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Foraging — the act of searching for, identifying, and harvesting wild foods for sustenance — has been around for centuries. In recent years, the practice has had a resurgence in popularity, not least because it supports the growing trend to cut our carbon footprint, or “food miles,” caused by transporting food from where it was grown into the hands of consumers. Some of the world’s top chefs, including René Redzepi at the Michelin-starred restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, use foraged ingredients to enhance their award-winning entrées.
There’s also something therapeutic about getting outside and breathing in the fresh air while strolling through woodlands or ambling along unspoiled beaches to find your next meal. Joining a foraging tour is a great way to better understand the environment, try new foods, and learn about local traditions and customs.
Tips and Safety
Before you head out into the woods, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Foraging needs to be done with extreme care. Though there are many benefits to responsible foraging, there are a number of guidelines you need to be mindful of:
- Know exactly what you’re eating. Some species can be poisonous and potentially fatal if consumed — this is especially true of fungi. Never be tempted to eat what you can’t reliably identify.
- Be mindful of what’s ripe and in season. Don’t damage or uproot a plant, and always forage in areas of abundance, so you leave a supply for wildlife. Follow the leave no trace principle.
- Only consume a small amount of what you’ve picked at first to make sure you’re not allergic to your foraged finds.
- Always forage with a guide who is well-informed about what’s safe to eat. Their local knowledge will also ensure you don’t unwittingly pick protected or rare species and wind up in trouble with authorities.
If you follow these guidelines, foraging can be a rewarding and fun experience. No matter where you live (even if it’s in a city), there’s an exciting place to forage nearby. Here are six unique spots to go foraging around the world.
Foraging for berries in Iceland has a name: berjamór. Some of the most popular fruits to forage for are blueberries (aðalbláber), crowberries (krækiber), and bog bilberries (bláber). The tradition of picking wild fruit in late summer is a long-standing one. Icelanders relish any opportunity to go berry-picking, as it’s an ideal excuse to get outdoors. The berries (and the jam in which they are preserved) are also a good source of vitamin C in the Icelandic diet.
The berry-picking season in Iceland runs from late July to September, but the activity is dependent on fair weather, so this period varies slightly from year to year. The best places to forage for berries are in the north and northwest, but they also grow close to Reykjavík on the slopes of Mount Esja and Hellisheiði heath. So long as you’re on public land, picking berries is perfectly legal, but if you’re unsure where to go, ask your hotel concierge or tour guide for tips.
California Coast: Kelp and Seaweed
The first thing you’ll learn about kelp and seaweed on a foraging tour is that they’re not the same thing. Though kelp and seaweed are both types of marine algae, they grow in different places. Seaweed prefers shallow water where it can get more light from the sun. Kelp forests, in contrast, thrive in deeper water. Even at low tide, they usually remain below the surface.
Join a seaweed class on the northern Californian coast and head down to the beach where you’ll forage for edible species such as nori and kombu. Your guide will teach you how to preserve them and use them in the kitchen. It’s a popular pastime that has garnered an annual gathering in Santa Barbara. Time your visit for October to participate in the California Seaweed Festival.
Northern Italy: Sweet Chestnuts
Fall is the ideal time to forage for sweet chestnuts in Italy’s woodlands. Though you can find them across the country, Italians refer to the northern Apennines as the “Fascia della Civiltà del Castagno” (Chestnut Civilization Belt). It’s difficult to grow wheat in this region, so locals have used chestnut flour as a substitute for wheat flour for centuries. Chestnuts are also widely used in Italian cuisine, appearing in everything from soup to bread.
If you want to forage for chestnuts in the area, head to the mountains of Terre di Castelli in the province of Modena. Here, you’ll find a chestnut grove in the village of Monteombraro; documents prove its oldest tree was planted in the 15th century. A few miles up the road, the village of Zocca celebrates its chestnut harvest with a festival during three weekends in October. Start at the museum in the former Hospital of San Giacomo before taking a stroll through the Monte San Giacomo chestnut grove.
Alaska: Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms thrive after boreal forest has been consumed by fire. As burned areas begin to regenerate, these distinctive fungi proliferate in Alaska’s wooded interior, particularly where black spruce trees are abundant. After about three years, the crop diminishes. A word of caution, however: There are a number of very similar species, some of which are edible, while others are extremely poisonous.
Many Alaskans pick morel mushrooms for their own consumption, and would-be foragers keen to join them should time their visit for mid-June to late July, when the mushrooms are ready to harvest. The fungi can still be difficult to spot, however, as they are well-camouflaged in the woods. If you’re lucky enough to find true morels, never eat them raw, as they’ll make you ill; always cook them thoroughly.
East Anglia, England: Marsh Samphire
Take a walk along the coastal salt marshes and estuaries of East Anglia in late spring or early summer. You’re likely to come across marsh samphire, a flowering plant also known as glasswort, though you may get muddy collecting it. Marsh samphire has a stalk-like appearance and is sometimes compared to asparagus. The plant has been collected in this region for hundreds of years. Gatherers snip off the tips of each stem, leaving the tougher stalks beneath to sprout new leaves.
Marsh samphire is deliciously edible. While some prefer it raw, the hardy plant is more commonly served blanched and tossed in butter. You can also bake it in a quiche since it complements salmon. Curiously, for a plant so popularly consumed, marsh samphire was once used to make soap and glass. This halophytic plant is well-adapted to its coastal environment and has a high salt content. When burned, what remains of the plant is known as soda ash, which is used to make detergent and a type of glass called soda-lime silica glass (hence the nickname, glasswort).
Bermuda: Prickly Pears
The prickly pear is the only cactus native to the island of Bermuda, and the best time to forage for the fruit is in fall. To find it, head down to the Bermudan coastline, but make sure you wear something to protect your skin. Long-sleeved pants and a shirt are a must, as the nasty prickles have a tendency to fly out when the fruit is picked. You’ll see locals using tongs and even oven mitts instead of their fingers. Take a bucket to carry what you find — you won’t want to carry a prickly pear in your pocket.
Though they’re ripe and ready to eat, you’ll need to rid the fruit of any prickles before you do. Techniques involve everything from tweezers to smashing the fruit on a hard surface. After you eliminate the prickly skin, you can slice the fruit and peel it. That may sound like a lot of effort, but the flavor of this sweet pink fruit (similar to watermelon or raspberries) is utterly scrumptious. Unsurprisingly, this flavor profile makes the fruit a popular ingredient in jams, sauces, sorbets, and cocktails.