WHO doesn’t like something for free? It’s unlikely we would ignore a no-strings- attached offer of complimentary promotional sweets, a free bottle of wine with a restaurant meal, or free tickets to watch a theatre production.
In these harsh economic times it behoves everyone to try to save money where they can – and if that means taking advantage of freebies and cut-price deals, then you’d be a fool to turn it down. Yet there is a free source of food that by and large is overlooked by the public.
Mother Nature has kindly supplied us with everything we need to survive. But we only eat a fraction of the food available to us and – as keen foragers will tell you – some of the tastiest (and cheapest) ingredients are to be found lurking in our woods, fields and rivers and on our sea shores.
Foraging has grown in popularity in recent years, which makes it sound like some new-fangled pastime. But it’s as old as man himself. Turn the clock back a few thousand years and it was the only source of food.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were so-called for a reason. They collected the fruits of the forest and kept fit by chasing woolly mammoths and fleet-footed elk.
As man became more sophisticated and put down roots, foraging stopped being as important. To nurture and prepare your own food – or preferably have someone else do all the work for you – became a sign of status.
Now many of us don’t even get our hands dirty growing our own fruit and vegetables. Instead we let the supermarkets take even more of the strain.
This despite the efforts of the man dubbed the “father of modern foraging”, Richard Mabey, who in the 1970s, at about the time the BBC’s hugely popular sitcom The Good Life hit TV screens, tried to encourage everyone to get back to basics in his best-selling book, Food for Free.
Fast forward 40 years and foraging and living at one with nature – even if it’s only on high days and holidays– is growing in popularity, and not just with adventurers like Ray Mears and Bear Grylls.
Wild salmon, venison and mushrooms have long been prized among foodies for their enhanced flavour. But now a host of other seasonal ingredients such as ground elder, sorrel and wild garlic have caught the public’s imagination, perhaps spurred on by increased awareness among the UK’s top chefs.
As the supermarkets are unlikely to ever stock such produce – wild garlic is so-called for a reason – it’s up to us to go and find them. But foraging is a tricky business, especially when it comes to knowing what is safe to eat.
This summer Wallington in the heart of Northumberland is running a series of bushcraft adult-only and family taster days and foraging walks led by Rob Caton of Byrness-based outdoor adventure provider Wildharmony.
Starting on June 3 with a campcraft and outdoor living day aimed at those aged 14-plus, followed by the first of four family events on June 7-8 and August 26-27, suitable for those aged eight-14, the sessions will focus on building a shelter, starting a fire and basic survival knowledge as well as campfire cooking in Wallington’s woodlands.
And there will be seasonal foraging walks across the Wallington estate on August 19 and October 28.
Designed to be a fun way to learn new skills while spending time outdoors, there is also a serious message to convey.
Wallington ranger Tom Garwood, who is working with Rob, says: “Everyone knows what a blackberry looks like and many people still go blackberry picking every autumn. It is so ingrained in the national psyche that we don’t even realise we are foraging. And, of course, we all know that blackberries aren’t poisonous.
“But correct identification is crucial for obvious reasons and involves examining everything from the shape and size to the colour and smell of wild foods. You should never eat anything you are unsure about. They say fungi is only poisonous once. And indeed, some are.
“Foraging also needs to be done carefully. You need to respect the environment and ensure you don’t denude an area. A certain amount of wild harvesting can have a positive effect, but foraging is not about stripping the countryside bare.
“Learning and honing your skills is all part of the fun. The days are about arming people with a little basic knowledge that they can use to search out the plethora of wild herbs and other plants covering our fields, woodlands and meadows.
“There are so many edible wild plants – like sorrel with its citrusy taste, pungent wild garlic and even flower heads – that can help move a salad or cooked meal from the ordinary to the sublime.
“We are describing the bushcraft and foraging events as taster days, sampler sessions that we hope will whet people’s appetites to find out more about the joys of outdoor living.”
Wallington, Cambo, near Morpeth, Northumberland, NE61 4AR, 01670 773600, www.nationaltrust. org.uk/ wallington
WILD WALLINGTON WALKS AND BUSHCRAFT DAYS
June 3 and August 25, Bushcraft Taster Session with Wildharmony, 9.30am-4.30pm.
Get an insight into the world of campcraft and outdoor living as you learn about shelter building, fire lighting, knots and cordage and campfire cooking in a woodland environment while having a great fun day out. Suitable for ages 14-plus. All tickets £20. Booking essential on 01670 773963.
June 7-8 and August 26-27, Bushcraft Taster Session with Wildharmony, 9.30am-4.30pm.
Details as above. Suitable for children aged eight-plus. Tickets £20 for adults, £10 for children and £45 for family tickets (two adults and two children). Booking essential on 01670 773963.
August 19 and October 28, Wild Walk at Wallington – Foraging with Wildharmony, 10am-4pm.
Take a walk on the wild side and join a wild food expert on a special guided walk on the Wallington estate looking out for seasonal wild food and learning how to use it. Suitable for children aged 10-plus. Tickets £15 for adults, £7.50 for children aged 10-plus and £35 for family tickets (two adults and two children). Booking essential on 01670 773963.