Outdoors: Foraging opens up a new world

FORAGING has become popular, due in part to the worldwide acclaim of Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma, run by chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen, where unusual tastes and wild ingredients are put centre stage.

Some of the foraging haul laid out on the table. Picture: Catriona Thomson

So to find out more, an afternoon in the great wide open beckons with my daughters, Eve (11) and Hope (8) and a friend and her daughter Stella (8).

Accompanying us is foraging guru, the aptly named Monica Wilde. Luckily for us she is willing and able to answer endless silly questions as we rummage around the countryside in search of tasty morsels. Wilde firmly believes that when “you show a child nature, a love of it, it stays with them for life.”

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We are in safe hands as Wilde is also one of the directors of Napier’s, the herbal emporium in Edinburgh and a contributor to the Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvest. She organises regular walks and workshops designed to encourage people to visit accessible green spaces to learn more about their natural surroundings, often with food gathering in mind. Wilde has a strong belief that “everyone should be able to seek out their own food for free,” pointing out another bonus to spending time outside is that, “it makes you feel happier.”

From left to right: Hope, Monica Wilde, Eve and Stella. Picture: Catriona Thomson

We have barely begun our adventure when, to my great delight, I learn that the scourge of any gardener’s life, ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), can be scoffed. When plucked out of the ground in spring the young shoots are as tasty as any fancy salad leaf. Before we know it, a smorgasbord of succulent greens are revealed including common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and dandelions, both leaves and petals. It’s a revelation to sample rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) whose delicious shoots have a flavour reminiscent of asparagus.

Next Monica asks us to chew on some young bramble leaves (Rubus fruticosus). It’s not pleasant to begin with, due to the tannins in the leaves, but soon a more palatable coconut flavour emerges.

As we wander the hedgerows Monica stops and points out meadow sweet (Filipendula ulmaria). I am volunteered to try a tiny morsel. It tastes of Germolene, so it must be doing me good. It turns out that it contains naturally high levels of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. No wonder then that in a tea or tincture it provides a traditional remedy for relieving headaches.

The afternoon flies by. Who knew that children’s imagination could he held for so long, simply by rooting around under the soil in search of an elusive tuber? The treasure they are seeking are pig nuts (Conopodium majus), which, once washed and peeled of its bulb-like skin, have a distinctly walnut flavour, with the tiniest hint of celery.

We nibble on bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta), discovering it’s like cress, but with extra attitude, before we brave the thorns of gorse (Ulex europaeus) to sample its delicious golden petals. It turns out that daisies are edible too. Monica’s tip to impress dinner guests is to chuck closed daisy flowers into soup and let them watch in wonder as the blooms slowly open in the steam.

All this roaming around has made us hungry, so Monica takes us back to her kitchen to rustle up a snack of hogweed and comfrey shoots fried in tempura batter which is simply divine. She then encourages us to try some of her larder goodies; dried nettle seeds and seaweed are amongst the favourites.

The experience has been a revelation. It might mean a new approach to the weekly food shop.

• Monica Wilde organises various trips, including the Edible Seashore and Lunch with John Wright, the foraging expert from The River Cottage, 14 June, 10:30am-5:30pm, £95 for adults, £20 for children (5-15) including lunch and refreshments, www.monicawilde.com