How to cook... with food foraged from the British countryside

September 17, 2014
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This month, Prospect's food columnist Wendell Steavenson forages for her supper in the foothills of the Alps, experimenting with dandelions, mushrooms and snails. Here, veteran forager Becky York, who runs cooking blog Girl Interrupted Eating, explains how to get started and what to cook with some of the ingredients you'll find in the countryside—and even cities—of Britain.

I became interested in foraging through my Dad, who had grown up in the countryside on the south coast of England. Although we have always lived in in the centre of a large city he would take me foraging and taught me to recognise edible mushrooms, nuts, berries and plants from a young age. It’s a skill I am teaching my three year old, Emily, who knows to ask “Can we eat this one?” If told it is for the animals she will leave it be.

For me it is a free and fun thing to do and I love experimenting with my finds—I’ve even made mushroom sushi and tempura using foraged ingredients. You don’t have to go out to the countryside: I do a lot of urban foraging, finding asparagus growing on canals banks, abandoned fruit trees and mushrooms growing under an M1 flyover. I would encourage people to forage responsibly: buy a guide book so you know what you are doing and, if you have any doubts, don’t risk it. Many local authorities run free foraging walks for some expert advice when you are getting started.

Becky's top tips for foraging in Britain

1. Obey the law, and follow the Countryside Code. Some sites are now protected as sites of Special Scientific Interest; removing anything from them even for your own use requires a licence. When foraging on any private or public land be sure of the permissions and be responsible for your actions.

2. Only take as much as you will actually use. Food waste applies to wild food too.

3. Buy a good wildlife flora/fauna guide and keep it in the toilet for thumbing through. Stuff will stick in your head and its really satisfying to be out and recognise items for foraging. I use Roger Phillips Mushrooms. Whatever guide you use should have clear descriptions and pictures.

4. Don’t limit your foraging to the countryside. I have happily picked plenty in the city centre—blackberries, elderberries, rosehips and the odd bracket fungus.

Becky's full list of foraging tips can be found on her blog.

Sloe gin

Sloe are beautiful purple globes. Sloe gin is strikingly easy to make and a lovely warming treat for winter, but ideally should be laid down for at least a year.

Ingredients 500g sloes 100g caster sugar 2 pints gin

Directions 1. Prick the tough skin of the sloes all over with a clean needle (or freeze overnight and hit with a rolling pin). Place in a sealable bottle or sterilised jar. 2. Pour in the sugar and the gin, seal and shake well. 3. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. 4. Leave for at least three months; it should be dark purple and ready to drink.

Tips Blackberries can be used in the same way to make a gin or vodka.

Wild garlic risotto

This is a simple risotto made with wild garlic butter and garnished with wild garlic buds. It makes a really quick weekday meal but also an accompaniment to grilled chicken or salmon.

Ingredients 200g risotto rice 1.5 pints chicken or vegetable stock 5tbsp wild garlic butter (recipe below) 1 medium onion, finely chopped

Directions 1. Fry the onion in half the butter butter to soften , but do not allow to colour 2. Add the risotto rice, stir to coat well in the butter for about a minute 3. Add 1/4 of stock to the rice until absorbed, add the rest of the stock in ladles, stirring continuously 4. Just before serving stir in the rest of the wild garlic butter

For the wild garlic butter Get 100g of butter (slightly salted) and a carrier bag loosely filled with wild garlic leaves. Mix in a food processor until the garlic is well dispersed; the butter will turn a lovely green colour. It can then be rolled into a cylinder of greaseproof paper and frozen—discs may then be sliced off for recipes, topping vegetables and so on.

Nettle and lemon sorbet

As a good forager, I will try anything. But I just cannot get on with nettles, even though everyone raves about nettle soup. Every time I make it it ends up tasting like grass cuttings; just too strong. But nettles are a part of our heritage—research carried out by the University of Wales for UKTV revealed a nettle pudding from 6000BC. So, after gathering another carrier bag full of nettles and fending off further queries from towpath users, I opted for something sweet: a sorbet. Without an ice cream maker this requires a little attention and some space in the freezer. The nettles add a different note to the sorbet; it reminds me of the grassiness of mint in a mojito. This is a really zingy palate cleanser after a spicy or rich meal. I think serving it with a splash of vodka would be a delightful way to end a summer meal. Ingredients 150ml water 100ml lemon juice (six lemons) 150g sugar Half a shopping bag of nettles, with stalks removed Directions 1. Bring the water to a simmer and add the sugar stir until dissolved 2. Simmer until it is just turning slightly syrupy 3. Roughly chop and add half of the nettle leaves and the lemon juice 4. Leave to steep for 20 minutes 5. Strain out the leaves and place the sorbet in a shallow dish in the freezer for an hour 6. Remove from the freezer and place in a food processor with the rest of the nettle leaves 7. Return to the freezer, after an hour remove again and break up with a fork 8. Return to the freezer for a 2 more hours Read more Find more recipes and tips for foraging on Becky's blog and read about Wendell Steavenson's foraging adventures in the foothills of the Alps.