'I Forage Wild Food, What You Can Find For Free Is Shocking'

Like many other children, I grew up picking blackberries with my parents. I didn't know anything about foraging for food, but we lived in Bristol, a city in southwest England, but would often spend our weekends on long walks through nearby countryside.

When I was in my early twenties I moved to south Devon for art college. I was living in a semi-rural area, so going on long treks through nature with friends became a normal thing to do. I would often use the environment around me as an inspiration for my work, examining topics like the process of making paper from river reeds for my final year project.

On my walks to classes, I began picking wild garlic in the woodlands during the spring. I probably learned about foraging through experience; there are some things that make the process really simple. For example, wild garlic has such a strong scent and it comes in mass when it grows, so it was easy to spot.

Rachel Lambert
Rachel Lambert is an author and wild food tutor who lives in Cornwall, England. Elliott White

Towards the end of my time at college, I was on a walk with one of my older friends, when he stopped at an old Devonshire stone-wall. He pointed at a plant growing, called pennywort, and said: "You can eat that." He gave me some to taste and I was stunned. From that moment, my view of the world around me completely changed; I realized we were surrounded by food and medicine. I had spent so long amongst nature, but I had never seen it through that lens before.

After university, I moved back to Bristol where a friend of mine, Thomas, had started a bushcraft school; teaching the skills necessary for humans to survive from the natural environment alone. I volunteered with him for a while and learned in his shadow about various different wild foods and foraging. He was teaching a wide array of survival techniques, but it was the foodie side that really interested me. I was hungry for more knowledge.

I spent a long time just learning about the subject from people around me and I really enjoyed the process. I have a background as an artist, so I've always been very visual and good at spotting things, which is a very helpful trait when it comes to foraging.

When I moved to Cornwall in 2007, there were multiple stonewalls and hedgerows outside my door which were abundant with edible plants. You would be surprised how much food and medicine is in one hedgerow. It was all right on my doorstep, from nettles to black mustard, cleavers, sorrels and pennywort. I lived three miles from the coast and would find things like sea radish, alexanders flowers, rock samphire and sea spinach.

In the early days, I would take great pride in not going to shops to get any vegetables. I would continue to buy things like fish or rice from the shops, but it was really nice to think I could use hedgerow instead of the grocery store for plant-based products. I have never really been into that survival aspect of foraging, but at the beginning I was using it as a food source.

I started researching the subject more, I just got tons of books out of the library and kept learning. I found that spotting these plants came easily to me, I was able to recognise images, shapes and descriptions—but in the kitchen I was a bit lost. Some of the recipes I was coming across were quite basic and at the beginning I just thought they were really unusual. For example, I remember tasting rock samphire and thinking it was really weird, now I think it's amazing, but it was over time that I learned how to work with different wild foods in more of a creative way.

Rachel Lambert
Rachel began foraging food when she was in her early twenties. Elliott White

As I got more experienced, I stopped keeping track of how much I was foraging; it became second nature rather than thinking and measuring things. I was able to make my recipes a little bit more sophisticated; I wasn't piling a whole load of wild food on a plate and saying: "This is healthy, eat it." I was making things that were appealing, that looked and smelled good. For example, seaweed pizza or nettle honey cake, the latter is a really divine combination.

Around a year after I moved to Cornwall, I came up with the idea of leading walking tours to teach others how they can spot and use wild foods. I've always taught in some capacity and thought it would be nice to share my knowledge with others. So, I put up two posters, one in the village shop and the other in a nearby caravan park and went from there. Shortly afterwards I was offered the opportunity to lead foraging walks around some historic gardens in the local area.

I've never gotten sick from foraged food. There's a golden rule that if you're not sure what you're picking, don't touch it. I'll guide other people, but I repeatedly go through the steps; this is what the plant looks like, this is how you identify it, this is where it grows. It's amazing how someone can develop their eye. By the end of the walk, most people will be able to recognise at least some things, often they've seen them before but just didn't recognise what they are.

Even in large cities, there's a whole world of wild foods available for free. In east London alone, you can find ingredients like dandelions, which can be used for cakes or savory dishes, or burdock root which can be used to make beers or veggie burgers. Nettles are one of our best wild greens, if you blanch them the sting disappears completely and they're really nutritious. They can be used in any way you would cooked spinach or cabbage. Elderflowers are also available in the city and can be used as wonderful infusions for desserts and drinks. Other examples of plants found in the city are pineapple weed, roses, sorrels, rowan, blackberries, sweet chestnuts and beech.

I have a very creative side and in recent years the focus of my foraging has become more about making wild food more accessible and interesting to others. I saw a niche in the market for information about the subject and released my first book on foraging in May 2015.

For me, food foraging is about finding provisions from nature; we live in a culture where we don't have to do that, but there are various benefits to it. Yes, you can find free food, but it's also about connecting food and the landscape, knowing where our produce was cultivated originally and tracing that journey.

Rachel Lambert is an author and wild food tutor who lives in Cornwall, England. You can follow her on Instagram at @rachellambertwildfoodforaging or visit her website here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Monica Greep.