The treasure of the wild – the Foraging Course Company

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Kerry Bowness’s love of foraging is borne from a lifelong passion for natural history, being outdoors, and gardening. While studying for her degree, she happened across some information regarding the edibility of ornamental plants. This triggered a desire to find out how many more wild plants and mushrooms she knew of were also edible. 

Cue an obsession with discovering more about wild edibles, experimenting with different flavours, and encouraging others to take a different look at what is growing right on their doorsteps. Locavore spoke to Kerry about her love of nature, harvesting sustainably, and the treasure hunt that is foraging.

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

I have a life-long love of nature and being close to it. I was the child with her hands in the muck examining everything she found, and reading book after book about her discoveries. I wavered a little from my path during my teenage years. However, at university, finding out that the dahlia in my student digs had edible tubers was the trigger to reignite my interest in foraging.

I started to find out about other edibles growing wild and in the garden, marrying my natural history and foraging knowledge. I wanted to learn more, so over the years I read lots, and went to talks and workshops run by the likes of (botanist, science writer, and broadcaster) James Wong and (horticulturalist and journalist) Alys Fowler – I have a love of edible ornamentals.

Eventually I started going on foraging courses. I started teaching friends, family, and colleagues, before teaching publicly on a part-time basis. Now, it’s a full-time occupation and I am at the stage where I am ready to start employing other instructors and trainees.

You run foraging walks and wild cookery classes.  What happens on a typical foraging course?

I start by giving people an overview of the legalities of foraging in the UK, safety aspects, the importance of correct identification, and guidance on foraging sustainably and ethically. We then spend around three hours exploring the venue looking for edible plants and mushrooms, as well as poisonous ones.

I explain to people the types of habitats our finds grow in, go through key identification points and how to distinguish edibles from poisonous lookalikes, give advice on how to harvest and what sort of recipes work well for each specimen, and give some information about the folklore and other fascinating facts about our finds.

During the walk, people get to sample wild food stuff in its raw state, as well as a range of samples I bring along with me, such as soups, pestos, tarts, jams, gummies, jellies, syrups, vinegars, pickles, herb salts, cordials, presses, and fruit leathers. Afterwards, I send out an email linked to digital resources to help participants remember some of the information given on the day.

I rarely run cooking courses now, but I do run private courses that finish with a cook-up. On these courses, a small amount of harvesting will be done to prepare a meal at the end of the course, which includes a starter, main and dessert.

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?

I have always liked to work with what I have available, and if you are running a course with a cook-up at the end you have to be good at thinking on your feet when it comes to recipes. Every now and again I will specifically hunt something down for a dish.

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

I get a great sense of connecting with the land and a real appreciation of life cycles, the seasons, natural dependencies, and the environment. Plus, every day is a treasure hunt for me. I see wild food everywhere. In addition, there are some amazing flavours to be found out there.

There are so many wild edibles I rank highly. When it comes to greens, wild garlic is way up there, along with hogweed, ground elder, wood sorrel, and hairy bittercress. For florals, I adore hawthorn blossom, elderflower, and sweet violet. Favourite berries and fruits include elder, bilberry, wild strawberry, and haws. And for mushrooms, I love trooping funnels, field blewits, mousseron, winter chanterelles, giant polypore… and penny buns, of course!

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

Absolutely. There are many benefits to it. It gives people a reason to get outdoors and explore the natural world – that could be their own back garden, a local park, an allotment, or a national park. It’s a great way to practise mindfulness – focusing on the environment, habitat, the identification points, and the uses of foraged finds.

I find that a lot of my regular course participants have started doing something that I do myself – helping nature. This happens in a few ways. I allow all of my lawn to rewild, which involves allowing wildflowers to return, flower and set seed before I even contemplate bringing out a lawnmower. I never use man-made fertilisers, instead I pile it with fallen leaves and mulch anything that is cut. After five years in my current home, I estimate my lawn is now only 40% grass species and it is buzzing with life, full of edibles, and I find new species of plant and fungi every year.

I also plant native trees for harvesting leaves, nuts, and fruits from, as well as to encourage mycorrhizal mushroom species. And I allow my bramble patch to get to a good size – brambles make great hibernating areas for hedgehogs. My borders are full of perennial edible ornamentals, and I allow edible species that would normally end up on most people’s compost heaps – such as chickweed, sow thistle, and hairy bittercress – to grow.

When people on my courses ask what they can do to learn more or find more, I encourage them to do the same. Happily, many of them seem to be doing that, which can only be a good thing for wildlife.

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?

There are bad eggs in every aspect of life. Speaking with my journalist and editor hat on, I know headlines like “foragers help nature by encouraging people to let their dandelions grow” don’t sell papers. Sadly, bad news, shocking news, stories of people doing not-so-nice things, and stories where a finger of blame can be pointed, are what most people want to read. As an experiment, I have just logged on to a large news app. Of the 39 stories listed, two are positive or fun stories – they are the last two stories on the thread.

So when illegal commercial foraging appears to be happening, those “foragers stripping the forest” stories get headlines. I say appears, because despite living in a country in which almost everybody walks around with a camera and video recorder in their pocket, I have never seen any evidence of anyone “in the act”. Although, I am sure it does happen and I have seen images people have taken of what seems to be the aftermath of large scale illegal picking.

Those few give everyone else a bad name. There are some reputable wild ingredient suppliers operating in the UK, and they can tell you exactly where their produce came from. If pubs, restaurants, and supermarkets had to prove the source of their ingredients or produce, illegal commercial foraging would be seriously hindered, if not stopped.

In reality, most foragers are very respectful and care deeply about the environment from which they harvest. It doesn’t benefit a forager to damage their patch, it benefits them to take care of it and protect species in order to grow more abundantly. If everyone suddenly became crazy for wild food, it would mean planting more woodland, allowing more areas to rewild, and reducing the use of pesticides. I can’t see that as being a bad thing. But, stories like that aren’t very sexy!

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?

Yes. Though for me a foraging story on Countryfile always results in spikes of activity on my website.

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

Yes. Especially when I explain that for every plant or mushroom I introduce people to on a course, we have walked past another five or ten, simply because they are too hard for a novice to identify or they just don’t taste very good. I also do private courses for people to discover what edible ornamentals and wild foods they have growing. They are often shocked at what has been growing right under their noses.

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

Go on as many courses in different seasons as you can afford. And, try different instructors – we all have different methods of teaching. Also, read as much as you can and watch as many videos as possible. Read books, read magazines, read websites, read blogs, go to lectures, and find YouTube videos.

Are you secretive about your foraging spots?

No comment!

What are your hopes, and fears, for the future? Both for The Foraging Course Company and the wider food and foraging world?

For The Foraging Course Company, I hope that I can continue to share knowledge about foraged food to more and more people. For the foraging world, I hope that foraging encourages more and more people to discover what the natural world has to offer and to take more care of it as a result of that. My fears are that we are losing so much natural and green space that it will be harder for people to learn about, and find, wild food.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

What’s not to love? I adore sharing my knowledge of wild foods with others and get a real buzz seeing the thrill on people’s faces when they gain that information or experience a new flavour for the first time. I spend loads of time outdoors doing something I absolutely adore and I learn so much more every day.

For more details of courses from the Foraging Course Company, visit their website. Find them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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