Wild Food: Foraging on Cowdray Estate

While man has foraged for food since time began, in the mid 20th century before pre-commerical snacks and fast food had been invented, it was also a given that you searched the hedgerows for juicy autumn blackberries, elderberries, hazlenuts, windfall apples and plums. During my childhood eating nose to tail, and field to plate, was the everyday, rather than the trend. Food tastes so good when you’ve grown it or foraged for it.

It’s clear that we have become far removed from our food, how it’s grown and raised or, more frequently, how it’s been ‘produced’ in a factory. If we can’t find a product in the supermarket it seems like a catastrophe. Recent headlines about a ‘shortage’ of CO2 to produce fizzy drinks and package fresh foods highlights the ludicrous lengths to which the industry has led us.

Tasty wild flavourings. L to R: Water Mint; Wild Yarrow.

There’s something so satisfying about picking your own fruits, nuts and vegetables from the ground or the vine. While I have stopped growing at home at the moment, I’m shopping more and more at farm shops and small, independent producers for fresh, seasonal produce, food that doesn’t come in a plastic bag (and no CO2).

Forest to Fork

Wild marjoram-like plant.

This week I joined George Linklater, forager at Cowdray, and a group of like-minded hopeful foragers to see what we could find on the estate. Every forage location reveals different treasures and this one turned out to be mainly herbs and leaves, but what a wide range of goodies. Some of these were plants I recognise but had no idea that they were edible.

The Cowdray estate covers over 16,000 acres with many heritage trees. Connecting with nature is a blessing and walking the landscape is part and parcel with foraging. If you’re a regular Hashtagtravelling.com reader, you’ll remember that this summer I spent a morning forest bathing with Helena Skoog at another heritage site, St Anne’s Hill. The published piece Discover the benefits of forest bathing can be read here if you’re interested.

Queen Elizabeth I is said to have stood beneath a magnificent oak tree at Cowdray with her bow at the ready on a royal hunt. These magnificent oaks live for up to 1,000 years. This one is the third largest English sessile oak recorded in the UK. Over the centuries the trees hollow out from the inside and spread in width to keep their stability, until eventually they fall into decline. This one has possibly another 100 years to go, that’s more than most of us hope to live which I find incredible.

Expert forager, George Linklater, discovers a mushroom in an old oak tree on the Cowdray estate.

In another oak tree, George harvested a large fungi. Desperately trying to make notes as we foraged, while still enjoying the experience, was a challenge and I forget the name. I do though recall how good it tasted. A marbled texture resulted in a deliciously earthy, beefy flavour.

Wild mushroom with a marbled effect tasted earthy with a beefy texture. Don’t try this at home without checking your sources first!

Pine has become mostly known for cleaning products but in fact you can eat much of the tree including the pine nuts and needles. Christmas tree pine needles have an intense citrus flavour, and toasted fern seeds are good for flavouring dishes.

L to R: Rowan berries good for making a jelly; the tip of a pine branch proved very tasty.

Sweet plants

Wild plants are higher in the beneficial polyphenols needed for good health, compared to plants grown commercially in increasingly depleted soil. George is a mine of information. I learned that in tall plants with single stems, the tips are the generally the youngest and sweetest. With bushier plants that grow low to the ground the sweetest parts are in the roots.

The jagged, toothed-shaped leaves of the dandelion, hence the name in French ‘dent de lion’, is good for salads. Nettles need to be cooked – even a brief dip in hot water for salads – to remove their sting. Use young leaves to make soup or use in pesto. Edible seeds, including fern seeds, are good for seasoning and making teas, or even beer.

L to R: Forager, George Linklater, discovering an edible plant; a tiny edible purple mushroom.

When George handed me an oxeye daisy to try I had some reservations. Nonetheless, in for a penny and all that. When I popped it into my mouth I was surprised at the mix of flavours and textures; slightly spicy, nutty, while also similar to lettuce or spinach.

L to R: an oxeye daisy; Wild purslane.

The wild purslane we tried tasted slightly salty and and spicy, think watercress here, and is perfect used in soups, salads and pestos.

L to R: A five-bar gate in the Cowdray countryside; Mistletoe is not edible but these low growing tree plants are the perfect height to harvest a few sprigs for Christmas decoration.

The session came to an end all too soon. The foraging walks at Cowdray are new and on reflection it would have been good to have had some produce to take home – there wasn’t time to pick more than a leaf or two. At another foraging workshop elsewhere we ended with a foraged meal together which included soups with pesto, salads, herby cheese and more. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal and had fun, as well as enjoying the beautiful Cowdray countryside and fresh air.

Cowdray have plans for further foraging workshops so check the web site for updates on their programme. www.cowdray.co.uk. On Instagram follow Cowdray @cowdrayestate and George Linklater @wildfoodforager

The small print

There are rules to foraging. It should be obvious that any wild foods need to be sourced well away from road pollution, and free of any pesticides or herbicides. Never take more than you need and avoid damaging the plant or its environment. Foraging on any public land is allowed – in fact it’s our right – of up to 30% of a source – this includes the whole plant, so if you’re gathering leaves only, that factors in.

Read my interview with James Woods of Totally Wild UK for more tips on foraging year-round. Continue…

Disclaimer. It goes without saying that all of the the plants and funghi mentioned in this post were sourced and tasted with the aid of an expert. Please don’t take this an endorsement or guide as to what to eat in the wild. Find a good guide, or maybe book on one of George’s courses at Cowdray, to begin discovering nature’s bounty for yourself.

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