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Has Foraging Gone Too Far?

May 06, 2024

Wild garlic season is now the natural equivalent of a ‘Heaven by Marc Jacobs’ drop. Is there a darker side to this famously wholesome pastime?

Lobster smoked over green juniper branches. Chives preserved in a vinegar, itself made with wild chives (call it chives squared). A flavour-overload butter, packed with cornflowers, sorrel flowers, nastursium flowers, caloundria flowers, wild fennel pollen and fronds – like a many-layered, throw-it-all-at-the-wall Café de Paris sauce with particularly green fingers.

At Kitchen Table in central London, a two Michelin-starred restaurant run by chef-patron James Knappett, the dishes you’ll be served don’t necessarily depend on the whims of the cooks, but on someone more powerful: Mother Nature. While any good restaurant is governed by the seasons, the backbone of this place’s menu is foraged ingredients: expertly sourced and in many cases picked by the chefs themselves.

Foraged foods are now a regular sight on restaurant passes up and down the UK. From sloes and sea buckthorn on the tasting menu at Horsham’s Michelin-starred Interlude, to Edinburgh’s Wedgwood the Restaurant, which regularly runs foraging walking tours with chef-patron Paul Wedgwood, foraging is deeply en vogue. It makes sense, then, that the trend has trickled down from professional kitchens and onto the house-share hobs of food enthusiasts.

This all seemed to peak this spring, as wild garlic season became the natural equivalent of a ‘Heaven by Marc Jacobs’ drop. Blackberry picking season has landed with a similar level of hype. Over the last few months, it has seemed like my every acquaintance has been pulling on their all-terrain Salomons, heading out to forage, and posting online about it, too. And while it’s undoubtedly only ever a fine thing for us to be in touch with the provenance of our food and ecosystems, there are a number of downsides to this amateur foraging boom.

This May, The Guardian reported on the environmental impact of such wide-scale foraging, as Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust banned foraging for mushrooms on its reserves. It’s true, too, that some foraged foods can be actively harmful to consume when you’re not sure what you’re picking. But does the allure of finding your own food in a climate where prices are climbing – and our remove from nature is only growing – mean that the pastime’s popularity will endure? Or, we have to ask: has foraging gone too far?

For the last couple of years, hobbyist interest in foraging has exploded, recently achieving meme status on social media, as peddled by Instagram accounts like @real_housewives_of_clapton. The page is an east London-centric one, but it’s also basically a catch-all for the follies of a Certain Type of food-and-wine-fancying British millennial. Indeed, the anonymous mastermind behind RHOC, who actually sold a line of wild garlic foraging-inspired t-shirts for charity, tells me that it was the account’s biggest ever talking point. ‘I get a lot of messages every day, but the wild garlic stuff was pretty insane,’ they say.

For many, the foraging bug struck during the pandemic, when food-related activities like bread-making and pickling also soared in popularity. Daisy, 30, says that during lockdowns spent in Somerset and Cornwall with family, she ‘needed to find new, interesting ways to pass the time, spending a lot more time out in nature, walking and looking around.’ She ended up foraging in forests for mustard leaves and nettles for pesto and soups, and samphire on coastlines to accompany homemade fish dishes.

A post shared by @real_housewives_of_clapton

Now that lockdowns are over, however, other factors are at play – particularly when it comes to inner-city foraging. ‘It feels like there’s some social and taste-level clout when it comes to being inventive with food,’ RHOC tells me. They point to the ages of the people who make up their account’s follower demographic, which tends to be late 20s to mid-to-late 30s: ‘There’s a shift that happens around that age – appearing more sophisticated, having money to be more sophisticated, and seeming like you know about food,’ they say. ‘It’s a trendy thing.’

It makes sense, then, that the emergence of more and more foraged ingredients on menus might spur diners to forage for themselves (elderflower, for example, is now basically as common in restaurants as basil or coriander). But when chatting to self-identifying foragers in their 20s and 30s, I’m struck by how linked the activity is to formative memories, bucking its current popular perception as a mere bandwagon that millennials are hopping on.

Self-taught forager Emily, 29, is on Instagram as @down2forage and has been making daily meals with foraged food for the past four years. She has ‘vivid memories’ from childhood of the annual hunt for blackberries, picking nettles for soup, climbing the tree to collect apples for pie and being freezing cold spending the day collecting sloes for gin. ‘My dad used to stop the car and hoist me onto his shoulders to collect damsons, cobnuts and beechnuts,’ she says. Ian, 34, meanwhile, recalls an upbringing spent between the south of England and the US, when ‘my brother, my friends, and I would pick as many blackberries as we could, as we always wanted my mom to bake blackberry cobbler.’

