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When Marcus Harrison, a wild food specialist and forager, arrived in Cornwall 30 years ago, he knew he’d found home. "I thought: 'Yes—I’ve got the sea on both sides!'" He quickly resolved to settle in this temperate corner of southwest England, where the salty roar of the Atlantic ocean meets a county of ancient hedgerows and abundant woodland—a rich and ideal landscape for foraging.
For a host of young chefs, restaurant owners and ethnobotanists living in Cornwall, picking and eating the food that grows around them is a shared enthusiasm. Get them talking about the cabbage-like sea beets that pepper the coastal paths, or the copious pineapple weed (wild chamomile) that grows on sand dunes and in surfer’s car parks, and you’ll discover how contagious eating what’s close by can become.
Autumn is the best time of year for foraging, according to Tim Spedding, former sous chef at London’s Michelin-starred The Clove Club, who is now Head Chef at Coombeshead Farm, a beautiful stone farmhouse turned restaurant and B&B in Lewannick, in north Cornwall—owned by April Bloomfield and Tom Hunt. “The mushrooms down here are insane!” Spedding tells me over the phone excitedly, “Money can’t buy ceps, chicken of the woods, cauliflower or puffball mushrooms that are better quality than what you can go and pick for yourself.”
And there’s little to match the pleasure of wild mushrooms cooked simply: “We have a great fireplace here, so I grill them with butter, garlic, thyme and rosemary.” For Spedding, the appeal of foraging comes down to its hand-in-hand relationship with preserving. It’s liberating to pick things when they’re in season and use them throughout the year in the form of vinegars and jams. “Rose Green, my predecessor, was an incredible forager so I’ve inherited this huge larder of interesting syrups and dried mushrooms.” Loveage, sorrel and rosemary vinegars bring a delicious well-rounded herbaceous taste to dishes. They cut perfectly through the sumptuous fats of a plate of lamb.
For identifying species, Spedding uses Miles Irving’s The Foragers Handbook, especially for mushrooms. “I’ve heard there are good apps too, but I think that’s a bit silly. If you take your phone with you, you’re not going to do much relaxing.” He’s not exaggerating: before we finally speak, I call several times only to be met by his voicemail. I imagine him in the woods, blithely unaware.
“Sourcing locally and foraging is our way of trying to change things,” says Rory Blair, co-owner of The Kitchen, a cafe in coastal town Falmouth, which sources 80% of its produce from Cornwall. “You can’t do anything big, it’s just all small gestures and decisions—that’s how things change.”
For The Kitchen, foraging means they can avoid importing ingredients as much as possible. “I suppose I’ve become more aware of the ecology of what we do,” explains Blair. Across the food industry the “locally sourced” label has become a sort of box-ticking exercise of performed consciousness. But as a business owner, Blair sees it as a genuine responsibility. That means no sun-swollen tomatoes flown in from the Mediterranean, and no citrus fruit. “There’s too much of an ecological footprint,” he says. Instead they use larch roses, a zesty pink pine cone-looking flower as a lemony alternative for gin and tonics, plus foraged pine fronds, sorrel, and damson flowers which turn the drink a brooding orange. (Dried spices are packed into Blair's suitcase when he holidays in hot countries.) They import three things only: coffee, sugar and chocolate.
Foraging isn’t just about combing fields and hedgerows nearby; there’s an element of scavenging too. Anytime a local has a glut of homegrown courgettes (zucchini), The Kitchen takes them in exchange for free meals. “We try to get the whole community involved as much as possible. The generations before ate from the land around us; your body wants to eat what’s around you. Foraging makes you more attuned, and more creative.” He pauses. “Of course none of this is innovative or groundbreaking, it’s just going back to how things used to be.”
The crashing Atlantic waves and dramatic coastline makes foraging a meditative activity, says Caroline Davey who runs Fat Hen, a cookery school specializing in wild foods, further west in Penzance. For novices like myself, she recommends starting simple with easily identifiable plants like hazelnuts, three cornered leek, sweet chestnuts, wild garlic, and elderflowers. “Oh, and never eat plants from the carrot or parsley family unless you know what you’re doing,” she writes over email. “There are plants in this family that can kill you.” Gulp.
Marcus Harrison agrees: “At first, remembering leaf shapes can be daunting, so go to a coastal area, a field, and a woodland and select one good edible plant from each, in each season.” Quite quickly, he explains, you’ll be rewarded with a repository of 20 plants—like nettles, wild garlic, sorrel and bulrushes—and an idea of where to find them, whatever the month. Just don’t bother with dock leaves, he says. “No one should waste their time foraging for food that doesn’t taste good.”
Everyone’s unanimous on one thing: only ever take 30% of what you can see. Leave young shoots to grow, and never pull from the roots. After all, foraging is just as much about conserving (and leaving something for whoever might pass through next) as eating very well, indeed.
Have you ever gone foraging? What was it like? What did you find? Let us know in the comments!
We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @lovegreatbritain and what Great Britain is eating at @greatbritishfood.