Food foraging in the wilds of Hampstead
Hampstead Heath will be scoured for wild herbs
An intrepid group are about to set off in search of edible delights fresh from the Heath, writes Jane Wild
IT may not sound very appetising but the Judas’ ear fungus is something we could all be eating, if only we knew how to recognise it.
The species is just one of the many wild fungi, herbs, berries and other plants that foragers will be learning to recognise on a course on Hampstead Heath this Sunday.
The group will be scouting around the woods, streams and fields, hunting down little-known wild plants that also make a tasty morsel.
A new one-day course entitled Wild Food, it is run by Hampstead’s Gaia Foundation.
Participants will be taken out to discover what can and can’t be gleaned from the land.
Course leader Miles Irving is a former carpenter who has now set up a successful business sourcing wild plants for restaurants such as Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and celebrity haunt The Ivy.
He said: “I was keen to go the Heath because I’m very interested in the history of it. Some of it goes back a very long way as common land.
“It’s a very good place for wild plants, there’s a great species diversity.”
As a young boy Irving was fascinated by mushrooms and the natural world.
His grandfather passed on a knowledge of fungi to him, and an interest in foraging was born.
His research has included investigation into other cultures who have continuing traditions of eating wild plants.
According to him there are many reasons why we should want to forage.
He said: “It’s our heritage. Ordinary people have always got food from their surroundings and at one time everyone did that.
“Even when people began to buy their food they still took a lot of wild plants to supplement that.
“It’s really normal and we are getting back to that.”
He added: “Cultivated plants are bred for things like size, not amounts of nutrients.
“Nutrient science has shown levels of nutrients in wild plants are better than in cultivated stuff.”
Apart from widely recognised plants such as dandelions and nettles, there are many other edible plants that can be gathered on Hampstead Heath.
Obviously great care must be taken when eating wild plants, but foragers can expect to find a surprising range of edible delights there.
Miles Irving made a recent trip to discover what was available this season.
He said: “I found two different types of wild sorrel up there, and water pepper, which is as hot as hell. The Japanese chop it fine and sprinkle it on sushi.
“There is wild chervil, a popular herb in France with an aniseedy taste, Chequer berries, and lots of mushrooms: wood blewits, common funnel caps, beefsteak fungus and Judas’ ear fungus, which is popular in Chinese cooking.”
After gathering their finds, foragers return to the Gaia Foundation centre where they are shown how to prepare and cook what they’ve found.
Miles Irving said: “If I just say to them, this is a such and such, they are going to forget, whereas if they come back and prepare it, they aren’t just being told about it, they are much more likely to remember because they are using it.”
The demand for places on the course meant that they were all quickly taken, but there are plans for it to run again. Another popular and related course at the centre covers traditional medicine and herbs.
Sarah Carreras, coordinator of the Gaia Foundation’s learning centre, said: “There is so much awareness about sustainable living and climate change now.
“People are more aware, and want to do something.
“Foraging is practical and can be someone’s small way of making a change.”