In the past few years, foraging food has become a growing trend among food lovers and those who are looking to reduce their mass-market consumption whilst saving money. Autumn and summer may generally be the seasons most commonly associated with nature’s bounty, but in the UK, and particularly in countryside areas such as Dorset, produce remains to be found even in the depths of winter. As the time of year when many of us aim to maintain a more healthy and sustainable lifestyle, the New Year is the perfect time to try out foraging to create seasonal, locally-sourced food right from your doorstep. Whether you live in the area or are enjoying a stay in a holiday cottage in Dorset, here are some top tips for foraging your Sunday lunch ingredients in Dorset, from ‘free food’ experts.
What to forage in Dorset
Matt Tutt from Foraged Foods reassures us, “If you're brave enough to get outside during the cold months of December, January and February, there are fortunately a few wild treats ready to reward your efforts.” If you’re looking for inspiration on what to search for in the Dorset area, here are some of his top recommended foraged finds in Dorset, plus some of our favourites, too.
Matt explains, “A trip to the coast will give you a few opportunities to forage during the winter months, probably the best being mussels (Mytilus edulis). You'd be pushed to pay a high price for this from a restaurant, but it's readily available on the coast for free too. They're best during the winter months (the old saying is avoid any month without an R in it), and they're also safest at this time of year too.” As Dorset forager, John Wright, tells the Dorset Echo, Chesil Beach is one of the most magnificent areas in the country for foraging many seafood items, including mussels.
Matt says, “Mussels are delicious steamed in some white wine with some chopped garlic and finished with lemon juice - simple but delicious.” To make the dish even more natural and local, substitute shop-bought varieties with some wild garlic from the Purbeck Ridge, just above Corfe Castle, which Will Newitt from Down to Earth Bushcraft describes as “a green ocean billowing through the woodland as far as the eye could see”. Simply chop up the leaves and add to your mussels and lemon juice. It might not be your classic roast side dish, but these sumptuous mussels make the perfect starter for a sophisticated Sunday lunch.
Top tip: always check the Environment Agency’s website before picking mussels to check that the water is clean in the area you’re foraging in. Gather only shiny, unbroken and firmly closed specimens – those of a middling size are the best for flavour.
Matt says that his other favourite, very reliable food to forage during winter are wild mushrooms. He explains: “The fungi of choice this time of year is a Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum), which is pale yellow in colour, and is covered with tiny, very soft spines on its underside (hence the Hedgehog name). They usually grow in a curved-line, so if you find one, then you'll likely find many more! These are delicious fried with garlic and butter, and I love frying them in a bit of chopped-up bacon (not foraged, sadly), and then finished with a few teaspoons of cream.” To add a more wintry spin, why not add in some Brussel sprouts or kale? The flavour of these mushrooms with salty bacon and cream complements these leafy greens perfectly, making them delicious even to those usually reluctant to eat their greens – perfect for January healthy eating resolutions!
If you struggle to find Hedgehog mushrooms, Matt suggests to check fallen oak and beech trees, as you should be able to find some tasty Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus). He says, “These are one of the more common mushrooms, and are quite hard to confuse with other varieties. It's always best bringing an expert with you, or at least bring a good mushroom ID book.” Oyster mushrooms can be used in countless dishes. An oyster mushroom sauce with blue cheese is a fantastic accompaniment to beef, and you could also try making some fantastic oyster mushroom stuffing for your chicken. Or, for vegetarians, find some large oyster mushrooms and stuff them with brie, garlic, spring onions and parsley for a hearty alternative to the roast meat or nut roast.
Top tip: remember to check with local forestry commissions to find out about any local mushroom picking bans, and always cut fungi from the stem, rather than pulling them out of the ground, so that they can regenerate. Above all, always carry a guide so you avoid poisonous varieties.
