I very rarely go for specific ‘wild food’ foraging moments these days. I used to, armed of course with Food For Free (Richard Maybe) and Wild Food (Roger Phillips) back in the days before ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’ first saw the light of day on TV. However, I came fairly rapidly to the conclusion that just because you can eat certain things it does not necessarily follow that you would want to. To be honest hogweed shoots and alexanders are disgusting in my book, though there are people who savour them or at least claim to. I sometimes wonder however if that is more about lifestyle choice than having a genuine taste for them. What’s the line from Crocodile Dundee? “Well, you can live on it, but it taste like shit.”
I have however developed my own road map to wild food (well there have been several as I have moved about) plotting both location and season. I the right season I divert my swimming to places where on the way to and fro I stand a chance of a handful of hedgehog mushrooms (my absolute favourite), oyster mushrooms (I know of some growing tantalisingly out of reach right now) or penny buns. The first time I came home with those I made a pasta, paprika and mushroom dish which everyone enjoyed very much, only later did we discover we’d eaten £80 of mushrooms and that figure has probably doubled today. And therein lies a problem.
Anything ‘wild’ is trendy. Wild swimming, wild camping, wild food. Organised foraging trips are run and there are commercial foragers supplying gourmet restaurants where the patrons have only ever seen a blade of grass where it has thrust up through a crack in the pavement. Not all foragers are irresponsible but it only takes one or two and I know sea samphire beds that were free to all not so long ago but which are now deserts that do not sprout the next year.
It seems counter intuitive that something so prolific could be wiped out but this is not new. The North American Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the continent and flocks contained birds in their millions. Yet the last bird died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, they had been hunted to extinction. And this induces a trickle down mentality; ‘if a commercial forager is going to come along and grab everything then I may as well grab everything first’. I have seen individuals carrying bags loaded to bursting with mushrooms leaving a wasteland in their wake. After all, where is the sense in leaving the little ones to grow bigger when someone else will simply strip them, you may as well have them yourself.
Fortunately though in this country most people are still sure every mushroom is poisonous so that cuts down the competition and a lot of people are put off by the look of some things or the need to go to quite out of the way places. And of course some things are still in profusion it would be hard to imagine no more nettles or garlic.
It is amazing though what you can find and also what you might find. The 4lb lobster lumbering across the rocks was quick but not quick enough when facing someone who had never eaten lobster, though it was actually a close thing.
Today though on this very low tide it is possible to walk out to the kelp beds, always a nice addition to a stir fry and some of the garlic flower buds I picked at the river yesterday will give it a certain piquant boost.