Foraging is the ultimate immersive back-to-nature/back-to-yourself activity, and so long as the guidelines are followed, it always will be. Every type of landscape in Cumbria has its own food. Damsons, elderberries and blackberries may be over for another year, but have you tasted wood sorrel, wild sage or pineapple weed tea? For the curious, nature always has something new to show.
Junipers are not so common as they were in the UK, because the environments they favour are becoming scarcer: landscapes much like Scout Scar, the limestone escarpment outside Kendal. As well as flavouring gin (and game dishes, apple tarts, even vegan gravy), juniper bushes perform the important ecological function of protecting tree saplings from sheep. While you are there – dodging the spikes of the evergreen shrub – you might look out for hawthorns too, from which you can make hawthorn jelly – or even ketchup.
If you are walking near a watercourse, keep an eye out for water mint with its lovely mild, sweet flavour. Like any other mint it can be used with lamb or in salad – or you can drink it as a tea. If you are lucky, you might happen upon wild watercress – itself an indicator of very clean water. Even so, with both water mint and watercress there is a tiny chance of liver fluke – a disease passed on from sheep – so be sure to pick the upper leaves of the plant (top 8cm) and wash well before impressing your friends with your winter salad or soup.
All those nuts – but which are which? Hazelnuts (aka cobnuts) take their name from the Anglo Saxon word ‘haesel’ meaning ‘hat’, after the endearing fringe each nut wears. Pick them and eat them or make hazelnut butter. Beechnuts, by contrast, come in pairs hidden within spiky husks. These can be treated as pine nuts and used on salads or risottos. And let’s not forget about sweet chestnuts – one of the oldest of which (at 400–500 years) is at Rydal Hall. Wear gloves to forage for these (they’re spiky) and get up earlier than the squirrels (or they will swipe them). You can puree them or make jam out of them. Or you can take a more traditional approach: pierce them, stick them on the fire, pour yourself a glass of homemade elderberry wine, and wait.
• Beware poisonous species and know what you’re picking
• Seek permission from the landowner
• Do not collect rare species
• Only collect from plentiful populations
• Leave plenty behind for others and for wildlife
• Minimise damage to the nearby habitat and species
• Take no more than you plan to use