Feral foods

As we enter Nuuksio National Park, an hour from Helsinki, a tall, tanned Finn is walking out, basket brimming with golden chanterelles. It’s a good sign. Through tour company Feel the Nature, we’ve also come to raid nature’s pantry.

To that end, my fellow foragers and I push through narrow paths and past fallen spruce, dappled sunlight playing through the leaves. The star-shaped moss is soft and spongy underfoot, a sagging mattress. Our eyes are trained to the ground.

But Summer arrived early this year and so most of the season’s berries have already flamed out. Bilberry (wild blueberry) leaves are thinning, turning russet. Then there’s a shout. Someone has spotted raspberries, bright red against the deep green foliage, unexpectedly sweet and tender.

Though other berries remain mostly elusive, our guide is preternaturally adept at prizing mushrooms out of their hiding places. Chefs favour porcinis, morels and chanterelles, but he collects two varieties, which have no easy translation to English.

Later, at a campsite, he slices, and cooks the mushrooms over an open fire. The fresh air and fragrant wood smoke has made me reckless, so I indulge with more than a cautious nibble. The greenish ones are slippery, with a taste I can only describe as “mossy funk”, while the ones with reddish caps are firm and nutty, a bit like Swiss browns.

Scandinavian folk have always been ahead of the foraging curve, thanks to “everyman’s right”, or the right to roam. First popularised a decade ago by chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, the foraging trend has now crossed the globe.

More recent is the realisation that foraging tours like this one offer travellers a dive deep into hitherto unfamiliar places. Foraging in a foreign landscape connects people with their surroundings on a sensory level, enhances their appreciation of local food, and provides a whole new understanding of a destination.

Go: Feel the Nature runs foraging tours in Nuuksio National Park from July to October; and Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park in Lapland from June to September.

Northern Territory, Australia

Lemony green ants, plump witchetty grubs, long-necked turtles, wild yams, water lilies, bush tomatoes, Kakadu plums, and more. Aboriginal Australians were nomads who hunted and gathered their food; the Northern Territory’s Kakadu region is believed to have the oldest continuous foraging tradition on earth. Being a national park, food foraging by visitors is prohibited. However, several tour companies are sharing their secrets.

On an Animal Tracks safari, visitors head out with a local Aboriginal elder to find foods including palm hearts, bush carrots, and freshwater mussels. Native fruits are also harvested, and often pounded with the seed inside before being eaten, to ensure that all the flesh and rich seed kernel is used. Owner Sean Arnold says harvesting wild food is a way to connect with one’s ancestors and environment. “Foraging in a united group can produce feelings of tribal family and confidence,” he says. “It increases our sense of belonging.”

Karrke also offers small group tours on traditional lands in the Watarrka National Park in the Northern Territory. Its owners started the business to preserve their Luritja and Pertame (Southern Arrernte) language and cultural knowledge and heritage.

Go: Traditionally, people foraged all year in Kakadu, but modern visitors may prefer the cooler months of the mid dry season (June to August). The indigenous food festival, A Taste of Kakadu, runs from 10-19 May 2019, featuring pop-up dinners, cooking demonstrations, traditional bush tucker feasts, guided walks and cultural activities.

London, Dorset and Hampshire, United Kingdom

John Rensten was working as a commercial photographer in London when he took up foraging 20 years ago. “It was a way of keeping myself sane in a stressful city,” he says. His expeditions taught him to view the urban environment with fresh eyes. That scruffy patch of land might support a wild plum tree. That unloved verge across the street? Thick with stinging nettles, perfect for pesto, soup, tea or sweet ale. (Briskly blanching these greens in hot salted water will take away the sting.)

Rensten now enjoys witnessing the same shift in others as they engage in a grown-up “treasure hunt”. Through Forage London, he and other guides lead urban walks in the capital, seashore foraging trips in Dorset, and Hampshire mushroom hunts. He says the urge to gather one’s own sustenance is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. “It’s the way that we’ve behaved for the vast majority of our time on this planet,” he says. “Foraging connects people with a part of themselves that is present but not utilised.”

