Once upon a time rummaging in hedges for food was a pursuit which ranked alongside papering your spare room with foil so that ‘The Man’ couldn’t read your thoughts on the scale of Things Which Indicate A Tenuous Grasp On Reality. Now, though, it’s all over menus in the North East, and any restaurateur worth their pure organic sea salt can tell borage from hollyhock.
That’s all very well, but foraging for edible plants, flowers, roots and fruits has moved beyond being a marker of foodie hipsterdom or a convenient buzzword to launch onto the menu at chic metropolitan places which want to nab themselves a bit of vérité earthiness. For a lot of foragers, it’s a philosophical choice, a way of rethinking both how they eat and how they interact with nature.
‘Every human being is naturally curious I think; it goes back to what we were,’ says Bruce Ferguson of Wild North Discovery, who’s been foraging both recreationally and professionally for more than 30 years. ‘We were hunter-gatherers, we just wandered and picked and ate things, and I think that instinct’s still there with everybody. It’s just with people living in towns and cities they don’t know it’s there anymore. When they get out and start exploring the flavours that they’re around, a lot of people do get hooked on foraging.’
Foraging expert Linus Morton from Northern Wilds in Tarset agrees. ‘It helps build confidence in people to go out foraging and actually satisfy one of those basic needs of life: providing food for themselves,’ he says. ‘Most people are so disconnected from nature that they don’t have the skills or the confidence to be able to do that.’
The thrill of snaffling something edible isn’t something that’s ever likely to go away, and it’s even more intoxicating when you’ve had to work for it a little, using your smarts and local knowledge rather than grabbing whatever’s got a yellow reduced label on it in Asda. ‘Once you pick up foraging skills, you can take them anywhere and they can provide a meal wherever you are,’ says Linus.
Bruce concurs. ‘We’re the same animals, we’ve just been tamed a bit by the environment we’ve created, an unnatural environment. But the instincts are all still there, they just need to be released, if you like, and hunger’s a good releaser of instincts,’ he says.
Speaking of instincts, you also get the chance to tap into the feel for the creeping seasonal changes which our forebears would have had. ‘Every season is different in what you can forage fresh, and our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered,’ Bruce says. ‘They’d have had a territory and wandered around it and been in the right places in the right seasons for the right things.’
So why did we ever lose such useful skills? It’s still de rigeur on the continent, for instance, says Linus.
‘If you look at Eastern Europe, mushroom-picking skills are alive and well; in France, you can pick your mushrooms, take them down to the chemist and get them ID’d, and make sure you’re doing it safely. A lot of European cultures still have that presence, whereas our society took a turn where we decided mushrooms were aligned with the devil and evil and anybody who dabbled in herbal medicine or mushrooms was ostracised. So we lost all those skills and we don’t have them as a society now.’
While a renewed focus on locality has been the great tidal shift of the last five years in the restaurant biz, the idea of sticking to nearby fields and woodland for your food runs deeper than simply being afliippant gimmick to get the chin-strokers in for a couple of courses: it’s a way of better understanding the way that our ancestors lived, of tasting the world in which they lived – no spicy chicken paninis, no cronuts, not even any of those nice snack pots of chocolate-covered Rice Krispie cakes they do in M&S. It must have been bleak.
‘The likes of you and me, our ancestors were the people living in the hovels, working for their feudal landlord, and we would’ve had to go out and pick the garlic mustard in the spring, and to have dug up the burdock roots in the winter along with other things, because food was short – we were all malnourished,’ says Bruce. ‘It was what you could grow in your yard, and then what you could supplement from the hedgerows.’
It’s not all about being culinary tourists of the past either. Given how bleak the last year or so has been for the most part, foraging might be a handy skill to have when the looming apocalypse finally breaks. ‘People are interested because it would be nice to be able to have the satisfaction of knowing that you can survive if it came to the crunch,’ says Bruce. ‘The food is there – I would survive. It’s that knowledge that people are keen on getting.’
But it all comes back, fundamentally, to the connection between us and the land that we take our food from. ‘I think it’s basic in human nature,’ says Bruce. ‘We are, underneath it all, just wild animals. We are tuned in with the rhythms of the world.’