During my recent visit to Harrogate last month I met Craig Worrall who describes himself as “passionate about collecting, eating, preserving and experimenting with wild foods”.
As a child I used to explore the mountainsides picking windberries amongst the heathers then a few months later return to harvest the blackberries, but Craig takes foraging to the next level. I sat down over a mug of woodland tea to have a chat about his passion.
“In the foraging calendar, autumn is one of the months I look forward to the most. It’s one of the most abundant seasons, everything from seeds, roots, berries, shellfish, seaweed and fungi.
“If we go back to our Neolithic ancestors, we were hunter gatherers, spending a lot of our time walking around the country. They were very nomadic and there was a huge abundance of food.
“Research has discovered that on the advent of farming, when we learnt to settle down and take up farmsteads and develop crops, our life expectancy actually dropped by 20 years. In my mind I’ve always thought that a Neolithic person would have been quite big in stature but their diet kept them quite trim, as what they were eating was beyond organic by eating wild and healthy food.
“A lot of wild foods contain a huge amount of nutrients that you wouldn’t find on supermarket shelves. I find that when I’m eating a wild food based diet I generally eat less food. I get so many vitamins and nutrients from the wild foods that I eat, that my body doesn’t need the recommended portion sizes. People are often surprised by how full they feel from eating so little.”
Based in Leeds, Craig conducts regular talks, walks and courses around Yorkshire as part of ‘Edible Leeds’. Members of the public get a guided talk through the woodlands to learn about and taste the wild foods currently in season.
“Winter is the hardest season we, as foragers, experience. It can vary from year to year. Last winter was mild and I was able to do foraging walks in January. There were lots of wild edible fungi, berries were still on the trees, nuts were still on the trees, plus I found the shoots of early fresh green growth. Compare that with two years earlier when we had a hard winter, there was nothing around from mid-November until early April.
“The season of spring is just beautiful, it’s amazing. Season of new birth, new growth, new beginnings. There is lots of new growth in spring such as nettles, wild garlic and ground elder.
“If you look at preserving techniques from many years ago, they used a lot of different techniques – drying, salting, curing and when sugar came along there were jams and jellies. This helps the forager to get through the winter but it’s great to see and taste the new growth when spring arrives.
“As well as food, nature offers some amazing wild spices. I very much find that people are not familiar with our own wild spices – like hogweed seeds. When I talk about hogweed I get some confused looks from people. There are two strains of hogweed in the UK, we’ve got the native common hogweed and there is also the Victorian-introduced Giant Hogweed. People think it’s a nasty plant but it’s not going to jump out and chase after you! It’s not nasty, it’s a defense mechanism and if it feels threatened it activates its defenses. If we get the sap on us it can create some nasty reactions and burns, but the plant itself is not nasty.
“I know a forager guy and he’s been eating hogweed for around 35 years and in the last year he’s had an allergic reaction to eating hogweed and we don’t quite know why. He was thinking that it could be down to him being in the sunshine quite a lot, he’s got quite a heavy suntan from being in the sunshine and he was picking the plant in full sunshine when it was probably more potent – so he thinks that caused the reaction. He’s eaten it since and he’s not had another reaction.
“It’s the same with wild foods, some people may have an intolerance to certain foods. A lot of wild foods you can eat raw but there are certain ones you have to cook, like mushrooms. Some mushrooms in their raw state cause you stomach upset or skin irritation. The advice when eating wild foods is to always sample small bits first and see how you feel.
“I collect the hogweed seeds from the middle of July through into September. It’s ideal to collect them in the first month of setting seed. It’s beautiful, it’s really aromatic. I ground them down and use them in various cooking recipes such as cakes, meats and fishes.
“One of our natural herbs and spices is Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), [also known as Colewort, St Benedict’s Herbs, Herb Bennet]. I would often harvest them early autumn, I very rarely uproot a plant. You only need two or three small sections of the root. You can grow this in the garden, it has little yellow flowers.
“It’s perceived that fungi only grow in the autumn time, they don’t, they actually grow all the year. We consume fungus on a daily basis, yeast is a fungus, cheeses and breads can have an element of fungus in them. If you look at products in the supermarket there is a lot of fungus used as an ingredients, it’s just we don’t realize it when we’re eating them. There are two kingdoms of fungi, the micro fungi which are really small and often you need a microscope to see them and then we have the macro fungi are the larger fungi which you can actually see.
“I love everything about foraging and am pleased that in recent years more people are becoming interested. But please, if you don’t know what is and what is not safe, educate yourself first. There are day courses available up-and-down the country and this is a great place to learn under the supervision of an experienced forager.”