People have been foraging in the wild for centuries. Whether for mushrooms, nettles, flowers or berries, the British hedgerows, forests, streams and countryside pathways have always held more than a few dinners for those who persevere. Produce Business UK talks to wild vegetable forager to the stars, Yun Hider, about how wild will always be on trend when it comes to good restaurateurs, and where the future of foraging lies
Just 20 years ago, wild vegetable foraging on a commercial scale was so rare it was almost mythical. Then it was a case of the odd countryside character appearing at a chef’s door with a bag full of wild garlic and disappearing into the woodland, never to be seen again, or at least not with any consistency. Foragers were sometimes as changeable as the product and they certainly weren’t providing an offer a chef could plan menus by.
But times have changed. In the constant mission to innovate and excite our palates, chefs are looking for rare and interesting morsels to brighten their dishes, whether totally new to our taste buds or a revived Victorian garden favourite. And there are people willing to dedicate their lives to procuring such ingredients.
Romancing the wild
Cue our interviewee, forager Yun Hider. Owner of the Wild Food Centre in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Hider has been commercially foraging for the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Richard Corrigan, Marcus Wareing, and Tom Aikens for the last 20 years and took the “right place, right time” mentality of random foragers to turn it into a business. As he tells his walking-tour parties, “within 100 metres of wherever you are in whatever county, you will see what we are looking for; whether it’s dandelion leaves, black hawthorn, nettles, rosehips or hairy bittercress”.
And if walking tours and supplying some of the best restaurants in London were not enough, Hider also gives lectures at Kew Gardens and runs private foraging escapes for both chefs and the public, which can involve anything from collecting shellfish on beaches to camping out in the forest, cooking your foraged food on a campfire. His main concern, however, is the “couple of good handfuls” of chefs he serves 52 days a year, with two main deliveries going to London a week, as well as additional top-ups, where needed.
“We work with the chefs, find out what they are cooking, and sometimes advise,” explains Hider, who gets his love for plants from his late mother – one of the first hydroponic horticulturalists, paradoxically with a penchant for cooking dandelions and nettles from the garden. “Chefs usually know what they want, whether it’s sea beet, purslane or rock lettuce. I will check in [with chefs] at the beginning of the week, take the order and then pick to order, making sure they get what they want.”
Hider felt that this was the most important thing: to offer stability and a personal service for such delicate and perishable foraged bits and bobs, when historically using foragers was mostly unrealistic. This outlook, although gallant, makes life a little risky sometimes.
“Foraging in the wild comes with challenges,” says Hider, who now has a team of four foragers working with him, after starting out alone, and sometimes delivering the product to London personally.
“We have to deal with the rain, wind and snow, and as we start to lose the light, it’s a head-torch job. In the winter, you can only really pick wood sorrel for 20 minutes before your hands start to freeze. We always manage to pull it off, but I will say [to the chefs] ‘next time it will be more expensive because of the difficulties and the length of time it takes’.”
Reading the landscape
Much like the traditional business world, foraging in the great outdoors is all about networking and knowing your landscape. When Hider first started foraging he identified 110 different edible plants and mushrooms to seek out. He then double-checked with various experts to make sure he was on the right route, learning about product-rich areas along the way.
“I am still learning about new plants now,” he admits. “You have to be very careful. Mushrooms are the worst and getting the wrong mushroom is not worth it, so you really have to be sure and keep on researching and checking your facts. Being 99% certain isn’t good enough and even with something as simple as nettles, there are so many plants that look similar, but aren’t edible.”
Hider believes in “reading the landscape”, which he does over a variety of areas in Pembrokeshire, including three estuaries and a mountain range. “It’s a no-brainer to me,” he states, adding that he has worked with foodservice wholesalers Mash and Oakleaf European and will travel to a chef’s home turf to investigate the undergrowth with them.
“You can see where plants grow from a map of the landscape. You literally get an Ordnance Survey map and look for the blue and green patches. To forage successfully, you have to track the springs and streams, where you’ll find all sorts, like wood sorrel. Then you go higher for the mountain plants such as bilberries, and in shady valleys you’ll find hairy bittercress.”
Hider is a clear believer in nature and making the most of it; cooking with foraged plants himself and making it a priority to visit any new chefs who start at the restaurants he works with. His relationship with each chef is as important as his understanding of the landscape in which he works. “Foraged fruit and vegetables are a fantastic addition to any menu,” he says. “And if you are lucky to get it, it will challenge the dish. Chefs are artists and when you go off-piste as an artist it usually ends up with great creations.”
Foraging for the future
Mulling over the years he has worked as a forager, it’s the commercialisation of the pursuit that raises the most questions or worries for Hider.
“If you are sustainable in both looking after your customers and the landscape, you don’t make millions as a forager,” shares Hider, who supplements his income by working as a tree surgeon some of the time.
“It’s not like mushrooms, where you can make big money from one hit, especially if you’re in truffles. It’s very gradual with vegetable foraging and if you pick on a large scale, it can be damaging to the countryside. When I pick, I pick thinking of other people picking and look after the bush so we can all pick again. You can get foragers working with wholesalers that offer a ridiculous amount of, say, sea veg, because they have seen a whole beach full of it. Then they rake the beach and the plant won’t return for eight years. If the wholesaler knew what was going on, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to cancel out a plant for that amount of time, but the foragers are inexperienced and in it for quick money.”
Hider believes a license should be introduced to forage commercially in the UK. “It’s a precious landscape and at the moment you can’t pick roots of certain plants according to the countryside council, but there needs to be more done,” says Hider, who is in talks with Kew Gardens to find out what is the correct procedure to make this happen. “I am confident I am not harming the environment, but I’m not sure how many others can say the same.”
A short wild vegetable lowdown
Found in woodland, wild garlic is a leafy allium that tastes somewhere in between chives and garlic and has a while edible flower. It’s a favourite spring morsel with chefs and it’s popularity is getting greater each year.
The dark-green leaves of common stinging nettles have featured in cooking for centuries. They are used in soups and stews, mostly, as well as tea. Most importantly, they must be blanched before eating to remove the sting.
Regarded as a weed by many gardeners, hairy bittercress is a member of the mustard family that grows mainly in pathways and by streams. It has white flowers and pinnate leaves, is used like a herb and has a peppery taste.
From the leaves to the flowers, dandelions are completely edible. Nutritious and brassica-like in taste, dandelions are mostly used in salads and stocks.
Growing either as part of the hedgerows or existing as trees in the wild, hawthorn bushes produce hard light-red berries that can be cooked and make good jam, as they are high in pectin.
Found in moorland and woods from July to September, bilberries are black berry fruits that grow on bushes. They are used in pies, desserts, and stocks, and most often served with game.
With 20 times more Vitamin C than oranges, rosehips are the superfood of the undergrowth and are described as fruity and spicy, much like cranberries. They are firm, red to orange and the size of a blueberry. Rosehips can be eaten raw as well as included in sauces, jams and chutneys.
A wild green found on the foreshore or sea defences, this plant has a purple pattern on its leaves and is available year-round in the UK.
Flowering pale blue flowers from April to May, this lettuce-look-alike is found on rock crevices and cliffs. It’s used in salads.
Sour-tasting and lemony, this leafy green clover-like plant grows in the shade and is a favourite in French cookery.
Another ‘weed’ packed full of nutrients, purslane has fleshy leaves and an unlikely source of omega 3 acids. It has a crunchy texture and a lemon-like taste.