Sure, you can buy food in a supermarket. But it’s more fun to discover it growing wild. If you really want a big change of lifestyle, you could even consider living in a forest and foraging for food … but I wouldn’t recommend it, mainly because most really decent temperate forests have long since been turned into buildings, fire and paper goods. Trust me, I’ve looked into it.
Dandelion (edible leaves, flowers and roots)
However, wild foods still make a great snack.
If foraging for food is something that might pique your fancy, here are my top ten edible wild foods, complete with Wikipedia links. If you actually want to try these wild foods, be absolutely certain you’ve identified them correctly; get a good field guide and learn which poisonous plants can be confused with edible ones. Don’t take any chances. There are lots of poisonous plants and fungi around. There are plants that will send you mad, plants that will give you cancer, and fungi that will kill you slowly and painfully over several days. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But with a bit of practice, plant identification quickly becomes second nature. After all, we were all once hunter-gatherers back in the mists of time, so the ability to learn plant identification is in our blood.
The plants in my list can be found throughout temperate climate zones, and often beyond. I’m a native of the UK, but as far as I know all of these plants also grow in the USA and throughout much of Europe, as well as in many other parts of the world.
So without further ado, here we go, in reverse order, complete with links to Wikipedia:
Squiffy’s Top Ten Most Delicious and Intriguing Wild Foods
10. Wild Mint
Not so much a food as a flavouring, wild mint can be found all over the place once you start looking for it, especially near water. Learn to recognize the leaves and flowers, and confirm by checking for the distinctive minty smell and square hollow stems (square stems are a characteristic shared by all plants in the mint family, of which there are many, but nothing else smells quite like mint).
Try making mint tea, or chop the leaves finely with vinegar for a delicious mint source; sprinkle over free-range beef. Delicious!
The pignut is an intriguing and elusive wild food. I’ve never seen it growing in any great quantity, which always makes me feel like leaving it where it is, but supposedly in some places entire areas of woodland can be thick with pignut. Be careful not to confuse it with other ‘umbellifers’ – plants with ‘umbels’ of little flowers that look a bit like umbrellas; the family includes not only edible plants such as the wild carrot and parsley, but also poisonous plants such as hemlock and fool’s parsley. Pignut is quite a distinctive plant once you get to know it, and its thin, meandering root leads down into the soil to a single ‘nut’, the size of hazelnut and equally delicious.
8. Cuckoo Pint
Cuckoo Pint is a very common plant, at least in Britain and no doubt elsewhere too. Its weird and distinctive flowers are apparently designed to lure in flies and keep them prisoner while showering them with pollen. The leaves, flowers and red berries of this plant are poisonous, as is the root. So why am I mentioning it? It just so happens that when the root is thoroughly cooked, it becomes edible and quite delicious. If you’re careful you can bake them outdoors in the hot ashes of a a fire. They taste a lot like really good baked potatoes. But take care, because I can tell you from personal experience that they burn your mouth and throat if not cooked enough! Apparently hundreds of years ago feeding people improperly cooked cuckoo pint roots was considered a very funny joke, but fortunately humor has moved on since then.
Once you’ve seen the large, dock-like leaves of horseradish a few times, you can spot them everywhere with little difficulty. The plant is a member of the generally-edible cabbage family and probably you can eat the leaves if the fancy takes you (but don’t take my word for it — I’m just guessing!). However, it’s the roots of horseradish that are the tasty bit. Like mint, horseradish is not so much a food as a condiment. Put the fresh roots in a food blender along with some salt, pepper and a little cream. The resulting sauce is absolutely delicious, especially with meat. The fumes from mincing horseradish will make your eyes water, but it’s worth it! If you’ve ever tasted the supermarket version, be prepared to forget what you thought you knew about horseradish, because the real thing, freshly dug out of the ground, is a completely different experience.
6. Wild Cherry
Wild cherries are less sweet than cultivated cherries, but just as tasty. This is the sort of wild food that you can gorge yourself silly on, and I have done. Cherry trees are easily spotted, and fairly hard to confuse with anything else, other than possibly the cyanide-containing cherry laurel — which however does not really look anything like the true cherry. True cherry trees carry their fruits on those distinctive long stems rather than the short, stubby stems of cherry laurel. Wild cherry trees are often grown for their blossom, but the fruits are also good to eat.
