sweet, mild flavour to salads.
3. Masts: In autumn, beech trees produce these nuts - scrape clean and eat raw or toast lightly in a pan.
4. St George's Mushroom: delicious firm white spring fungus with distinctive smell of flour.
5. Juniper: famously used to flavour gin, these deep purple berries also lend a bright, piney flavour to sauces.
Top five forest drinks
1. Pine needle tea: Simmer fresh green needles for 20 minutes, steep 20 more for a vitamin-rich infusion.
2. Saloop': Historic pick-me-up made from ground wild orchid roots, which Elizabeth Luard called “the Horlicks of its time”.
3. Elderflower cordial: Steep washed flowers in boiled water with sugar, lemon and citric acid for a divine British summer refresher.
4. Hawthorn Schnapps: Steep hawthorn berries in vodka for 5-6 weeks in dark space, strain into bottle, serve after two more months.
5. Damson wine: Very ripe fruit works best, helped in its fermentation by yeast and pectic enzyme.
Top five international restaurant dishes
1. Noma (Denmark): Warm salad of ground elder, chickweed and goosefoot served with morel-and-juniper-wood broth. http://noma.dk
2. Atera (US): Lichen crisp with malt vinegar and herb emulsion and rock salt crust. http://ateranyc.com
3. Henne Kirkeby Kro (Denmark): Smoked trout, pickled carrot and fresh juniper.
4. Antica Hosteria de la Valle (Italy): Strioli (a spicy wild herb that looks like tarragon) is sauteed with olive oil, garlic and peperoncini for spaghetti.
5. Mugaritz (Spain): Fermented fern stalks soaked in vanilla and dipped in sugar.
Norman Miller is an award-winning travel writer and photographer for media such as Imbibe, Olive, Restaurant, Food & Travel and Time Out. He is a contributer to Ultimate Food Journeys (DK).