Where the wild things grow

by Crumbs

15 October 2013

"Of course, to state the blindingly obvious, if you are going to forage with your kids, you need to establish the rule of NEVER eating anything until you’ve checked first if it’s okay, even if you’d bet your whole Lego collection that it’s a bramble."

Our roving hungry reporter KATHIE AUTON heads out into the wild to reconnect with nature. But can she get her little ones as excited?

I was recently lucky enough to head out, Hunter-booted and wax-jacketed, into the glorious Bath countryside with a basket tucked in the crook of my arm and an expert in wild food leading the way. This was foraging with Chris Westgate from Heavely Hedgerows as part of Vale House Kitchen’s excellent Introduction to Foraging Course (it’s running again on 18 November if you fancy it), and it was joyful. We picked chickweed, ground elder and hawthorn berries, we evaded a cross-looking cow, we even spotted a ‘Chicken of the Woods’. I’m not sure about the other people on the course, but I certainly indulged in a little Famous Five fantasy about gathering food whilst on a champion adventure. Because it really did take me back to my childhood, when I ranged free in the Staffordshire Peak District.

It was this child-like joy of picking and eating that made me think about foraging with my kids. The only rather huge stumbling block being that we live in the midst of row upon row of Victorian terraced houses in Bishopston, Bristol. This is not the rolling, abundant hills of Somerset or the craggy, moorland of my youth. Okay, we could jump in the car and head out into the wilds – so wild, in fact, that my phone asks me to update my current time settings whenever I’m there – but that rather feels like missing the point.

No, I have to face it. My kids are not having the same sticks-in-cowpats, cuckoo-spit childhood that I had. But can we still forage? Can we still replicate a bit of the joy you get when you cook something made with wild things? It turns out you can.

A bit of wild is important in any childhood, even the most city of childhoods. Everyone needs to be nettled and brambled. And, to get back on my usual soapbox, kids should know where their food comes from – they should see it growing out of the ground and roaming in the fields. They should feel the connection between earth and mouth. At this time of year, they are probably talking about harvest at school and you’ll probably be asked to send a tin of something in for the Harvest Festival. Obviously, this is great from a charitable perspective, but perhaps there’s room for a little personal harvest of your own? Maybe a little chat about the fruits of the earth? Or at least the fruits of the neighbour’s pear tree. Injecting a bit of country into my city kids is an on-going mission of mine, but it’s not just good for the kids, everyone benefits from a bit of back to nature don’t they? As Vale House Kitchen’s Bod Griffiths told me:

“We spent many years working in the city before getting back to my childhood roots with Vale House Kitchen. We’re not just a cookery school, but a country skills school too, we want to share the pleasure you can get from foraging, hunting or fishing for your food.”

Of course, to state the blindingly obvious, if you are going to forage with your kids, you need to establish the rule of NEVER eating anything until you’ve checked first if it’s okay, even if you’d bet your whole Lego collection that it’s a bramble. ALWAYS CHECK FIRST is a very easy rule. Always wash stuff too, thoroughly. And of course, there’s always the fine line between scrumping and foraging. Things that dangle on your side of the fence or over the pavement are probably fair game; trespassing or leaning over is probably not.

So, we make use of the many back alleyways and cut-throughs where we live, with little snippets of wilderness where brambles grow. The brambles may be over now, and even the elderberries have pretty much gone from the passageway behind our house, but you can still forage. Pick nettles – they are everywhere and, as I learnt on my course, they are an amazing source of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin C. (Nettles shouldn't be picked when flowering though.) We made nettle soup. My son asked, “Will it be stingy?”, and after reassuring him that is wouldn’t, he loved it. “Best soup ever,” he said. “Actually, second best. Lentil is still the best”.

Another easy one is dandelions. I learnt that you can pull off the petals and use them in biscuits and baking or you can eat the small tender leaves in a salad. These things may not be the most adventurous of foraging, but in an alleyway, in a city, in October, with a three-year-old, it’s probably about the best I can hope for.

Nettle Soup (recipe by Chris Westgate of Heavenly Hedgerows)

2 large handfuls of nettle leaves – the small ones are the best. (Give your kids rubber gloves to pick with!)
Olive oil and butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
700ml boiling water mixed with 1 stock cube
Black pepper
Double cream (optional) 

– Wash the nettles well. Fry the onion and garlic in butter in oil until soft, but not coloured.
– Add the potatoes and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft.
– Add the nettle leaves and simmer for another 10 minutes.
– Turn off the heat and blend well. Add a good grind of black pepper and a splash of cream to finish.