It’s a sunny Saturday morning and I’m standing with my wife Becky by a hedgerow as a large bearded man wearing a skirt hands me a bundle of leaves to chew on.
Welcome to Ruthin-based company Original Outdoor’s foraging course which aims to show what is available to eat across the wilds of North Wales.
Each course follows a walk through fields, woodlands and along tracks, with a syllabus built around what is available in that season.
With instruction by professional foragers who are out looking for edible plants every week as part of their work with award-winning food businesses, I couldn’t resist signing us up as a late birthday present for my vegetarian wife.
With two young children at a time when food prices are rising and space for growing food is limited, both of us have been looking for more creative ways to increase our access to fresh, local and native food.
And it seems we’re not the only ones, judging by the other people who join us on our trek around the Ruthin woodland.
“I think it’s because it appeals to different people in different ways,” muses our skirt-wearing guide Richard Prideux, when I ask him about the popularity of foraging.
“For some, it’s all about a deeper connection with the landscape around us. For others, it’s all about what they can add to their table and their cooking.
“Wandering in grasslands, through the woods and along riverbanks, looking for things to eat or use is quite literally what we are built to do as a species. I think it’s easy to tap back into that – even if we don’t realise that is what is going on.
“To be honest, I half-expected the interest in foraging to wane a little – but it just seems to be stronger every year.
“Our ourses are almost always fully booked and we get a lot of requests for private courses and days, plus consultancy and occasional TV show appearances.”
As we stroll through this beautiful part of the world, Richard proves to be a brilliantly entertaining guide.
Full of jokes and quips – he wears the skirt for comfort when he’s bending down to pick plants – the self-proclaimed Brian Blessed-look-a-like points out various bits of vegetation from wild garlic to elderberry flowers and explains the best way to prepare and cook them.
“I always first try to teach people the plants that they are likely to find within a few miles of their front door,” he says.
“Stinging nettles, dandelions, and hawthorn are all fairly common. They’re safe and easy to identify and can be used in different ways.
“That said, the vast majority of people start off with something like blackberries – they’re kind of the foraging gateway drug!”
What quickly becomes clear is that foraging doesn’t have to involve journeying for hours to find untouched ingredients growing in the wild.
It’s a shock to realise edible weeds and plants are right under our noses in our parks, woods and riversides with even something as simple as a blackberry leaf or clover providing flavour and nourishment.
“People are often surprised when I tell them that you can eat something like goosegrass,” says Richard.
“A small percentage of the population has a slight allergy to it, but for the rest it can be used as a green vegetable and the sticky buds can also be used as a coffee substitute if you process them.
“Another are the leaves of the beech tree. When they are young and almost transparent they have this lemony-nutty flavour and can be used like a tiny lettuce leaf.”
As we climb a steep hill into a cooler section of pinewood, Richard shows us the ruins of old hill farms before we pause to discuss one of foraging’s hot topics: fungi.
Mushroom picking has become a controversial issue in foraging circles with some national parks banning picking fungi.
With the appetite for natural ingredients growing, gangs of pickers are looking for the likes of oyster, chanterelle, field, cep and other mushrooms, with little thought for either conservation or safety.
“Poisoning is the most obvious risk involved with foraging although poisoning does not always mean immediate death,” laughs Richard, who warns us to stay away from fungi even if we’re confident about what type it is.
“A lot of plants are emetic and will induce sickness and vomiting, others can burn or be an irritant.
“There are some species, like Arum maculatum, that can look very similar to commonly edible species like wild garlic when they are young, and grow in similar environments.
“If you are quickly gathering handfuls of wild garlic you might end up with more than a few potentially toxic leaves in there with the edible ones.
“For a lot of people, their foraging knowledge only goes as far as what they have been told or shown by others.
“If that person didn’t also show them a few of the commonly found toxic or harmful plants, they may not be aware of the danger they are.
“Sadly there is also a lot of incorrect or misleading information online too so it is always worth checking the identification against more than one source before you put it in your mouth.”
Richard is also keen to stress the importance of not picking too much of one species in one place.
He even gives us a lecture on the danger of carrying knives when one sets off for a walk in the country.
“If you are carrying a knife or bladed item in the UK, no matter what the style or length, you must be aware of the rules and laws around the use and carry of those items,” says Richard as we come to the end of our walk.
“More importantly, you should also be aware of how your behaviour and actions could be seen by another person.
“You know that you are a safe, responsible person who is a student of wilderness skills and want to try out your new knife and axe – but has the person walking their dog just seen a threatening-looking scruffy person heading into the woods with camouflage gear and a Rambo-knife?”
Richard’s foraging course has been a great way to spend the morning.
“Original Outdoors started off in 2003 and, for the first few years I was working almost exclusively as a freelance instructor for other people, on everything from National Three Peaks challenges to Duke of Edinburgh weekends,” Richard explains as we prepare to say goodbye.
“Once we started putting together our own courses, I wanted foraging and wild food to be at the forefront.
“It was a big part of my childhood and I wanted to share that with other people, and the demand for those kind of courses has been huge.”
My wife and I return to our car laden down with bundles of vegetation and a head which is bursting with ideas about our next appointment with cooking our bounty.
See full story in the Free Press