Foragers – Craig Worrall

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The natural world is a maze.  A complex network of paths, connections, and hidden clearings.  Craig Worrall runs Edible Leeds, where he leads people on guided wild food walks and talks, revealing the abundance and beauty of the ingredients that are available in the native larder.  Locavore caught up with Craig, who told us about his love for nature, the importance of foraging, and how his journey has brought him closer to the centre of the maze, where there is music.

You’re a professional forager and foraging teacher.  What was the path that brought you to this life?

I’ve always had a love for, and affinity with, the natural world. I very much feel, without sounding too esoteric, that I was guided toward foraging by a greater force; a natural calling. I’ve worked many ‘jobs’ in the past but my education work, started in 2007, was a major catalyst that led me to where I am now. I was developing an alternative programme of education based around the natural environment and wildlife alongside my now good friend, Dan Malster. He was a Countryside Ranger with Leeds City Council. I already had a keen interest in wild fungi, and was dabbling with plant-based wild foods. Dan was more knowledgeable, and on one of our sessions he led a short wild food walk. The students were really engaged and blown away, as was I, and that’s where I really got the bug.

We chatted about going into business together, with a focus on ‘bushcraft’. Sadly,  we never ventured forth with our ideas. I was only working a two-day week, and decided to teach myself as much as I could with the aim of setting up a business teaching wild foods. I bought lots of books on wild plants, flowers, and fungi. I spent my time sitting in fields, by streams, in woodlands, observing, touching, smelling, listening, and – when safe to do so – nibbling. Making dishes and preserves for family and friends. I did that for two years before I felt I had the confidence, and a decent repertoire of wild things, to start teaching others.

As Edible Leeds, you run wild food courses as well as wild cookery.  What happens on a typical foraging course?

Yes, I run a variety of wild food themed events. My standard four-hour foraging events consist of introducing participants to the seasonal treats awaiting their discovery. We look at and discuss safe identification techniques, habitats, some medicinal applications, cooking and preserving techniques, and the wider connections with the natural world. I’ve been developing a more sensory approach the past couple of years. As a group, we actively gather a range of wild foods for inclusion in the end of course cook-up. I also take along wild snacks and drinks, and a range of seasonal preserves, for tasting and including in the cook up. Readers can view my website for a more detailed overview of the range of courses I offer.

What is it about wild ingredients that attracts your interest?  And do you have a favourite?

Oh blimey, I envisage this answer being quite lengthy and containing a list… The key things that attract my interest about wild ingredients are their flavours, aromas, seasonality, location, diversity, and versatility. It’s very difficult to single out a specific favourite due to there being so many superb ingredients out there, and believe me there are plenty.

I have, over time, personally ‘graded’ wild ingredients based on their flavour, versatility, abundance, and also the techniques and processes involved. Collecting birch sap, and the making of wine, mead, and syrup from it, is one of my favourite activities in the foraging calendar. It signals the beginning, or at least the approach, of spring. When it comes to choosing favourites, I have to look at all the different Kingdoms; plant, fungi, algae, animal. I’ll try to keep this as short and sweet as possible and apologise to those I leave out of the following list, I love you all.

Some of my favourite wild and tasty plant/tree friends that I always look forward to being reacquainted with each season are; Birch Sap, Alexanders, Wild Garlic, Ground Elder, Nettles, Common Sorrel, Common Hogweed, Few Flowered Leek, Sweet Cicely, Japanese Knotweed, Honeysuckle, Elderflower and Elderberries, Linden Blossom, Bullrush Pollen, Pine Pollen and Flowers, Blackberries, Douglas Fir, Bog Myrtle, Rock Samphire, Cherries, Crab and other Apples, Japanese Quince, Sweet Chestnut, Acorn, Himalayan Honeysuckle Berries, and Bullace.

My favourite marine algae are; Pepper Dulse, Sea Spaghetti, Sugar Kelp, and Velvet Horn (when I can get my hands on it).