The stinging nettle was introduced to my home country, England, by the Romans. Thanks, Romans! Now we’re taking revenge by filling their homeland with tourists. However, while it’s true that nettles are covered in thousands of tiny hypodermic syringes that inject acid into your skin (nice!), the stings are fortunately never all that severe and the leaves of young nettles are rather tasty. Be sure to pick only the young leaves, before they turn laxative and become infested with insects. In Britain and probably elsewhere, you can expect two crops a year — in spring and in autumn. Simmer the leaves with water and a little butter, or make soup out of them. They taste perhaps a bit like spinach, but not so spinachy, and are horrendously good for you. Apparently you can also make rope or paper out of the stems if the mood takes you.
Now we’re getting down to some seriously delicious wild foods. As I hope you know, you have to know your way around wild mushrooms a bit before you start eating them. Get a good book and learn the poisonous ones as well as the edible ones, so you know which ones to avoid. However, of all mushrooms, the parasol is perhaps the hardest to confuse with anything else, with its distinctive cap and movable double-ring that slides up and down the stem. What’s more, parasol mushrooms knock the spots off supermarket mushrooms in terms of taste. Oh, people rave about the delicate apricot-like taste of chanterelles, but give me parasols anytime. They have a superb mushroomy flavor, and since the caps tend to grow quite large, you can really get your money’s worth out of these fellas.
Easily identified and delicious raw or cooked into jam, jelly or pie filling, the blackberry is most certainly one of the greatest and tastiest of all wild foods. If you can find a substantial area of land in a temperate zone that hasn’t yet had houses or roads built on it and isn’t a swamp, chances are you can find blackberries growing in profusion. Picking the berries can sometimes present a challenge, as you find yourself leaning precariously over massive spiky bushes, but it’s all part of the fun.
In spite of the ever-so-slightly England-centric nature of this page, the sweet chestnut doesn’t grow all that well in England; it’s too cold there. But it can be found, and the nuts are fantastic boiled or roasted and dipped in salt before eating. If you boil them, getting the bitter peel off can be tricky, albeit worthwhile. Roasted, the peel tends to flake off more easily. God, do they taste fantastic! In Spain you can apparently find entire forests of sweet chestnuts, although I’ve never seen them so I wouldn’t know. In Italy you can find people selling roasted chestnuts from stalls in the street. These stalls used to be common throughout parts of England too, but these days seem to be confined to London. Roasted chestnuts are a wonderful food to eat on a cold autumn day. In the wild the trees are beautiful and easily-identified. Don’t confuse them with horse chestnuts of course, but aside from both trees having nuts that are covered in mahogany-colored skins, they aren’t really similar. There’s something about the sight of a sweet chestnut tree that is somehow magical and exotic. In Italy, encountering a grove of chestnut trees is a wonderful experience. The trees, with their elongated, serrated leaves, look almost like something oriental, even alien. And wherever you see those trees, you know that mouth-watering chestnuts are to be had at the right time of year.
Huh? A mushroom is the number one edible food? And one fit only for horses at that? Well, guess what, horse mushrooms take the whole mushroom flavor to a brand new level. A horse mushroom was for me clear and away the most delicious thing I have ever tasted in my life. The taste is beyond describable; I can only say that if you buy the finest-quality large-capped mushrooms from a supermarket and fry them in butter till they are just a little brown, then you have something that can perhaps give you the merest hint of a how a good horse mushroom tastes. Horse mushrooms are often found growing in old cow pastures, along with the familiar type of common mushroom (which of course also tastes excellent, far better than the cultivated mushroom). They are fairly distinctive and have a recognizable characteric scent, but don’t pick them till you’ve learnt your way around mushrooms from a good guide book or someone who knows what they’re talking about, such as your grandmother. You wouldn’t want, for example, to confuse them with the destroying angel, a vindictive little amanita mushroom which will kill you slowly and painfully over a period of several days, the first symptoms only appearing just when you think you’re safe but are in fact done for. But if you want the finest wild food taste sensation available, you need to learn mushrooms and get to know those old cow pastures! The exquisite taste of the horse mushroom is my reason for making it the number one wild food.
If you’re seriously into foraging for food, you might want to buy a book about it. The only two books about wild foods that really stick in my mind are:
Richard Mabey’s Food for Free
A good general guide to wild foods, although it leaves many great foods out.
… and a book I read when I was twelve years old, which really inspired me to research wild foods more for myself:
Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain
A fascinatingly-detailed story about a boy who runs away from home to live in the Catskill forests. Lots of information about the edible wild plants of that area, some of which are also found in places as far flung as England.
Still want more? Checkout Squiffy’s Ten More Delicious Wild Foods You Can Eat For Free