Food for Free
On Wednesday a group of strangers met along a stretch of country road to forage together for edible wild plants. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the evening was sunny and I hadn’t been spending much time outside since my knee surgery. My goal was to enjoy a bit of fresh air and maybe learn something new.
There are dozens of wild plants to forage for and some of them have the most amazing flavours. If you know what to look for, good food can be free.
Wild Food Foraging on the Isle of Man
I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the faces in the crowd were unfamiliar – being on a small island of only 80,000 inhabitants you tend to see the same people again and again at events like these. Organised by the Food for Free Isle of Man facebook page, our guide John took us on a short walk along a country lane, and then for those who could (me excluded), a walk up the hills to look for even more wild edibles.
Many of the wild edible plants available this time of year are greens. They can be used in fresh salads, steamed and served like spinach, or blended into pestos and sauces. One edible that was new to me was Navelwort. I know that plant as Wall Pennywort and it’s a common enough plant on the island. It’s just that it never occurred to me to eat it! The circular succulent leaves are crunchy and juicy and I imagine they’d be delicious in a tossed salad with a simple vinaigrette.
The legal rule of thumb when collecting wild edibles is to only take leaves, berries, stems, and mushrooms and only from public places or areas where bushes are overhanging a public place. With the latter, be sensible and don’t pick all of someone’s wild blackberries without asking. When it comes to roots, you should only dig those up from your own land.
Ramsons, also known as Wild Garlic or Ramps are everywhere on the island and while many people on the walk knew the scent of them they didn’t realise they were edible. There’s a stretch of road just past the Fairy Bridge on the way south to the airport that is thick with the scent of garlic this time of year. After the beginners were introduced to these leafy green plants you could see them gathering the greens, stems, and flowers in earnest. I have a bank of them just down the lane from me and I use them to make Wild Garlic Pizza, Springtime Risotto, and even pasta dishes and stir fries.
Other greens that we found were both common sorrel, pictured below, and wood sorrel, the clover looking plant in the top-most image. Both have a tangy flavour that can used in all manner of savoury dishes. It was literally covering the banks of the lane we were walking along and even my friend who had never tried sorrel before was able to tell their flavours apart. The wood sorrel has a more lemony and delicate taste to it while the spear-shaped sorrel leaves were more tart.
One plant that I’m sure must be edible but that we couldn’t identify is pictured with the sorrel below. It seems like it might be in the sage or mint family and if you know what it is I’d love to hear from you!
Other plants we spotted on the short walk were Alexanders, Wild Strawberries, Greater Stitchwort, Dandelions, Primroses, common Hogweed, and Nettles. All of them are easy to identify as a beginner and can be used in all sorts of dishes from Dandelion fritters to steamed Alexanders and tender mixed salads. You can even use primroses and other edible flowers to decorate cakes and desserts. Wild food can easily be mixed with garden vegetables and grains to create complex and unique dishes that will delight everyone at the table.
There’s a certain hesitation in people when it comes to foraged food but if you can get over the idea that edibles should be picked up off a shelf then a new world of flavours awaits. Starting with a beginners walk is a marvelous way to be introduced to the first few plants but going on your own forays is the best way to enrich your knowledge. Please note that while the internet can be an amazing resource, there is a lot of misinformation out there so probably err on the side of caution and invest in a reference book at first.
The main reason for getting a book is to avoid accidental poisoning. There are a lot less dangerous ones than you might think though so don’t let that discourage you from foraging. A few that you should get to know and avoid are Foxglove, Deadly Nightshade, Water Hemlock, and probably avoid anything that looks like it could be related to the carrot.
For such a short walk there were quite a few edibles to be found and quite a few delighted people at the end. I’m still excited about the idea of eating Wall Pennywort and am planning some dishes. Maybe a mixed salad with Wild Garlic vinaigrette, or even Pennywort, Dill, and Tuna sandwiches. There’s really something primeval and exciting about picking food from the wild and bringing it home for the table. And everyone can do it, whether your foraging on a country lane on the Isle of Man or knocking about Central Park in NYC. So take advantage of the weekend ahead and head out for your own foraging excursion!