My favourite edible fungi are; Hen of the Woods, Horn of Plenty, Chanterelle, Penny Bun or Cep, Honey Fungus, Horse Mushroom, Meadow Waxcap

My favourite fish/shellfish: Mackerel, Mullet, Goose Barnacle, Mussels, Razor Clams/Spoots

My favourite game: Hare, Venison, Duck

How do you go about creating a dish from your foraged ingredients?  Do you have an idea and then search for what you need, or are your ideas formed by your finds?

A lot of my dishes are created on the spur of the moment. Some are mused over and created in my mind while out picking, according to what’s in my basket. Other dishes are more thought-out over a period of time, based on my experience and knowledge of the ingredients. Also according to when certain ingredients will be in season or completing their fermentation or pickling time frames.

There is a bit of a love/hate relationship between foragers and the media, with scare stories popping up annually, often in a paper that is featuring a wild garlic recipe in the same edition.  Why do you think this is?

Haha… only when it comes to the likes of newspapers such as the ‘Daily Fail’! I think it’s fair to say that some articles on foraging are well thought-out, carefully constructed, balanced, and fair. Those articles generally cause no harm nor issue.

What causes issues between foragers and the media (as with any profession and the media) are misinformation and ignorance – deliberate or not. When they’re coupled with a seemingly wanton desire to proliferate cheap-crass-sensationalist-bubblegum-journalism, that makes it all the more contentious. If journalism was done correctly it would promote objective debate and encourage further research and discussion. Sadly, this often isn’t the case. Given that we live in a time where we have access to scientifically sound, unbiased research, there really is no excuse for journalists bypassing this.

Do you think foraging has importance beyond the hunt for a good meal?

Yes, absolutely, but this isn’t necessarily obvious when first starting out. It’s a different experience for everyone. There are bridging similarities in all natural experiences. Here is where I get a bit ‘woo woo’ and esoteric! For me personally, foraging offers so much more than the end result such as a bowl of wild garlic soup (which in itself is great). I didn’t necessarily understand this at first. It requires time to develop and I think it’s harder for the western mindset to access. Maybe we’re just too learned and linear.

Over a successive period of time something inside me has changed, I have changed. I am no longer just an observer.  I feel more deeply connected with the land, its elements, organisms, rhythms, seasons, cycles, messages. Its non-linearity, its innate and primal nature. I feel more than ever that it resides deep inside me, that it always has; I just had to access it, to get intimate with it. To get it inside of me through feeling, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and dancing to its ancient and primal song.

Foraging is a great way to reconnect with the natural world; it is very different to just taking a walk or a cycle ride. It connects you very physically and energetically with the living ecosystem. You have to touch plants to pick them, you don’t just pass by. It’s widely recognised via scientific studies that being out in nature is good for us. The science really isn’t necessary here, but it makes the non-definable, definable. And we like definition, don’t we?

The natural world has a deeper energy and spirit that defies definition; it has evolved, developed, and fine tuned its ‘functionality’ over a period of many millennia. All that has come, gone, and still resides, is all part of the intricate yet simple fabric of its wonder. By foraging we connect with all this; we learn to tread more lightly, be more respectful and take more responsibility. We become more inclined to protect it, see ways to enhance it and work alongside it. I think we need to trust our senses more, but in order to do that we must connect by immersing ourselves in nature. Foraging is the perfect medium for this. Now then, where’s that bowl of soup?

Have you seen an increase in interest in wild food since the advent of people such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall introducing it to a wider audience?

Absolutely. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, John Wright, Ray Mears, Roger Phillips, and Richard Mabey, have been key players over the last 40-plus years in raising awareness and interest regarding wild foods. TV and books are accessible to pretty much anyone. They’ve all, in one way or another, had a big influence on myself and many others. If we, respectfully, put TV, books, and celebrity status to one side, there are many other individuals in the UK who have had a positive impact in raising interest and awareness. We have the likes of Mark Williams (Galloway Wild Foods) and Monica Wilde (Monica Wilde Foraging).