There are also plenty of greens to be foraged around the Dorset area. As Hedgerow Harvest explains you can easily find herbs such as sea beet leaves in fields near Portland. These greens are a close relative of spinach, and grow in low belts along pebbly foreshores. Sea beet can either be steamed for five minutes and eaten with butter and black pepper, or made into a delicious fresh soup as the perfect light starter – which Hedgerow Harvest describes as “rich, velvety and homey, like swallowing a big bowl of contentment.”
Watercress, which can be found near streams and rivers, makes for a classic salad ingredient for the newly health-conscious, whereas pine – easy to find in any Dorset wooded area, even when the rest is covered in snow – can simply be added to boiled water for a fragrant and refreshing tea. Besides these, you can also find wood sorrel and many other nutritious greens. If you're lucky enough to find watercress growing in the wild, treat it with caution - in areas where cows and sheep live it plays host to liver flukes and should only be consumed after either cooking to kill the parasites or the most scrupulous and thorough washing.
Top tip: make sure you consult a guide book or expert when foraging greens, because the edible and inedible varieties can look similar – cow parsley, for example, is brilliant in a salad, but should not be mistaken for the poisonous hemlock.
Dandelions and rowan berries
Down to Earth Bushcraft recommends several berries and flowers as the optimum foraged foods in Dorset, but throughout the winter months, dandelions are a brilliant choice. To cook with this common flower, collect the older roots. After cleaning, these can then be dry roasted and ground as a fantastic coffee alternative if you’re planning to detox after a few days of over-indulgence. However, probably the most popular way to use foraged dandelion is to make a revitalising soft drink. Nature’s Nurture Blog suggests creating a sweet dandelion syrup by covering the petals with water and boiling for just a minute, before leaving them overnight. Finally, strain the liquid, add a little sugar and lemon, and heat to thicken. Added to tonic water or other concoctions, this makes for a delicious soft drink or cocktail.
The autumn and winter months are brilliant for foraging berries, from blackberries to hawthorn berries and even rowan berries. Richard Mabey, author of the 1972 foragers’ bible, Food For Free, told the Dorset Echo: “Rowan berries are out at the moment; they’re bright orange berries and they’re very good for making into a sharp jelly to go with meats. There are also any number of damsons and bullaces which grow in hedgerows and you can use them in everything from cooking like you do with a cultivated plum, but they tend to be sharper and good for making Middle Eastern dishes with.” From crumbles to garnishes, there are endless ways you could incorporate berries into your Sunday lunch and dessert.
Top tip: ensure you’re foraging flowers and berries in the right places – avoid areas that might have been sprayed with pesticides, or hedgerows near roads which could be polluted.
As Matt says, sloes (Prunus spinosa) are another reliable food that can be foraged from the hedgerows around Dorset during late autumn and early winter. These taste better once the frost has been on them, and one very simple way of using them is to simply prick them with a fork and drop into a bottle of vodka, or gin, before leaving aside for a few weeks.” Sloe berries can be found on blackthorn trees, which populate the Purbeck cliff tops for many miles.
Matt suggests, “Sloe-flavoured gin is always a nice drink to warm you up during winter.” If you’re not taking on dry January, why not celebrate the beginning of 2017 by sharing this unique beverage with friends? Check out the recipe below to make your very own homemade sloe gin.
Top tip: wear gloves when picking sloe berries, because the plants feature many large thorns which could scratch the skin. And, of course, beware of the large stones at the centre of each berry!
Foraged treats for the Christmas season
With all of the mouth-watering ingredients you’ve foraged from the Dorset countryside, there are many sweet and savoury dishes that can be cooked up during winter. Here are a couple of recommended recipes to share with family and friends this year…
Andy Bond from the Woodland Trust emphasises the many uses of sloe, from sloe and apple cheese – the perfect unique cheese board addition – to the classic sloe gin. The Woodland Trust recommends this delicious slow gin recipe as a reward after foraging in November and December. This one is best to make ahead of time – perhaps even ready for next autumn!