Concerns about the impact on food sources for wildlife has seen some London parks ban foraging. The emerging debate is not one Rensten is prepared to weigh in on, but he will say that foragers should exercise restraint. Forage London maintains good relationships with the owners of land on which his tours operate, to ensure sufficient supplies for future generations of foragers.

Go: Tours run year round.

New York, USA

As the green lungs of a busy metropolis, New York’s Central Park is a magnet for visitors. It’s also a cornucopia for foragers, says ethnobotanist Leda Meredith, who learned the skill from her Greek great-grandmother who used to scour San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for dandelion greens, miner’s lettuce, and wild mustard. Now Meredith’s tours of Central Park, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, are booked out months in advance.

Meredith says foraging draws people for different reasons. Chefs seeking gourmet ingredients that can’t be store-bought, survivalists who want to live off the grid, and individuals who just want to save a buck have all attended her tours.

As in London, the sight of folks gathering edible wild plants from public parks has drawn the ire of officials. But Meredith’s tours highlight ethical and sustainable harvesting. “Some plants may be endangered in certain locations, often from over harvesting, and should be left alone no matter how delicious they are,” she says. Others are weeds – invasive species that are crowding out native plants and so can be picked freely.

As a forager, there’s always something new to learn. “I’m an expert on wild edible plants and mushrooms in eastern North America and Europe, but when I travel to the tropics I am a complete beginner when it comes to the plants around me,” Meredith says.

Go: Tours run year round.

Stratford, Ontario, Canada

Woodland fields and forests outside of Stratford, in Ontario, Canada, are the hunting and gathering grounds for Puck’s Plenty. Nettles, fiddleheads, wild ginger, trout lilies, garlic mustard and marsh marigolds are plentiful in Spring, while Summer and Autumn bring  “mushrooms, mushrooms and more mushrooms”, says owner Peter Blush. Participants can spend the morning picking and plucking before indulging in a four-course lunch featuring foraged ingredients and prepared by local chefs.

Blush believes in the health benefits of wild foods. Pregnant women are encouraged to consume stinging nettles, for example, because they are packed with Vitamin A, potassium, calcium and iron. Wild leeks are said to help support brain function and maintain optimal blood pressure.

Wild foods also taste better, he claims. “There’s a sweet strain that runs through these plants and mushrooms that’s hard to describe,” Blush says. The pheasant back mushroom, for instance, can be eaten raw, and is like biting into a sweet cucumber. “Then we have cattail hearts that have been described as having the taste of rain – you don’t get that from processed foods,” he adds.

Novice foragers should go out with a seasoned professional in order to avoid not-so-friendly lookalikes. “Many edible plants and certainly mushrooms have poisonous species that grow alongside them or in the same region,” he says. Another caution is to take it slowly, especially with wild plants eaten raw. “Our bodies are used to processed foods and with certain wild edibles it can be a bit of a shock to our system,” Blush adds.

Go: For the most diverse and plentiful harvests, visit in early Spring, or mid Summer through to late Autumn.

Asheville, North Carolina

Alan Muskat reckons there’s no such thing as a bad mushroom. True, there are inedible mushrooms, but that’s hardly the same thing. It’s an important distinction for the founder of No Taste Like Home, who has led “off the eaten path” tours through the Southern Appalachians near Asheville, North Carolina, for the past two decades. All plants have value. And with more than 300 different wild edibles growing in these mountains, it’s not like anyone is going to go hungry.

There are bountiful but ever-changing pickings in the form of persimmons, acorns, amaranth, onion grass, sumac, violets, nettle, black walnut, burdock and chickweed. Then add mushrooms – boletes, black trumpets, chanterelles, leatherback milkcaps, black and yellow morels, turkey tails, reishi, to name a few.

Muskat says wild gathered foods are fresher, more diverse, and more packed with flavour than their garden-variety peers. He attributes the increasing popularity of foraging to disillusionment with the global food system. “Like gravity, coming down to earth is inevitable,” he says. “Sooner than later, we have to get back to nature.”

Go: Foraging can be fun year-round, though the main season runs from March to October. Morels are plentiful in April, while most other mushrooms rear their heads from July to October.


This story was published in The Australian as  Off the Eaten Paths on 22 January 2019.


© 2022 Denise Cullen