The forager becomes the foraged: we decided to hunt down some answers from John Wright, wild food expert
John Wright is one of the UK’s foremost experts on wild food foraging, whether it is on the seashore or in the countryside. He runs foraging courses and excursions across the country, from Devon to Dunbar, and regularly sells out of spaces months in advance. John is the go-to person for hunting wild mushrooms, edible plants, and shoreline seafood, and has more recently made a name as a prolific home brewer, exploring all kinds of infusions, liqueurs, and mysterious untapped rural recipes. In this capacity he has been writing a fascinating column for The Guardian since 2011, in which he describes his attempts at everything from classics like cider and ginger beer to more obscure concoctions like sea buckthorn fizz, birch sap wine, and beer made from Sugar Puff cereal. John has written four of the River Cottage handbooks – Hedgerow, Mushrooms, Edible Seashore and his most recent addition, Booze, and this June we were fortunate enough to ask him a few questions about his work.
How did you get into foraging? What was the attraction?
Blackberry and cockle picking with my Dad when I was a child. But it was an encounter with the fungi when I was a teenager that began my true love of the living world and the joy of foraging.
Do you have any favourite foraging spots, at home or abroad, you’re willing to share with us?
No. This is a truthful answer but perhaps you would like more. Every forager holds the location and qualities of foraging spots in his or her head. This is a natural ability, essential to our survival in the past, as we are all foragers by nature. I do have favourite spots of course. These I have found through constant searching and they are not to be shared with anyone other than a direct blood descendant. Anyway, why would I spoil it for people? Half of the fun is in finding your own spots.
Do you have any cautionary tales for foragers?
Good heavens, yes! I long ago lost count of the number of people I have met who have poisoned themselves or someone dear to them. Many species of fungi and plant are poisonous, some deadly, and it is all too easy to pick the wrong thing. Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke to two ladies who had been served “Wild Parsley Pakoras” by a “friend”. There is no such thing as wild parsley in this country and the ladies concerned, although they politely ate a couple each, knew this. The “parsley” was hemlock water-dropwort, among the most deadly plants on the planet. Fortunately it was the leaves, not the much “more” deadly root, that they ate, and they survived with only “the best dreams I ever had” to mark their close encounter with death.
What are your top three tips for those venturing into the world of foraging for the first time?
- Have fun. You are not foraging for survival.
- Pick carefully. Do not assume that something that looks tasty will necessarily leave you alive.
- Pick considerately. It is almost impossible to forage “unsustainably” but with a bit of effort you can. Most foraged foods are extremely common and no amount of effort will damage their populations. However some wild foods are more sensitive to picking and it will do your karma no good to trample over wild orchids to reach some blackberries
How often do you cook meals using freshly foraged food at home? Is your family always on board with your recipes?
I think foraged food is a pleasant and fun addition to our diets. I eat something wild three or four times a week, except in the mushroom season when it is five or six.
If you had to pick a favourite from each of your food books – a mushroom, a seashore species, and a hedgerow plant – which would they be, and why?
Wood Blewits. Large, abundant and quite delicious with that old cliché, garlic and cream.
Dulse. I could have said Lobster, but that is too obvious. Dulse is a seaweed and the nearest seaweed to an “ordinary” vegetable. Washed, lightly dusted in flour and deep fried it is the irresistible seaweed equivalent of Pringles – you just have to eat one more. The difference is that it is good for you.
Blackberries. Accessible to all, delicious. Nothing more need be said.
You’ve also written a lot about home brewing – how expensive is it as a hobby? Do you have any tips for first-time home brewers?
Cheap. So very cheap. The equipment can cost a bit, but once you are on your way it costs next to nothing. I make wine for 40p a bottle, and those such as Elderberry, Blackberry, Elderflower Sparkly and Rhubarb are as good as almost anything you can buy in Waitrose. Cider costs nothing at all if you already have the apples and beer – my favourite drink – comes out at between 8p and 25p a pint, depending on how strong and how hoppy it is. My beer is brilliant, by the way. And a tip? Experiment. Try lots of brews, then stick to the ones you like.
On your Guardian blog you write about an impressive list of unusual home-brews, from metheglin to chestnut liqueur and heather beer – which are your favourite and least favourite, and were there any surprising discoveries along the way?
Yes, some of those were done in rather a hurry – but on the whole they were good, and some really good. I suppose Elderberry wine must be among the best – there is nothing that can go wrong unless you try, and it is delicious. The worst one, by quite a long way, was Rowan Wine. It is the only time, when, on taking a sip, I had to rush to the sink to spit it out before I was sick.
Well I would love to write another book for River Cottage and spoke to Hugh about it. Unfortunately my “expertise” has already been stretched to its limits and there is nothing else I can think of to do. However there may be a comprehensive book on foraging one day.
On your website you talk about how you’ve managed to turn several of your hobbies – cabinet making, foraging and home brewing – into full time jobs. Are there any new ventures we can expect from John Wright in the future?
At the moment I am in the final stages of a book on one of my favourite topics - Latin names. It is called “The Naming of the Shrew” (Bloomsbury. 7th November 2014) and I explore the arcane world of biological names. How they are devised, the rules that govern them and the absurd names that have been created such as Apopylus now and, my favourite, Egretta egretioides which means “the Egret that looks like an Egret”. It has been enormous fun to write and, I hope, enormous fun to read. Latin names are naturally funny.
Do you have plans to appear at any other festivals this year? Why are they important events?
I think I will be at the Weymouth Seafood Festival, the Salisbury Festival and at the Wales and West Federation Show (home wines and suchlike) this year. I just love festivals. The River Cottage festivals, of which there are one or two every year, are a particular joy, but I have never attended a festival and come away disappointed. They bring people together with a common interest and information is spread by word of mouth. I have learned so much from the interesting people I have met at these glorious, civilised events.
Which are your favourite food festivals, and why?
Any festival I am invited to. Hint.