Whether in the woods, the countryside, or by the coast, there is always a free meal to be had in Wales.
Wales is a really good place to have a crack at foraging. We’ve got all the right habitats: a whopping coastline, forests ancient and modern, and all types of countryside. All you need is a tiny bit of knowledge – which you can glean from a cheap guidebook, or the internet – and you’re away.
I grew up on a farm in West Wales, and picking stuff from fields and hedgerows was just something everyone did. Field mushrooms for breakfast, nettles for soup, watercress for salads, elderflowers for cordials, hazelnuts for snacks, sloes and damsons for Christmas gin.
If you’re staying in a cottage here, there’ll be something edible (or more likely, entire platefuls of food) within a five minute walk of the door. Makes it a bit more of an adventure, doesn’t it?
We’re very proud of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which runs the length of our coastline, making us the only country in the world where this happens. It’s full of stuff to eat, depending on how hardcore you want to be. Cockles and laverbread (seaweed) are breakfast staples in South Wales, and both are easy enough to find on beaches (although to be honest, they’re even easier to buy from a local fishmonger).
There’s no excuse for not picking mussels, though: they’re almost everywhere (we used to get ours off the legs of Tenby lifeboat station) and it doesn’t take much effort to pick a family meal’s worth. Mussels are best when there’s an R in the month, which rules out high summer – but luckily this is when prawns, brown shrimp, lobster and crab are in peak season. For brown shrimps you need a push-along shrimping net, while prawns are easy to catch with a drop-net off a harbour wall or by poking around in rock pools.
Buy a collapsible lobster pot for under a tenner on eBay and with a bit of practice (and some bait, a rope and weights, and a tide-table) you can catch your own crab and lobster. If that sounds like hard work, one of our favourites is also the easiest: marsh samphire, which grows everywhere on tidal marshes in the summer.
The surprising thing, when you first dip into a book about wild foods, is just how much stuff you can eat. For instance, the five most common weeds in my garden – dandelion, daisy, hairy bittercress, wood sorrel and ground elder – are all edible.
Here’s the thing, though: they’re not necessarily as nice as the stuff I deliberately grow (potatoes, peas, etc). So why bother eat wild food at all? Because it’s fun, that’s why. A country walk is more of a laugh if you’re chewing hawthorn leaves and sheep sorrel, or nibbling the ivy-leaved toadflax and red valerian that grows in every stone wall. Blackberrying is even more rewarding when you learn that you can make tea out of the leaves, or put the tenderest tips in salads. But some wild foods are better than anything you find in the shops, like those tiny blue berries that you find on any mountain walk. We call them whinberries (also known as bilberries). They peak in July, and make the most fantastic crumble or tart.
Ahh, autumn in the woods. The forager’s favourite time and place. We’ve all got our secret mushrooming spots, often in the old conifer plantations that are dotted all over Wales. Mine are in the South Wales valleys, where I’ve got stiff competition from the descendants of Italian immigrants who came over in the 19th century.
Mushrooms have a shady reputation for the (very good) reason that some are deadly poisonous. And it’s true that if you eat a death cap or destroying angel – the clue is in the names, really – then you probably will die. Fortunately, my three favourite edible mushrooms – the cep (or porcini), chanterelle, and hedgehog fungi – look utterly distinctive. Once you’ve picked one, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. And with luck, you’ll soon have a basket filled with specimens that’d set you back £50 in Borough Market. The best way to begin is by going with an expert friend, or on an organised foray. Learn one species at a time, and don’t eat anything unless you’re 100% sure what it is. And if you bump into a Valleys Italian, hail him with the traditional local greeting of, ‘Alright, butt?’
From his home in the wilds of Mid Wales, Daniel Butler runs excellent foraging courses throughout summer and autumn, culminating in the annual autumn cep safari.
London-born Adam Vincent has created an inspiring slice of the good life in rural Pembrokeshire. He’s mainly about free-range farming and camping, but can organise foraging on demand.
This gem of a hotel-restaurant runs courses on coastal and countryside foraging, as well as curing and smoking fish and meat.
Fishing & Foraging Wales
Matt Powell is a bass-fishing guru, but also does foraging courses in the Gower countryside. Or why not have a crack at both?
They run expert foraging and wild food days from their base in Ruthin, as well as bushcraft and survival courses.
Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers, Roger Phillips
Mushrooms, Roger Phillips
Food for Free, Richard Mabey
Edible Seashore: River Cottage Handbook No.5, John Wright
Charles Williams is a writer and broadcaster who edits magazines for Visit Wales, and writes for www.visitwales.com.
Originally from Carmarthenshire, he now lives in Cardiff with his wife and two daughters.