As part of the events programme here at Stoke Park, I recently led a wild food forage; a subject that there is an increasing interest in. I think the main reason could be television, with programmes like Ray Mears’ Wild Food and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series. I have watched them a few times and, to be honest, it makes you want to jump out of your chair with excitement, get out into the countryside and have a go yourself, but the problem is knowledge, or rather, the lack of; there is always that doubt in the back of your mind saying “is this it or not?”. Plant identification can be tricky! It’s all very well watching it on TV, but unless you have experience, things can go wrong.
With this in mind, my guests on my latest Wild Food walk turned up one evening last week all excited because, in their words, we were going to “hunt off the land, Ray Mears style”. As we walked along the roadside on the way into Stoke Park, I stopped my guests and did an introduction talk about the legalities of collecting wild foods, such as “it is illegal to remove wild plants by their bulbs?”, and that you must ensure you obtain the land owner’s permission first, and always only gather enough for what you need for a meal and not take any more. We found a roadside plant called Black Mustard (Brassica nigra); a plant that grows on waste ground and road sides, the seeds are very strong. I handed out bags to collect some of the seeds to take home, and showed them how to make their own mustard paste to add to cheese on toast. As we entered the meadows, I then explained that, when identifying wild plants, it is essential that we understand the preferred habitat of species, for example the Meadow Garlic, or Crow Garlic, will favour growing in long grass and will not grow in dense wooded areas. Again we collected some of them, but not more than we needed.
The light was starting to fade as the night went on, so we went into the woods and collected a few more edibles and made a camp fire to have a cook up. I had brought some wild pigeon meat with me, just for this occasion, and my guests were all excitedly awaiting a hearty treat. After preparing the wild salad, mixing everything together, the pigeon breast was slowly fried in blackberry sauce.
As we all sat around the camp fire having our tasty supper, there was an air of excitement from my guests, because they had learnt so much that evening, and now had the knowledge to go off and each be a “Ray Mears” themselves.