One of the most distinguishing ‘uni student’ tropes is a never-ceasing innovation that promotes the making of the most bizarre ‘meals’, usually out of limited ingredients left from the last shop a few weeks ago. Like many of the less tasteful behavioural tropes, I am sure everyone can attest to it. If you are not a student you may not understand, but in order to gauge my own prioritisation of food habits, I personally compare the prices of food in shops to how much a pint is worth and decide whether I can do without some cheese for a week so I can put that money aside for a beer.
This is why I love foraging and why I think there is no better time to be doing it than at university; it’s money saving and is equal in oddity to the culinary expeditions students set out on using their shop-bought food. It enriches your knowledge of the natural world; plants you would once walk past are not only edible but are used to remedy various ailments too.
It all began with a chance encounter with a man in Gilesgate who, when I was inspecting some roadside mushroom, parked alongside me and enquired as to what I thought it might be. As the conversation moved from mushrooms to foraging in general, he said he felt reassured to see that the younger generation was carrying the skills down the ages with them. So I resolved to find a way to encourage young people to experience the search for wild food themselves.
My fascination with foraging deepened over lockdown, when the monotony of home life encouraged me to delve deeper into outdoor pursuits. Although I ended up spitting out some foraged and dried ‘dandelion root coffee’ (which was apparently a substitute for real coffee during the Second World War), I was fascinated by the amount of (actually tasty!) wild food there is in England.
But foraging doesn’t have to be all about the eating: look up ‘Amadou mushroom hat’ on google images and you come across people wearing hats made from mushrooms – not stitched together, but one mushroom (Fomes fomentarius) that can make whole wide-brimmed hats! (apparently they smell delicious!) On a smaller level of personal ingenuity, I found natural material helpful when I was fixing a loose mudguard on my bike using string made from entwined strands of nettle stem. Nettles have been used to make fabric and clothing since the Iron Age, so a nettle Schoffel isn’t out of the question.
For novices, I suggest reading the books I brought with me (and still do) on foraging walks or bike rides: Food for Free by Richard Mabey and The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright – both are well illustrated but both have their own selection of favoured plants which are left out by the other.
If you’re new to foraging, then the safest thing to start with would be berries as they are easily identifiable and you can always tell the difference between them. (You can munch on them straight from the bush, incorporate into a variety of puddings or infuse in gin or vodka). However, as most of them are gone by now, the best autumnal food is still in abundance – chestnuts! Be sure to bring some gloves with you to avoid pricking yourself and cut a line in their shells before roasting. (I spied some on the path between the psychology department at the top of Mount Joy and Grey College.)
Come early next year and the spring will bring with it an enormous variety of completely edible greens, of which Wild Garlic is my favourite!
Talking to people who grew up in different countries I discovered that foraging was an established seasonal activity that people had substantial interest and investment in. However, on these shores it is the annual blackberry pick that people take almost singular interest in, with little else of nature’s harvest gathered in.
In opposition to this, I have some oak moss candles in my room at the moment and about 3kg of elderberries in my freezer ready to be made into wine; I made some wild mushroom soup for my housemates (with zero casualties) and collected some garlic mustard seeds for use in cooking.
Recently, I invested in some house plants and it put me off getting an allotment because even remembering to water my half-neglected adopted kindred is a challenge so god help the vegetables and herbs I may one day plant in an allotment. To that resolve, I maintain that nature is my – and everyone’s – lazy allotment, so get out and about and taste nature in all its flavours!
Illustration by Hector Wheeler