1 litre bottle of gin
450g sloe berries
225g caster sugar
1 bottle with a screw cap
1 large sterilised jar
- Prick the sloes all over and place them in a sterilised jar.
- Add the sugar and gin, seal the jar tightly and shake well.
- Store the jar in a cool, dark place and shake well every other day for a week.
- After a week, you need only shake it once a week for two months.
After a few weeks, the liquid should now be dark red and ready for drinking. Simply toast and enjoy!
Planning ahead: 100% foraged wild food celebration Christmas pudding
It’s never too early to get prepared for the next festive season. Fergus Drennan, wild food experimentalist and educator from Fergus the Forager, suggests that, “By collecting a few dried fruit or nuts throughout the year, it’s possible to incorporate them into a homemade Christmas pudding.” However, while a couple of berries can be added to a traditional recipe, he takes it one step further, asking: “What would happen if you decided to forage all the ingredients?” If you fancy a more challenging recipe to begin making ready for next Christmas, here's his answer!
Ingredients and when to gather them:
100g chestnuts (October)
80g fresh hawthorn berries (October)
100g dried bilberries (late August)
150g dried, deseeded fully-ripened dark skinned grapes (September) 10 dried apple rings (October)
100g dried stoned plum or sweet cherry plum halves (August)
60g dried Physalis halves (Chinese lantern fruit) (September)
50g dried Himalayan honeysuckle berries
3 fl oz concentrated apple syrup – from low acidity apples (October)
3 fl oz birch sap syrup (March)
2 fl oz rosehip syrup
4 medium-sized dried fig quarters, from fully ripened figs (July-September)
100g dried stoned maximally ripe and sweet wild cherries (August)
50g deseeded rosehip halves boiled in apple juice (September)
50g dried fuchsia berry halves (September or later)
10g staghorn sumac berry powder (late August)
4 large bletted medlars (November)
10 finely chopped walnuts (October)
10 finely chopped hazelnuts (late September)
1 cup homemade cider (October)
1 cup apple juice (October)
1tspn dried Wood Avens roots (September)
½ cup triple-distilled Physalis fruit and blackberry infused moonshine (October)
2 tbspn walnut sherry
5oz badger suet (November) - or vegetable suet if you think this somewhat gross
4oz breadcrumbs - from Reedmace (January) and fallow-field wheat (August) bread
2oz powdered Great Plantain seeds (September)
2 beaten wild duck eggs (June) – deep freeze for later use
- When the individual fruit come into season (except for the medlars and hawthorn berries), halve or quarter them, remove seeds, hairs and stones where necessary, and slow dry on wire racks in an airing cupboard or warm place. For the rosehips, chop finely and boil in a cup of apple juice for five minutes before straining.
- When you’ve collected and dried all the other fruit, roughly mince them all in a food processor, return to a bowl and set aside.
- Score the chestnut shells with a sharp knife, place in a roasting tray and bake for 20-30 minutes in a hot oven (200°C); once cool, remove the shells and chop half the chestnuts very finely.
- Boil the hawthorns for 10 minutes in the apple juice, strain and press pulp through a sieve.
- Into a food processor place the remaining whole chestnuts, hawthorn and extracted medlar pulp, apple syrup, birch sap syrup, cider and moonshine. Blend to a smooth paste.
- In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine this paste with the dried fruit, the chopped walnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts, beaten eggs, suet and breadcrumbs.
- Lightly press the mixture into a large greased pudding bowl or divide between two smaller ones.
- Cut out a circle of baking parchment somewhat larger than the top of the bowl, placing it together with a similarly sized piece of aluminium foil over the top of each basin, fold over the edges and tie securely with string.
- Invert a saucer and put on the base of a pan. Place the bowl on top and pour in boiling water to come a third of the way up the sides of the bowls.
- Cover with a lid and steam for 5-6 hours for single large puddings and 4-5 hours for smaller ones. Remember to keep the water topped up. Set aside for Christmas, steaming for 2 hours before serving.