Here at the Abinger Cookery School, we love nothing more than creating exciting, seasonal dishes with delicious produce from local vendors.
But the best seasonal produce doesn’t just come from shops and farms. Naturally occurring ingredients are all around us — you just have to know where to look. That’s what foraging is all about: identifying, picking and eating wild, edible plants and fungi — including leaves, fruits, flowers, mushrooms or even seeds.
Foraging is a fascinating hobby and a great way to get outdoors and reconnect with our primal instinct to hunt and gather from our surroundings. So, if you’ve never considered exploring nature for ingredients right on your doorstep, now is the time to give it a go! All you’ll need is a little knowledge and plenty of curiosity…
What can you forage in April?
Spring has finally sprung here in the UK, bringing with it an exciting variety of edible plants to forage.
Where you’ll find these natural delicacies will depend on what you’re looking for. Still, there’s plenty to discover in the local area — especially around Abinger, which sits within easy reach of the stunning Surrey Hills and surrounding countryside.
For example, nutrient-rich spring greens such as wild garlic, three-cornered leek, nettles, hogweed, alexanders, mallow, ground-ivy, garlic mustard, cow parsley and cleavers (more commonly known as sticky weeds) are plentiful in hedges, fields and woodlands during the spring months.
Plus, April is a peak time for foraging flowers such as evening primrose, violets, dead nettle, magnolia, cherry blossom and the flowers of plants like wild garlic and three-cornered leek in gardens, open fields, prairies and trees. Some foragers also enjoy rummaging through shingle beaches and clifftops for wild plants and sea greens like sea kale, salty fingers and sea asparagus.
Hedgerows are often teeming with different plants like cow parsley, garlic mustard flowers and mallow, so these are great places to start exploring. Woodlands are also an excellent source of varied plant life, often rife with wildflowers, nettles and garlic. The possible uses for these fresh (and free!) foraged goods are endless; just step into nature’s allotment and see what you can find!
Where should you start?
Cat, one of our chefs with lots of experience and passion for foraging, suggests that anyone interested in scouring the outdoors for fresh ingredients starts by finding out what’s currently in season. There’s no need to tackle the whole topic of foraging in one go; the beauty of this activity is that you can keep building on your knowledge every year.
‘Wild Food’ by Roger Phillips, a legend in the foraging field, is an excellent pocketbook to keep with you to help identify different plants on the go. ‘The Forager’s Calendar’ by John Wright is also a fantastic seasonal guide you can use to determine what you might be able to find at different times of the year. These resources provide examples of what each plant should look, smell or feel like to help you work out what it is and if it’s safe to consume.
In the interest of safety, it’s good to separate plants you haven’t yet identified from the ones you plan to eat to avoid contaminating your food with a potentially poisonous plant. If in doubt, leave it out!
Foragers recommend carrying gloves for handling plants and scissors to allow you to neatly remove leaves, bulbs and flowers without ripping out or damaging plant roots. It’s good foraging etiquette to leave some of each plant intact to enable it to regenerate and for animals and other foragers to take.
What could you make using foraged ingredients this spring?
Foragers can use spring greens in a variety of seasonal dishes — from peppery dressings to vibrant soups. In April, wild garlic is one of the most versatile plants for beginners to learn to identify. Making fresh garlic pesto is a popular way to use this ingredient, taking just minutes to whizz up with parmesan, lemon juice, pine nuts and oil.
Alternatively, you can blitz garlic leaves with olive oil to make delicious garlic oil for cooking with or finishing dishes; this can keep for months when stored in the fridge. Wild garlic leaves are also a fantastic alternative to spinach, as they wilt similarly. You can even blend them into pasta dough and make bright green sheets for a lovely spring-themed lasagne!
Wildflowers can make another wonderful addition to your meals. They can be enjoyed fresh, pressed into the surface of homemade shortbread to create beautiful biscuits, or crystalised in sugar syrup to decorate cakes and pastries.
When pickled, magnolia, garlic or three-cornered leek buds are like tangy capers and make tasty additions to salads or pasta. You can also infuse flowers in sugar syrup to make flavoured syrups for drinks, cakes and pastries, and nettles or blackcurrant leaves can be dried and steeped for home-brewed tea with various health benefits.
There are countless imaginative ways to use the fruits of your labours — from seasoning ingredients and decorating sweet treats to creating entire meals inspired by the season’s bounty. So, next time you’re on a walk, keep your eyes peeled for nature’s latest offering and see what you can create!
Join us at the cookery school for one of our upcoming cooking courses to practice all the skills and techniques you’ll need to make the most of your foraged ingredients!