As adults, both regularly incorporate foraged food into their cooking. Ian picks ‘nettles to make vichyssoise, and one of my favourites, fig leaves, for a fig leaf negroni’; Emily collects ‘roots, berries and fruits, fungi and plants.’ She also spends ‘a lot of time preserving’ so she can eat things all-year round. ‘I pickle, dehydrate and freeze wild ingredients, and make preserves and syrups plus wild herb salts and sugars for later,’ she says.

Their motivations for wanting to forage run deeper than the memes would have you believe. Emily says it has helped her return to and reflect on her childhood, and Ian values its transportive qualities, too. ‘If you open up a batched cocktail or a ferment, you’ll instantly be reminded of where you were when you picked those ingredients, extending their lifespan. Who wouldn’t want to revisit a summer’s day in the grim winter?’ he asks.

For Daisy, there’s also satisfaction in ‘the fact that the food is free.’ ‘It costs no money, and it also barely costs any effort to be honest, if you’re in the right place,’ she says. ‘Why buy a miserable little bag of spinach that’ll go off the next day, when you could just go to a park and get some nettles and put that in your curry instead?’

It all sounds exceptionally wholesome, though of course, when not done properly, problems can arise – both for the forager and the environment. For years, mushrooms in particular have been at the centre of controversy, having been over-foraged in beauty spots like London’s Epping Forest to the extent that the forest habitat came under threat. And earlier this year, the National Trust told The Guardian that ‘foraging on protected sites can be detrimental to our precious wildlife and negatively impact delicate ecosystems.’

‘There’s just got to be an awareness of where you're foraging and how you’re foraging,’ says Michelin-starred Tom Kemble, the executive chef at Chalk Restaurant on Sussex’s Wiston Estate, whose menus are constantly filled with items foraged from the abundant surroundings (right now it’s elderflower for vinaigrette and juniper for smoking salmon, trout and ricotta, plus pineappleweed for cocktails). ‘Are you foraging safely? Are you on someone else’s property or land? Are you doing anything that could damage whatever you're foraging, or over-picking? Being a conscientious forager is important.’

Knappett from Kitchen Table concurs. ‘You’ve got to check where you’re foraging,’ he tells me. ‘[In] some places it’s illegal to forage, some places it’s fine.’ He gives a practical, London-based example: ‘In Richmond Park it’s completely illegal to take anything, but you step over the road onto Wimbledon Common and you can help yourself.’ Most smart chefs, he says, will never over-forage, because responsible foraging is the gift that keeps on giving: ‘We wouldn’t want to wipe out a patch and never be able to get it again. We leave it so it grows again the next year.’

There are also the ickier – and potentially dangerous – aspects of foraging. Everyone agrees that mushrooms are a particularly dicey area. Kemble wouldn’t go mushroom picking without an expert, he says, while Knappett is also extra cautious, citing the common morel and its ‘evil twin which is highly poisonous’ as a potential risk. ‘I don’t even bother finding and picking them,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to prison for a morel.’

Other hazards are just simply unfortunate. RHOC, for instance, recalls one memorable message from a new forager who didn’t account for local fox activity. ‘I think they ended up with wild garlic soup that smelled and tasted like fox piss,’ they tell me, while Daisy has had some interesting experiences with rogue dandelions (‘they were just really bitter’) and a plant that ‘looks a bit like mustard’ but ‘just tastes a little bit like wee’.

Trial and error is of course to be expected, though, and as Kemble explains, good prep can help new foragers. ‘It’s important to make sure you have a strong foundation, or knowledge – it could be from reading books, maybe going on a foraging course – to be confident that what you’re picking is non-toxic,’ he says.

As long as these guidelines are generally obeyed, Kemble thinks the rise in interest in foraging is ‘all positive’. And while its meme status might put you in mind of clout chasers tearing up clumps of earth, the reality among those who forage as a pastime seems to be much more respectful. Chefs and foragers alike are encouraging of those who’d like to give it a try – though Knappett, naturally, advises that the experts do it best. ‘If you could go home after work today and cook half of my dishes at home, or you had a rough idea of what you were doing, I don’t think we’d be open tomorrow,’ he tells me with a sly laugh.

If you don’t find yourself quite persuaded by all the charms of foraging, there’s always the option of buying a bunch of wild garlic – the most hyped leaf in the country right now – for about eight quid from your local ‘provisions’ store. But equally, on the other hand, if your interest has been piqued, Knappett has a final word of reassurance: ‘I’ve been cooking a long time,’ he says cheerfully as we end our interview. ‘And I haven’t heard of anyone dying from foraging yet.’

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