Foraging for food
For some, there's nothing nicer than finding food in the wild. Picking your own blackberries avoids food packaging waste and there’s no need for a lorry to transport them to the shop. And according to foraging enthusiasts, there’s plenty of wild-growing food out there to enjoy if you know what you’re looking for. Georgia Mills heard about Katie Haylor's adventure with foraging fanatic Antony Bagott to explore what wild food one corner of Cambridge has to offer. Here’s a little taster of what went on…
Katie - We’ve come back from the road a bit and it’s actually really quiet and peaceful, and you’re going to show us a few items that you can pick in August, is that right?
Antony - Sure. Just as we get into the cemetery we’ve got some berries here now - two types. There’s some elderberries up top and some blackberries down below.
Katie - Oh wow. That one’s really sour.
Antony - They’re a little bit small and a little bit sour. Hawthorn is one that I’ve always known from a kid and people call it bread and cheese. The leaves are like the bread and the fruit is like the cheese.
Katie - So you can make a hawthorn sandwich?
Antony - Exactly, yeah.
Katie - Go on then - give it a go. I’m not feeling brave enough…
Antony - Mmm, tasty.
Katie - Does it taste anything like bread?
Antony - It doesn’t taste anything like bread. Actually, it has a little bit of appley flavour. We’ve had a bad experience in the past with an orange birch bolete, which is a type of mushroom that grows under the birch tree. We picked it, cooked it for about 3 to 4 minutes I’d say because that’s how we cook our mushrooms from the supermarket. Within about 5 minutes he was throwing up on the beach that we were on...
Georgia - Oh dear! And we’ll put up the full version of Katie’s foraging expedition on the In Short section on our website - thenakedscientists.com/short - if you want to hear what else they found, but the experience Antony described there is why you do need to be really careful if you’re out foraging, in fact it’s best to go with an expert. Luckily, we have one! Patrick Harding is a botanist and a mycologist, so you must be an all-round fungi?
Patrick - The old ones are the best ones.
Georgia - You know about foraging for mushrooms, so why would you do this when shops sell them for not that much money?
Patrick - It’s the physical and mental well being of being out for walks in the countryside before even finding stuff. The thrill of finding and gathering wild food and the lovely thing is: okay, even these days you might be able to get 7 or 8 different sorts in the shops, but not 80. It’s a bit like variety with vegetables, variety with different meats; there’s different tastes, there’s different textures, there’s different colours - that’s what I love.
Georgia - As well as being fun and tasty, is there any other health benefits to eating mushrooms?
Patrick - Oh yes. Okay, they’re about 90% water, but that’s true with many vegetables. Fat content is definitely low and it’s mostly the better ones, the unsaturated the healthier fats. The carbohydrate is about 50% of the dry weight of a mushroom but it’s mostly in the form of chitin, which we get in fungi. It is rather tough and some people find them therefore difficult to digest, but Rebecca's been talking about the importance of high fibre. Some of us don’t get enough well, you certainly get them in fungi. There Is protein - it’s probably comparable with what we get in peas and beans; it’s just a different form of protein. And, best of all, some wonderful vitamins and high in folic acid.
Georgia - How do you identify the good from the bad mushrooms?
Patrick - Perhaps most important of all is habitat. Is it growing in the middle of grassland, is it with trees, and if so: what sort of tree? Then we look particularly at the element of reproduction; do they produce spores a bit like ferns; do they spores come out of gills or out of tubes as we get with some of our fungi?
Most important of all what colour are the spores? You can’t actually see an individual spore, so you just allow a deposit to form on a piece of glass, put the fungal cap on it for three or four hours and then you can see whether it’s white, or pink, or brown, or black. That is crucial, the spore colour doesn’t change. The problem is the same fungus: its size, its shape, its colour, its smell changes as it grows up, so we need different features and that’s so important for accurate identification.
Georgia - It sounds quick tricky. So once you’ve found one how do you go about preparing them?
Patrick - A lot of fungi are edible and wonderful. A lot of them are inedible, they’re neither poisonous nor edible. But we do have some wonderful poisons in fungi and some of those poisons are broken down by heat. So if somebody goes out and does gather the wrong one, and it’s got a poison in it, at least if they cook it they’ve got a bit of a chance that that toxin has been broken down. I by the way cook them fast and hot; I don't like them swimming in butter. That way I get the flavour and I get the texture.
Some of the poisonous ones cause a stomach upset. Some, such as the deathcap as the name implies, the end product is indeed death. Some very nasty chemicals that break down the cell walls in livers and kidneys. Quite a lot of them are in between.
Georgia - Why can mushrooms make you ill?
Patrick - The point is, as I’ve tried to say, there’s different chemicals and some are much more serious than others. One of the big problems is that one or two of the really poisonous ones you don’t start getting symptoms for up to six hours, so it’s too late to have your stomach pumped. So, again, I can see why people are suspicious of fungi, and rightly so. I would hate people to go out as a result of this programme and eat the wrong one. We’ve got enough problems in A&E as it is so please, please, identification correct first.
Georgia - So be careful when you forage. But we mentioned earlier this idea of foraging being this sustainable way to get food but if it’s more popular is there an issue here of all the mushrooms being picked - is there an issue of conservation?
Patrick - There is certainly an issue. Really it’s only in the last 30 years or so that Britain has seen this huge increase in the number of people collecting wild mushrooms, either for personal use as I do, or some people who are supplying restaurants and shops. Quite a lot of naturalist and bodies such as the National Trust have expressed concern that all this picking will lead to a decline in many of our edible fungi.
It’s very easy to point the finger and I say to people yes, there are fewer field mushrooms than there were 40/50 years ago. There are also fewer butterflies - we haven’t been eating butterflies. I think we have to be careful. What seems to have been happening with certain of our fungi has with unfortunately other wildlife, is changes in farming practice has certainly led to decline. Climate change equally. And as far as picking goes, the only scientific evidence shows that over many years picking certain edible fungi actually gave a slight increase in numbers. So I think sometimes conservationists need to get their science right.