Whether or not you prescribe to some sort of hibernation pattern, suffer from seasonal affective disorder or just prefer being snuggled up on a sofa, winter tends to confine us to the indoors and our enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits lays dormant until the days get a bit longer. Foraging is a little calmer during the cooler months too, however you’d be wrong in thinking that there was no merit in heading out with a basket, even if you have to swap your ‘gram-able polkadot dress for a more practical Paramo. Yes, pickings are slimmer than summer, but there are some species that prefer it cold and are at their best when most other plants and fungi (and humans) are still shying away from the elements. You can read a bit more about these winter wonders further down the page.
So why would we bother wrapping up and heading out from our warm cocoons into the icy wilderness? First of all, I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve done enough hanging about the house recently to last me a lifetime. It’s an obvious point to make, but it remains as relevant as ever as we look to keep our increasingly fragile minds exercised and our mental health in check, and a short session of mindless physical activity can actually become an invaluable mindfulness workout in the right environment. The reality of it too, is that there are far fewer people getting outside in the cold season, so the tranquility, peacefulness and alone time is far easier to find than, for example, on a hot summer bank holiday.
Were you to follow the seasons as acutely as a forager might, you may feel the collective deep breath and sigh that we all take at this time of year during the nadir of the plant-growing calendar. The cycle of the foraging seasons has been excellently described by many a wise forager as a merry-go-round - a delightful metaphor that sees us bound to the fun ride with arms outstretched, trying to reach out and grab what we can before it flies past and is gone until the next time round. Early March sees the rise of the birch sap which marks the start of the season and then we are off!
In anticipation of that reliable starting gun, I have to admit something here too: as much as I love summer (and I really love summer) I think I prefer foraging in winter. A combination of foraging smugness (it feels great finding things when nobody else is) plus the inevitable springtime frenzy and ‘I found it first’ competition that has crept into this gentle pastime, results in an entirely avoidable knot of anxiety tightening up in my stomach once the many forms of media we are subjected to - from instant and social, to dusty and leather-bound - start encouraging us to get out before we miss it. I like taking my time and the simplicity, rather than reputable scarcity, of the winter species gives me a proper sense of unwinding and reconnection with nature.
Besides, spring, summer and autumn foraging is so passé and any old hippy can pick elderflowers in a frilly dress or wild garlic with blue skies above the canopy - it takes real grit to trudge out in your wellies to harvest in winter, whilst the weather does everything it can to put you off. Thick snow, high winds and grey skies might seem like indoor indicators to most, but the delayed gratification that is to be found amongst the leaf litter, lurking on barren coastlines and hiding in the browning grass is saved for those willing to brave the harsher elements and tastes all the sweeter for it.
I have a fuzzy memory of listening to Ray Mears’s Desert Island Discs, during which he did some crude maths to demonstrate just how few opportunities one has if they decide to only connect with nature during the summer. It went a little along the lines of an adult only having 40 or so years of good enough health to really get stuck in to what nature has to offer, and that by confining oneself to just the summer months, your available tally of experiences is slashed compared to those who embrace the full year and all the challenges/rewards that are presented throughout. That mantra has become something I've since chosen to adopt, and if that demigod deigns to not be deciduous, then I would suggest everyone reading this far does the same.
There are still herbs, fungi, fruit, greens and even the odd flower to be savoured in winter, a selection of our favourites we have detailed below:
Invasive species are on the agenda right now - just ask anyone who has Japanese Knotweed growing near their property - so you can devour any edible invasive plant with great abandon. Three-cornered leek is a non-native perennial that falls into this category. Favouring shadier, damper spots like woods and riverbanks, this wild allium does all of its growing and flowering whilst most other plants have fallen dormant for the colder months. This makes it easy to find once you know what you are looking for, but it does have a knack of looking like some grasses/reeds and plants like bluebells, so identifying it can be a little tricky. The best ID features to look for are its onion-y smell and the distinctive three ‘corners’ of the cross-section of the leaf.
