Interview: Going (Totally) Wild and the art of foraging

If you were lucky enough to grow up surrounded by nature and wild spaces, you will know what it means to be able to roam freely as a child. Certainly that was my experience growing up, and a frequent supply of food was essential to fuel our long rambles. Consequently, we always had an opportunisitic eye open for anything remotely edible in the fields and hedgerows. This month I asked professional forager, James Wood, about his lifelong love affair with wild plants, developed since he was a child growing up in a country village, and how this led him to develop a professional qualification.

Wild about wild plants

Taking care to identify foraged funghi. Photo Totally Wild.

James Wood has the perfect name for someone who loves to forage in the Great Outdoors. About 14 years ago, James started ‘the foraged book project’ using wild materials for the construction. The paper was made from mushrooms, ink was made from oak galls and paints from root extracts, flowers and pollen. Even the glue was made from seaweed gels. From there he continued to explore and test what can be done with plants foraged in the wild.

James’ love affair with wild plants continued and in time he set up Totally Wild, a group of like-minded, professional foragers (more about studying later). He is on a mission to share his knowledge about wild plants and has worked with the BBC and ITV on Countryfile and Countrywise, as well as independent documentary makers.

Now you’re cooking. Photo Totally Wild.

Is safe foraging specifically about making sure wild foods are safe to eat, or is there more to it such as concern for wildlife and the planet?

While some might see foraging as taking anything, like ‘skip jumping’, Totally Wild is focused on ‘finding, observing and enjoying the wilderness, before beginning to enjoy it for its culinary prowess’. In essence, says James, it is primarily about picking ingredients that weren’t originally planted as a food ingredient.

“As food is something I eat every day, wild produce automatically finds its way into meals.” James Wood, Totally Wild.

Safe foraging takes into account various elements, from identification of wild foods to sustainable living, alongside everything else found within the natural landscapes. All the Totally Wild foragers have completed the L3 Foraging and Wild Food Accreditation* developed by James in liaison with the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation in response to the absence of a formal course within the UK. The qualification incorporates three major units and covers everything from correct identification, toxic lookalikes, edibility, cooking potential to teaching styles, learning styles, land and woodland management, and harvesting techniques.

The … “results of the search indicate that wild fruits and vegetables are nutritionally rich and high in phytochemicals, especially antioxidants and therefore can possibly play a significant and positive role in delivering a healthy and balanced diet.” Science Direct

Is foraging a year-round activity, and what sort of wild foods might you find during the autumn and winter months?

Wild food foraging adventures with Totally Wild.

“In winter there’s less to pick but as long as you know where to look there’s always something to forage,” says James. For instance, Velvet Shank mushrooms grow well through winter, along with watercress, dandelions, burdock roots, three cornered leeks and wild chives (the two latter being part of the genus Allium), salty fingers and salty grapes. “There’s also a good number of seaweeds that can be enjoyed through the winter months, if you can brave the cold sea water.”

Do you have any tips for foraging in cities, and is pollution a factor in this instance?

Wild food is found everywhere and each location is unique. From urban London to relaxing countryside in Cheshire, and the deep woods of Scotland, where there is a bounty of mushrooms, to the rural coastlines of Wales.

Certain plants hold more pollutants than others. “Lime trees (Tilia) are often found lining city streets as they absorb emissions quite effectively, so it’s advisable to avoid these as a source of city food,” James warns. “There are though some obscure wild foods in cities which can make foraging more exciting than the countryside.” Things like wild cherry, stagshorn sumac (which apparently tastes like sherberts) are just a few examples James mentions.

How might new foragers reassure themselves about what to pick?

The wild kitchen. Photo Totally Wild.

The easiest way is to initially head out with a forager. It’s an effective way to pick up the basics, including how to use specialist books on foraging, before delving in a bit deeper. The Totally Wild web site includes identification guides. Of course, finding interesting wild plants is one thing, relocating the same spot later can be more of a challenge. Foragers can share their finds on the Totally Wild map, if they’d like to, although some might prefer to keep mum.

What’s your signature dish when cooking with wild foods?

Foraging in woods. Photo Totally Wild.

“I’ve become completely obsessed with barbequing wild ingredients with little processing.” James’ current favourite is Sea Aster with a little oil, salt and pepper grilled on the bbq for two minutes on each side. The web site features recipes using wild plants and you can also share your own recipes.

Shop wild

L to R: Alexanders Black Seed and wild mushrooms. Photos Totally Wild.

If you would like to try cooking with wild foods but are not yet ready to start foraging for yourself the Totally Wild specialist foragers have curated their favourite fresh wild ingredients. The Wild Veg Box scheme of seasonal wild produce is delivered bi-weekly throughout the UK. Tips for ideas on how to cook with the produce is included. Price from £15 every two weeks, with one week’s free trial available.

Other boxes include a Christmas Wild Booze Box available for pre-order to be shipped on November 20th. Price £30. These are limited in number so get your order in soon.

A selection of signature foraged products are made in-house and according to what’s available seasonally. Preserves, for instance, are produced as a way to reduce any waste from the sale of fresh foods gathered for the restaurant industry. “It’s great fun for us and forces us to think of new ways of utilising wild ingredients, and it’s truly amazing to see them being used at home.

The Forager’s Cookbook countryside edition. A growing set of high quality printed guides to foraging and wild food cooking

Totally Wild foraging courses are available all over the UK. Prices vary but as a example an Introduction to Foraging in Devon starts at £30 per person. A Foraging, Cookery and Wild Food Lunch for Two is £120. Private foraging groups can also be arranged for family or similar groups. Chefs and restaurants are able to register online for professional membership.

*Check the Totally Wild website for news of the Foraging and Wild Food Accreditation which was due for launch to the public in 2020.

If you’d like to see some of the delicious dishes I made with the Wild Veg Box ingredients head on over to @hashtagtravelin on Twitter.

Food has never been such a hot topic as it is now. What we eat, where it comes from and the quality is a significant factor in our health and wellbeing, and that of the planet. This week marks the 75th World Food Day (Friday 16 October). You can join in via Zoom and listen to Special Ambassadors and other keynote speakers, or register for an eclectic programme of events around the world.

As always please check the Foreign travel advice web site for the latest on domestic and international travel guidelines.

Unless otherwise stated, I have no affiliation with the brands mentioned but simply aim to share places and products that have caught my eye. I will always state if a post is sponsored or gifted.

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