Despite being brought up in the city, my early memories are of nature; sitting in a field and talking an imaginary language, going down to see the ‘catkins’ on the tree at the bottom of the garden, and picking armfuls of bluebells to take back to my mother from the nearby wood.
I seemed to have an inner hunger for plants, nature and natural food
I remember the light, the small plants and insects rather than the big trees. Actually, I loved the flowers, I would learn their names, and catalysed my mum into sneezing fits, brought on by the pollen of cow parsley in the wild posies I brought back for her (yes, she was allergic!).
I went to visit that bluebell wood as a young adult, only to find that it was a tiny, small strip of woodland on the edge of Birmingham. Though as children, it was everything to us.
These early memories shaped me, unknowingly directing my life steps. Through family camping trips, sailing trips and weekend walks, my path with nature was forged.
My path with foraging took longer to form. It was a non-descript day in my early twenties and I was walking in Devon with a couple of friends. One pointed out pennywort growing in a stone wall, he simply said; ‘you can eat that’, handing it to me to nibble, and I was hooked. Till then I had smelt the woodland floor of wild garlic and picked – one for me, one for the pot – plastic pots full of blackberries with my sisters, though that was basically the extent of it.
Nature, despite its harshness at times, felt magical, safe and trustworthy
I’m not sure I know exactly how it happened, though I seemed to have an inner hunger for plants, nature and natural food. I’d been brought up on homemade food, thought gardening was boring (carrots take forever to grow when you’re a child!) though knew that nature provided a peace and tranquillity that I craved. People didn’t feel easy to me, though nature, despite its harshness at times, felt magical, safe and trustworthy.
Fast forward 10 years from that life changing moment in Devon, I found myself living and working in London – teaching about food and nutrition and growing food in small boxes with young, inner city families. Ooh, those growing food, picking, cooking and eating sessions were the highlight of my week – having our fingers in soil and the delight of children discovering potatoes, real potatoes for themselves, in the ground – was priceless. Yet my heart was yearning for more. Cycling, growing, outdoor swimming and enjoying our wild London garden – I’d seemed to have outgrown it all. My heart wanted the wild.
I loved learning about the plants again – like a child
A year and a half later, I was on my bicycle again, waiting for a herd of sheep to pass on the road up to my cottage. Surrounded by plants, clean air, sheep (did I mention I love sheep?) and the sea just over the hill, at last I had the time to dedicate to learning foraging. I’d moved with a car load of ‘stuff’, my bicycle on the roof and my one and only foraging book; Wild Food by Roger Phillips.
Funnily enough, I met Roger for the first time this year, and now this book is signed by this fantastic and knowledgeable man.
My first wild food book
In addition, I quickly acquired two versions of Wild Flowers of the British Isles and began scouring the hedgerows, beaches and fields. I loved it.
I loved learning about the plants again – like a child. I loved discovering new tastes. I loved experimenting in the kitchen – even if I didn’t always like what I’d created. On the verge of exploding bottles of Elderflower Champagne were handed to neighbours, visiting friends were fed laver bread and my kitchen started filling with sprigs of wild mints, drying nettles and bunches of yarrow.
I seemed to have an eye for spotting plants. Distinguishing their shapes, colour and texture. My training in art and seeing, of drawing plants, and sketching the faces of patient relatives, had held me in good stead.
Teaching foraging was another matter, and stage.
I never moved to Cornwall thinking I’d become a foraging teacher. I moved to Cornwall because I wanted to, and I didn’t have a plan B. I searched for like-minded people, met up with bushcraft teachers, foragers and joined wildlife walks. My pot of money I’d arrived with was running low, and I was starting to think about work.
At the time, Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had been on the TV for a while – in a small but significant way, foraging was starting to hit the mainstream. In my veins it felt like the right time – bringing together my love of plants, teaching, foraging and food – I decided to jump on the opportunity.
One poster and one caravan park were my humble beginnings. A chance meeting and good timing meant I started to teach foraging at The Lost Gardens of Heligan and slowly my experience, knowledge and confidence grew.
I could go on, though really that is it. What one loves, remains, like a close friend, evolving and morphing into different guises – foraging books, photographing plants and foraged dinners, collaborating with chefs, and just simple walks and good food. Foraging can be a simple walk in a park, or a life-long love affair. For me it is both, I no longer know or think about how often I eat wild food, it is just part of me now.
Photographs courtesy of; Hannah Nunn.blogspot.co.uk (catkins), jimmylemon.co.uk (bluebell wood), Graeme de Lyons (photo of me) and gallery.hd.org (cow parsley) - thank you.