Tiffany Francis is author of Food You Can Forage, a guide to foraging wild food and understanding our landscape. As summer approaches, she shares her tips for teaching kids how to join in.
Foraging is one of the most fascinating hobbies there is, and one the whole family can get involved with. Very young children will simply enjoy the tastes and textures of different plants, while older children can start to identify the plants for themselves and explore the natural history of their surroundings.
Whether you live in the sticks or the inner-city, our landscapes are bursting with natural treasures. Time spent outdoors has been proven to enhance our physical and mental wellbeing, and foraging is an easy way to introduce children to the seasons and cycles of nature, as well as exploring where our food comes from. It’s about collecting edible treasures from our native trees and simmering them into dark, sticky jams, and about biting on the earthy crunch of hazelnuts, tasting the salt crystals hidden in a frond of seaweed and gathering silver mushrooms under a sky scattered with stars. And the best part is, it’s free and accessible to everyone.
Many of us might already know where to find the juiciest blackberries for an autumn crumble, but did you know you can also forage chestnuts, wild strawberries, seaweed, chamomile and thyme?
You don’t need any high-tech equipment to forage your own food, but perhaps take a flask of tea, tupperware tubs, scissors, gardening gloves and a raincoat. Keep to public places and avoid searching along the edges of large agricultural fields, which have often been treated with chemicals. And always remember the golden rule: if you’re not 100 per cent sure, don’t pick it.
There are plenty of extra resources online and in books, and this can be a great activity when you return from a walk with your children to research any findings, which will help them start to identify different plants themselves.
My two-year-old niece, Meredith, and I are keen foragers, forever looking forward to the next season and the harvest of wild berries, nuts and seeds it might bring. There’s nothing more rewarding than embracing the outdoors, gathering delicious plants and transforming them into cordials, cakes and glistening jars of jam.
Last spring we took her walking in a beech woodland nearby, we harvested the wild garlic leaves to make pesto that afternoon, and she was bewitched by the flowers– beautiful creamy clusters in the undergrowth, creating a forest floor that seemed almost sprinkled with stars. We left most of the flowers for the bees – except one, which my niece held in her hand for the rest of the walk.
In Stephen Moss’ 2012 Natural Childhood report for the National Trust, it was revealed that on average, British children watch more than 17 hours of television a week and spend more than 20 hours a week online. While there are positive benefits to screen time, the belief is that children are not being given the freedom to escape outdoors and enjoy the natural world, and this can be extended to adults, too.
One National Trust survey revealed that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK said that they have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. From newborn babies to the most elderly in society, being outdoors is crucial to our wellbeing, and foraging is a great way for all ages to get outside and connect with the landscape.
Look out for wild strawberries hiding like dropped rubies in the grass. They grow on chalky soils and are easy to miss, being smaller than the supermarket variety, but they are worth the effort. These little flavour bombs are perfect for small hands to harvest, and a sweet treat to boost energy on long walks and sunny afternoons. Try swirling them into porridge, jam or ice cream, or simply use them to decorate your favourite cakes.
Looking for the perfect plant to get started? The common dandelion is bright, golden and easily recognisable, and tastes best when picked in the morning. Harvest both the leaves and flowers and turn them into tea, salad, pesto, jelly and even wine. For an afternoon baking session, try using the flower petals in my simple orange and dandelion biscuit recipe. Infused with the fresh flavours of dandelion and citrus, these make the perfect treat for Easter picnics. Remove the green stems from your flower heads, rinse well and leave to dry, before removing the petals from each flower and mixing them into your biscuit dough to add a new twist of flavour and texture.
Common nettles are at their sweetest in spring, and are a delicious and healthy alternative to spinach that can be found everywhere. It seems almost a rite of passage for children to fall into a nettle patch and reappear covered in a blotchy rash, but you can avoid this by searching for red and white dead-nettles, two almost identical species that don’t sting. Look out for their distinctive purple and white flowers, but try to be brave if you accidentally pick the wrong one – always use gardening gloves to pick them just in case. The leaves are sweeter than the stems and work well in soups and stews.
The Latin name for wild garlic, Allium ursinum, refers to the brown bear’s habit of digging up bulbs for a pungent snack, but the leaves are wonderful on their own. Found in shady woodlands, they have a distinctly garlicky aroma with long green leaves and white flowers. Try blending the leaves with grated cheddar, toasted pine nuts, olive oil and sea salt to make a fragrant pesto, great for swirling into pasta.
The cuckooflower is another fantastic plant to forage in late spring. This pretty, pale flower takes its name from the time it blossoms, when the cuckoo begins its clockwork song. Found in meadows and damp grasslands, they are thought to be sacred to fairies and also attract the beautiful-orange tip butterfly. Once used as an alternative to watercress, cuckooflowers shares the same hot, peppery taste and makes a great addition to soups and egg sandwiches.
Food You Can Forage, £16.99, Bloomsbury
Photographs: Getty, Tiffany Francis