Although the entire plant is edible, and no council worker worth their environmental salt will stop you digging it up, the leaves and flower stems are the best for culinary use, both possessing a rich leek/onion/garlic flavour with a soft intensity that lends itself to being raw. Yes, you can use this in the same way you would regular leeks (steamed, cheesy, soups, etc.) but blitzed into a pesto is the winner here.
Scarlet Elf Cups
With a name like something from a fairytale but looking, according to a recent workshop attendee, like “something you’d get growing under your bath”, these are a bit of a well-kept secret and very rarely feature on many menus. There is some debate about the edibility of them, however we have eaten them by the bucketload (sustainably, of course) and have never suffered as much as a tummy grumble. They have a faintly-aromatic, mushroom flavour with a chunky meatiness that is retained after cooking - a simple knob of butter should do the trick for exhibiting them the first time you try them - but can be eaten raw and actually perform rather well as their namesake, offering a perfect base for punchier edibles to be added as a wayside canape starts to take form.
You’ll find them growing on fallen willow, ash and occasionally sycamore, which means that you can head to newer woodland to seek these out rather than your traditional ancient forests that we tend to gravitate towards when hunting for mushrooms in autumn. Look for flecks of bright red in the undergrowth and, you never know, it might just turn out to be an edible mushroom rather than a discarded bottle top.
The exact same species as the cultivated enoki mushrooms you find in the supermarket, albeit not subjected to the same artificial growing conditions, these very common mushrooms seem to prefer a frosty snap and will suddenly pop up on dead and dying deciduous wood once the temperatures plummet. They are distinct in that their growing season is relatively unique, however it is easy (and sensible) to be wary of anything that has a typical ‘umbrella’ shape growing out of a log, due to the likeness many mushrooms have to each other when studied by a careless eye. A quick inspection of the key features though - tough stems and slimy caps in particular - and you will soon be able to fill your basket with plenty of them and have enough to throw into all sorts of mushroom dishes.
Discard the tougher stems before lightly cooking them into fried rice, omelettes or oriental broths. There is some literature to suggest the skin of the cap should be removed but this seems like wholly unnecessary advice and likely comes from an aversion to slimy textures rather than relating to its toxicity. That said, do your research and eat what you feel comfortable with - personally, we chuck the whole lot in and have never had a complaint from anyone!
“What did the Romans ever do for us?”
Well, they decided to plant lots of herbs on our tiny little island, many of which have long since been lost from the allotment, but can still be found growing profusely in the wild. Two centuries after planting Alexanders to feed themselves through the colder months, this member of the wild carrot family (a potentially deadly bunch, so please be careful!) can be found nestled in hedgerows along coastal paths and seafronts. In its full form, it looks remarkably like a lot of other wild plants - some delicious, some dangerous - but the Winter growth tends to set it apart from being confused with most other species, barring the deadly Hemlock Water Dropwort*.
Later in the year, you can eat the stalks, flowers and eventually the seeds (watch this space), but the leaves are really what we are after right now. Flavour-wise, it has been described as spicy, pungent, perfumed, aromatic and apparently even tastes like myrrh (we cannot verify this - who can?) so is a versatile ingredient to have in your culinary arsenal. We enjoy it on sandwiches, as a garnish for curries or whizzed into a guacamole. Without question, though, our favourite way to really get to grips with this sophisticated herb, in what perhaps might be called an unsophisticated manner, is blitzed into a vodka and served alongside steamed crayfish. Dust off your food processor and simply drop in a handful of raw Alexanders leaves with however much vodka you are in the mood for, before passing the resultant liquid through a sieve. The result will be nothing like you’ve ever tasted before but will perfectly compliment the rich, floral sweetness of the crayfish. Sun not past the yardarm? You can substitute the vodka for water and create something they probably mess around with on those televised cooking competitions.
*Again, please be careful! Alexanders is not a beginner plant to identify!