Last week, the lovely people at East Devon invited me along to their foraging course in Sidmouth; I jumped at the chance to do this as I have always wanted to learn about our edible countryside, but I have found nearby courses to be a bit out of my price range.
The event, one of many run by East Devon but involving local specialists in their field, would start at 6:30pm and finish approximately 8:30pm, which fitted in perfectly on a weekday evening timewise. The cost is £10 per person which sounded excellent value. So after work Thursday, I drove down to Sidmouth and found The Knapp which is just on the downhill road before the town.
On arrival, there was a Wild Food banner, which confirmed I was in the right place, and I was then greeted by Chris Holland who left me in no doubt that he was the foraging specialist thanks to his Indiana Jones hat – stereotypical I know but hey – I was right. The other leader was Tim who is one of the East Devon rangers/managers. We waited for the other people to arrive and we ended up with a group of 14 of us. One lady was telling me she had already attended their other event the week before and raved about it. There was another Sidmouth local, and a few people from slightly further out. A good mix of people all ready to listen, learn and taste!
Chris walked us up the path only 100 yards or so and started the evening. He initially asked us all to introduce ourselves and just mention a river, sea, or forest we lived near or that we enjoyed. This gave him a feel of the people around him. He then explained we would do some foraging, collecting leaves for a salad, nettles for a risotto and some plants to make tea with.
Almost immediately we were by the most common plant that anyone should know – nettles. I’m sure plenty of you have either been a victim of this plant whilst gardening or when hiding in it by accident as a child (yes I really did that!) Chris explained about their nutritional values (up to 40% protein with many further benefits – but please look this up if you wish to have more accurate info) and explained why the plant ‘stings’ us. It in fact is a stimulant and activates the synapses in the nervous system. He explained that the little hairs on the stem point upwards and therefore to pinch the tips, come at it from below pulling upwards to avoid being stung.
So off we all went, pulling some tips and adding them to his basket. I questioned the truth behind the dock leaf being nearby and being an antidote and he confirmed this was true. Dock, in fact, are also edible and he even uses them in lasagne; steep the leaves in hot water first then lay them in alternate layers instead of pasta. Curly dock is slightly tastier apparently. He also showed us that you could roll the nettles firmly in between your fingers and eat them straight away.
So we then moved on and stopped a bit further up at some Beech trees. We were shown the older beech leaves that were darker in colour and are also hardier. To the left were younger leaves, softer in texture, lighter in colour. We all had a taste of them, then collected leaves for the salad bowl.
Passing some daisies, Chris confirmed that they are perfectly edible and great in a salad. We then stopped at some pine plants. Pine needles are great for tea, rich in vitamin C and he recommends when you put them in hot water you put a lid on whilst stewing to keep the oil in the cup. We pinched the pollen balls off them as they would add a sweetness to our salad. We came across another plant at the foot of the trees called Jack By The Hedge or Garlic Mustard – with 4 petals they are the same family as oil seed rape. These plants had very distinctive leaves, pointing upwards like the cactus’ you see in a western movie. We tried the flowers and true to his word, they gave a mustard kick at the end. So we foraged some of these for the salad bowl too.
Another plant we foraged was ground ivy, with its beautiful purple flowers, it has minty leaves which are perfect for a foraged tea. Tim and the rest of us gave it a good sniff!
After gathering enough to feed us all, but respecting the landscape and leaving enough for others, we moved on to our camp fire area. Chris and Tim had a camping table set up with some wraps and balsamic vinegar ready for our salad wraps to be made and with gathered firewood keeping dry underneath.
Chris quickly got a fire going whilst Tim got the special fire tea pot on the go. The wok then went on the fire and he threw in some pre-prepared onions, water and the risotto adding the nettles in the middle and a bit of parmesan near the end. Both the salad wrap and the risotto were absolutely delicious. The tea was not necessarily to my taste but then I don’t even like herbal teas.
It did rain on us for a few minutes but the trees provided the necessary shelter and we were all dressed appropriately anyway so it didn’t bother us too much. It was really enjoyable eating what we had gathered whilst being round a camp fire.
Chris and Tim were really friendly and easy going people – it wasn’t in your face or ‘hippy’ if it’s OK to use that phrase – just really informative and I am already confident enough to forage nettles and have a go at home.
Please note: I believe what I have written to be correct based on what I was told and tasted and the notes I made – I suggest going on a course, buying a book or researching a bit before foraging so you know what you are looking for. As always, if you are unsure – do not eat it! Some books that were recommended include ‘Food from the wild’ by Ian Burrow or ‘I love my world’ by Chris Holland himself.
This outing was a good length of time, easy to get to and incredible value for money – I highly recommend it and urge you to give it a go and support our countryside.
The more interest they get then the more foraging events can be put on. This event and more, including bird and wildlife events, can be found on http://eastdevon.gov.uk/countryside/countryside-events/ or follow them on Twitter @wildeastdevon or Facebook “East Devon Countryside”.