Both have been teaching about wild foods for 30 years or more. They are both very influential in their own right, it’s just that neither of them have had their own tv show nor published books. On top of this, there’s a plethora of creative and inspirational individuals out there, tutor and non-tutor alike, of all ages. With social media platforms aplenty, it’s very easy to access all this exciting content. It can only grow and become more popular.

Are people surprised by the variety and abundance of wild food?

Yes. If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard someone on my course say, ‘I never realised there was so much you could find and eat’, I’d be a rich man. Folk attend their first course in a particular season, therefore they only get a snapshot of the true variety. Once they realise just what else is available throughout the other seasons they book again for another time.

It might be wise to discuss the term ‘abundance’ here. There are many individual species of plant and fungi in the UK, and they vary regarding their overall numbers. If we take wild garlic for example, I would say it’s super abundant. It forms numerous leaves on each individual plant, it grows in mixed and deciduous woodlands, along the banks of rivers, in people’s gardens. You’d really have to go it some in picking terms to have a major impact on it’s prolific status (though this is not in the realms of impossibility).

Then if we look at spignel, a member of the Apiaceae, or carrot family, it is what I would deem rare. At one time it was super abundant, but its use as a nasal snuff, the roots in particular, led to its over-harvesting, and it all but disappeared from the wild. So we can look at the collective number of wild plants in the UK, which is around 1600 species, but we also have to look at each individual species and its respective numbers.

Are you secretive about your foraging spots?

Oh yeah! I think all foragers have their secret places, and I’m pretty sure you do too… I’m secretive about particular foraging locations, especially where fungi are concerned!  I spent a lot of time in all types of weather, covering great distances, to stumble upon and discover some of those special places.

When it comes to plants, I’m less secretive. They’re generally more abundant and widespread, but even then I have specific patches that I only ever go to alone. The more folk I introduce to those locations the more the likelihood of over-picking taking place. This doesn’t mean that I take groups to crap locations, that isn’t my ethic. I want whoever attends my courses to have a great experience. I want to introduce them to the best seasonal range of ingredients that I can and ideally in a very lovely location. In Leeds we have plenty of great green spaces to explore.

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in getting into foraging?

In a nutshell, do it! There are various ways of going about learning. I recommend that anyone with an interest in learning attend a course with a professional and reputable foraging tutor (check the Association of Foragers website for local area instructors). If you prefer to have a go yourself, buy some up-to-date and appropriate field guides.

Explore your doorstep edibles first. Take your time, there’s no rush. Add to your repertoire as is fitting to your style and nature of learning. Ensure that your personal safety is paramount. Learn to identify the toxic families and species too. It’s a whole new world that requires a very different approach to the generally linear world we occupy for most of our existence. There are some plants and fungi that you can only ever eat once! Remember, it’s not necessarily about the end result, it’s about the quality of the journey you are undertaking. Oh yes, and enjoy yourself!

What are your hopes, and fears, for the future?  Both for Edible Leeds and the wider food and foraging world?

My hopes for the future are that we will, as a species, develop a more loving, respectful, harmonious, symbiotic, and understanding relationship and attitude with and toward nature, ourselves, and each other. That we will recognise the importance of wild foods as a viable, nutritious, and abundant food source. That we will increase wild spaces and therefore the wild food sources. I hope that the principles, ethics, philosophies, and practices of permaculture will become more mainstream. That they will be integrated side-by-side with better farming practices and wild food harvesting.

My hopes for Edible Leeds are that it will develop and continue to provide an insight, education, and connection to wild edible foods and the other aspects of nature. And provide me with enough money to support my modest living requirements. World domination is not one of my priorities…

My fears are the opposite of the above. That we will continue in the destruction of all that is natural and beautiful, all for the sake of financial profit and false fortune.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

I do what I do because I love it! I get to meet some lovely people and also get time alone outdoors. It’s fun, interesting, invigorating, nourishing, enlightening, and therapeutic.It really is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it is a huge part of my life. I consider myself very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing.

For the Edible Leeds website, click here.

Find Craig on Twitter here.

Photography by Walter Lewis.