Muddy meets – Foraged by Fern
Eyeing up the hedgerows thinking 'I wonder if I can eat that?' Foraging has become something of a foodie trend. Muddy caught up with Sussex foraging expert Fern Freud to get the lowdown on all things wild food.
Lockdown’s brought out my inner earth mother (if I’m honest, she wasn’t exactly hidden) and while growing my own food in my garden is fun, I’ve also been keen to discover more about the food growing in hedgerows, woods, meadows and along footpaths all around me. However I’m a bit scared about just shoving random berries and leaves in my mouth (it’s not just me who thinks RED IS BAD, right?) but luckily that’s where Fern Freud, aka Foraged By Fern, comes in.
Fern runs one-to-ones and foraging courses here in Sussex, and her Instagram feed is a treasure trove of facts, recipes, knowledge and wisdom, all delivered with tangible passion and enthusiasm.
Fern fell in love with foraging as a child, when her father became interested in mushrooms. Fortunately she’s developed a slightly more cautious approach than her dad, who she says had the odd very unfortunate stomach-ache due to his experiments and who she had to ban from her own foraging courses after he enthusiastically urged participants to ‘just try it’! while they were out identifying various wild foods and medicinal plants.
We caught up at Cissbury Ring for a forage and a chat, accompanied by a homemade brunch of elderflower and wild strawberry meringues, elderflower Turkish Delight and elderflower champagne. It’s a tough life at Muddy, but somebody’s got to do it.
What’s in season now, Fern?
We’ve had wild garlic and elderflower, and at this time of year wild strawberries are great. Then towards the end of the summer there’s meadowsweet, which is a tall plant with leaves that look like strawberry leaves, and a tuft of fluffy white flowers that reach upwards. There’s a saying that if you’re sad that you missed elderflower season it’s OK because you’ll have meadowsweet. It’s got a lovely floral fragrance and a bit of an antiseptic smell because of the medicinal properties of the leaves. Then coming into autumn we”ll have hawthorn, rosehips, crabapples, mushrooms, hazelnuts and beech nuts.
Beech nuts – can you really eat them?
I tend to dry roast them and have them in salads. I also love making hazelnut chocolate spread and I’ve done that with hazelnuts and beechnuts before. It’s a slightly different consistency, a bit more powdery and cakey. You can also make native or rustic flours for baking. If you have a lot of beech and hazelnuts, grind them all up to make a native flour and then you can make pancakes or bread. When you’ve made a whole dish that hasn’t involved anything other than what you’ve picked, it’s an amazing feeling.
Every year I make a hedgerow jam, with big handfuls of hawthorns, sloes, blackberries and whatever else is out. I’ve seen lots of people using the pulp of the jam to make fruit winders. I’d like to try that this year.
Everybody knows about blackberries but why do you think we don’t realise we can eat so many more wild food?
Right up until Victorian times rural people would have used foraging to supplement their food. But it became synonymous with being poor and so people didn’t want to do it any more. People are now only just rediscovering it. It’s become much more visible through social media too.
There’s also the element of risk. We live in a risk-averse society and it’s not always obvious that taking risks has positive benefits. Why would I go and get blackberries off a hedge if I can just buy them from Tesco? You might not know about the psychological benefits.
How can people forage safely?
You shouldn’t be eating anything unless you are 100% sure, the way you’re 100% sure when you look at a daisy or a blackberry, because you’ve already formed a relationship with that plant. The aim foraging isn’t to eat loads of yummy food, it’s to establish a relationship with plants. Going on a course is a great idea, there’s so many all over England. It’s fine to self-teach but be really patient. Nothing is worth the risk of being poisoned! It’s really important to know which plants have poisonous lookalikes – with wild garlic you’re pretty safe, but cow parsley and hemlock are very hard to tell apart.
What about using herbs and plants for health?
Summer is a low time for wild food, but it’s a good time for collecting herbal medicines. Yarrow is one of the most powerful healing herbs native to the UK. The Latin name is Achillea millefoluim – for the Greek warrior Achilles who was told by his mentor that with the use of yarrow he would be able to keep his army strong forever and they’d go on to win all of their battles. That’s because it’s a wound-stauncher. You would rip it up to get all the oils out and pack it into a wound and it has antibacterial properties, so it draws out any of the bacteria and speeds up the healing process.
There are so many old folk tales that help you learn about plants. Yarrow is also good for regulating hormones so modern herbalists prescribe it for period pains and issues relating to menopause.
What other plants can you find here on the South Downs?
We are on chalk here so there are a lot of wildflowers and herbs. Lots of ground ivy and yarrow, berries and gorse – it’s a great place to come.
OK last one – what would you do with ground ivy?
Ground ivy is a member of the mint family and it has so many common names. It’s called Creepy Charlie, Jill Over Ground, Jim Over The Hill. When you have loads of common names it’s a good indicator it would have been a really widely-used plant before the scientific revolution when plants were categorised. It will have been used for pot herbs or fresh to flavour salads and breads, and also it was used to clarify beer before the Romans brought hops over – so another name for it is Ale Hoof. I really like it with anything Italian, it goes well with cheese and tomato, really nice on bruschetta.
Tell us about your courses and one-to-ones?
I’ve been running one-to-ones for three years now and they’re really popular. People love the group courses too because you get this real sense of community.
I think one of the reasons people love foraging is because it’s literally in our DNA to love it! We’re made for it. If we didn’t love it we wouldn’t have survived until now. And that’s why as kids we love playing finding games. A big part of foraging is that you do it with a group, you walk around and learn together, I always include a food element – that’s half of foraging, being able to cook with and taste the things you’ve found. People really enjoy sitting around with other people, cooking and sharing food – that’s my favourite bit as well. It has a lovely community feel to it.