Discovering the art of urban foraging

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 September 2015

Foraged mushrooms in the basket

Foraged mushrooms in the basket

Archant

The urban jungle is brimming with wild food, as a herbalist is proving in Lancashire. Paul Mackenzie reports

Jesper LaunderJesper Launder

There is no shortage of places to hunt for wild food in Lancashire – from the rugged coastline to the remote hillsides and quiet country lanes. But the county’s streets are unlikely to be top of many peoples lists.

Our towns and urban areas though, are well-stocked larders if you only know where to look, says Jesper Launder. He leads foraging walks around the area and said: ‘Once you start foraging and get attuned to seeing wild foods, you’ll see them every time you go for a walk. I find it’s impossible to go out without seeing something, but I can resist, so I don’t always come home with bags full of funghi.

‘Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury is a favourite place. It has some wilderness areas where it’s possible to find all sorts of things and there are wild foods even in the more formal areas as well. There is a huge variety of edible plants – salad leaves, cresses, garlic, herbs and lots of different berries.’

Jesper, a herbalist with a passion for medicinal mushrooms, grew up in south Manchester and has been hunting for wild food since he tasted his first wild mushroom as an eight-year-old.

‘As a child my parents would go potty with me,’ he said. ‘We’d go for a walk in the Lake District and I would be lagging behind, walking at foraging pace. I was always an outdoor kid.

‘We spent my summer holidays in a part of France where there was nothing to do, just fields and woods to explore and I got to know the land by spending time chasing butterflies and looking for funghi and I transferred what I learned there back to the place I spent most of my time.’

He now divides his time between running herbal medicine courses and leading wild food forays – in both rural and urban areas. ‘I trained to be a herbalist and that’s my main focus but it’s nice to have the balance between that and the educational stuff with the public. I’m leading the life I want to be leading,’ he said.

‘I was brought up in south Manchester and that was where I got into funghi. Initially I was simply exploring the wild foods I discovered at the parks I was playing in with my friends. Local parks are very good places to find things and I have a good eye for seeing things.

‘I live in Hebden Bridge now, in West Yorkshire, and whenever I’m back around Manchester there are things I find in the parks there that I can’t find in the hills and fields near my home.

‘I had been looking for a funghi called the clustered dome cap for years and not been able to find it. I’d looked in all sorts of remote rural places and quiet woodlands but I eventually found it in Chorlton, and not just a little bit of it either, tens of kilos of it. It’s a pretty versatile beast that’s good in casseroles and risottos.’

As we spoke, Jesper was preparing to head off for a busman’s holiday, hunting for truffles in the South West with his labradoodle, Tig. ‘I’ll be doing some digging and Tig will sniff for truffles. Depending how successful we are, I might run some courses next year,’ he said.

‘One of the nice things about engaging with wild foods is that it connects you with the seasons and the subtle changes that happen month by month and week by week. It gives you a deeper relationship with the local environment and helps you engage with other areas of nature, the plants and the insects, and the complexity of nature becomes apparent.’

Things to look out for

Jesper recommends three things you can keep an eye out for when you go for a walk

Shaggy Ink Cap mushroom

A common inner city species, the Shaggy Ink Cap produces tall white mushrooms with small golden scales on the cap. As they mature the gills dissolve into a black spore slurry with the appearance of ink. These mushrooms are best sliced thinly and fried in butter until crisp, or made into a soup. Once harvested they need to be prepared within a matter of hours before they turn into an inky mess!

The closest lookalike species is the Common Ink Cap, which has a grey cap and more conical appearance than the Shaggy Ink Cap. This species can cause an unpleasant reaction when consumed with alcohol so is to be avoided.

Note: Be very careful with wild mushrooms and seek expert advice before picking and eating any.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn berries lend themselves to a number of easy, tasty recipes. Hawthorn berries make a traditional country wine, producing a light and tasty rosé. A fruity syrup can be made from the berries for use with deserts and as the basis for a sorbet, that has an almost rose-like flavour. My favourite method of using the hawthorn is to make a ketchup from the berries, that brings out the rich colours and fruity flavours of the berries. It is good with stews, casseroles, and cold meats and is equally as good spread in a thick layer on top of a piece of toast.

Sloes

Also known as blackthorn (be aware they have pretty mean thorns!) this relative of the plum can be found in hedgerows and is commonly found in both rural areas and the greener parts of towns and cities. The dark blue berries are best harvested in October and November. They were traditionally harvested after the first frosts (which help to break down the sugars in the fruit). To beat other people and the birds, harvest them early and put your sloes in the freezer for a week before use. Sloes tend to be too sour to adapt to most fruit recipes, however they make an excellent sloe gin or vodka and are worth harvesting for this purpose alone.



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