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  • Writer's pictureHarry Loney

A Beginners Guide to Foraging

Wanting to become a forager but don't know where to begin? Here's everything you need to start feeding off the land for free!

Smooth red rosehips in the foreground, with brambles at various stages of ripening in the background.
Rosehips in the foreground with blackberries (brambles) in the background.

Foraging is the most basic of activities for any human. Long before all you can eat buffets and microwave meals, there was foraging food from the wilderness around us. We've lost many of the skills and knowledge of this hobby, but now is the perfect time to get back out there and seeing the delicious food that can be foraged here in the UK!

From berries to mushrooms; roots to shoots, there's always something tasty to forage year round.

How can I begin foraging?

But where to begin foraging? It can seem like there is so much to learn first - and so much opportunity to pick the wrong thing and die! But believe me, follow these two simple rules and you'll be fine:

1) Eat only what you can 100% identify and give a name to. This means being able to look it up in a reference book and identify it precisely if you have to. For some things, this won't be needed before long, for example blackberries or horseradish. If you only *think* something is edible, don't risk it. Instead, take it home and carefully identify it for next time.

Do say: "This is Garlic Mustard. I can tell because of its strong garlic smell, its large kidney-shaped leaves with serrated edges, and it has white, four-petalled flowers."

Do not say: "I don't know the name of this little white mushroom, but I'm sure I saw it on Saturday Kitchen so it's probably okay to eat."

2) If you know for sure what something is, don't eat a lot on your first go. Some things, like the delicious mushroom Chicken of the Woods, can make some people's tummies a bit iffy. Try a little and, if it doesn't have an effect, go fill your boots!

A hanging bunch of purple elderberries with drops or rain on the bottom.
A hanging bunch of stunning elderberries. Or, as I like to hilariously say (each and every year) some elderberryberries.

What do I need to start foraging?

To begin foraging, you need nothing more than a keen eye and a reliable handbook. That's it. Don't worry (yet) about foraging knives, bags, tubs, trousers, any of that malarkey. The key is to get outdoors and start spotting the plants that gives us food.

Depending on what time of year you are going will depend on what is there. You can start any time, but summer/autumn will be best for beginners as the food available is more in-your-face, like blackberries, crab apples and elderberries.

It's a good idea to read the book first - that way you know what to be looking out for. Here are my top three favourite foraging guidebooks for beginners:

I can't recommend this book enough. It's exactly what a foraging book should be - accessible, well written with brilliant images. for those who follow River Cottage, John will be familiar as the foraging and mushroom guy with the hat. This book really got me into foraging properly, and gave the the courage to try new things. If you're looking for your first foraging book (or to give as a gift to someone with a burgeoning interest), make it this one.

2) Food for Free by Richard Mabey Quite simply one of the best foraging books there is for when you are starting out on your journey towards free food. It's quite small, covering the berries, mushrooms and plants that you are most likely to come across in the UK. This makes it a great pocket companion, especially if you are walking around a city and come across a plant of interest. This is definitely a field guide worth sticking in your bag or back pocket every day. I have two copies - one for walking and one that stays in the car!

If you are looking to start finding and identifying mushrooms, there are two books I would recommend for beginners. Both of which, rather confusingly, are called 'Mushrooms'! The world of fungi and mushrooms is as fascinating as it is huge. You could spend your whole life studying them and still be surprised with their nature. There are over 50,000 species of mushroom, molds and yeast. But let's not worry abot all of them - let's just focus on a few to start with!

John Wright's mushroom book is, as always, a wonderful read as well as informative and beautiful. It's a great, welcoming introduction to mushrooms, highlighting the key types you are likely to find out on your walks in the UK. It also shows some of the poisonous ones, and highlights any that mushroom that could be mistaken for a poisonous one. Some mushrooms are easier to identify than others - for example, a parasol mushroom is taller than most, and a fly agaric is red with spots, just like in fairy tales. This book is great for helping you confirm these types in the wild.

Roger Phillips' mushroom book is a bit more advanced, but nothing a bit of time and a cup of coffee won't help with. IT is backed to the spine with photos to help with ID, and also has detailed information on hundreds of mushrooms. Mushrooms are separated into sections to make it easier to go directly to the type you have found, for example mushrooms with gills or mushrooms with pores. If you are serious about identifying mushrooms in the UK - and not just the common ones - then this book is sure to help with that. It will make a valuable resource for when you return home with specimens to identify.

The only other thing you need to start foraging in the UK is time! Get outside in our wonderful countryside - whether in a forest or by a beach - and get foraging!

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