Part of loving food is appreciating where it comes from, a trait that River Cottage star John Wright has fervently championed throughout his career as an expert forager and mycologist. This autumn, avid foodies can join John and the Summer Lodge Hotel team on a special expedition around Dorset to find out more about where their food really comes from. As part of the exclusive Adventures In Food package, you’ll venture to local woodlands and hedgerows for some wild mushroom foraging. Once you’ve collected your precious bounty it will be taken back to the hotel and transformed into a sumptuous tasting menu by our award-winning chefs.
But before you run off and book your spot on this foraging adventure, take a look at our interview with John for some essential foraging facts.
What initially sparked your interest in foraging and how long have you been doing it?
I suppose it started, as it does with lots of people, in childhood when I used to go blackberry picking. We used to go to Langstone Harbour to pick cockles and that was an annual event — they were very important events to me. They were the happiest memories of my childhood and I’ve only just realised why. It seemed like the only ‘real’ things we ever did, like going to school and watching television weren’t real, but picking stuff outdoors was.
Is foraging still very much a family affair? Are the rest of your family as enthusiastic as you?
We tend not to go out as a family to forage on our own, but whenever we go anywhere I always take a basket. We drive down to Weymouth or somewhere near Dorchester, and whilst my wife is buying a car parking ticket I’ll go off and pick some blackberries from a hedge. It’s just a normal part of life.
What is it you enjoy the most about foraging?
What I like best is when I go out on my own and find something like mushrooms, which is the most exciting thing of all. Finding a new spot very important, or a new place where wild gooseberries or Ceps or Chanterelle mushrooms grow. I always tell people it is terribly therapeutic and, in foraging, you are fulfilling a natural instinct. When I take people out they are often a little nervous to start with because they don’t know what to expect of the day. They get an anxious look for the first half hour or so, and then you see this little light come into their eyes and they start to get a glow and get so excited. It is totally out of proportion to the amount of food they are actually collecting. But it’s the serendipitous nature of it all, and perhaps most importantly, people come to understand the natural world in a way that they haven’t before.
There seems to be resurgence in people choosing to go foraging of late. Is this a trend you have noticed too?
I kind of like to think I am part of the reason people are more interested in it. I think it is part of the whole business of real food and a reaction against just eating what you get from the supermarket. People like things that are a bit different, and people learn from when they go abroad and ask about where weird things that are on their plate come from.
I guess a sense of curiosity and a greater awareness are all contributing factors too?
Yes, I take people on wild mushroom foraging trips, I do about 40 – 50 a year, and we find loads of things… We’ll easily find 50 species in a day and they say: “Have you taken us to somewhere special? We hardly ever see fungi.” But it is just a matter of people slowing down; this also helps with the meditative aspect. But when they actually slow down and start looking at the world they realise it is not just a mass of brown and green. It is a living thing and they actually start to appreciate it.
Where are the best spots for foraging?
Naturally I would think that Dorset is one of the best spots. It’s a seashore place really, but of course there’s an awful lot of hedgerow and boggy bits. But I don’t think there are many places where you couldn’t easily forage.
Are there any urban spaces that are good for foraging too?
Even in towns you can do it — you get cherry plums and wild rocket. If you go to the parks or the graveyards you get mushrooms that come up. I pick mushrooms in Hyde Park. There are only a few places where you definitely couldn’t do it; I guess Docklands is one of them.
When is it best to forage for wild mushrooms?
Really it is from now in August. A late wet August and September is often very good. From late September through to October/early November is when I make my mushroom forays because, in the south of England at least, that is the best time to go.
Most people are apprehensive about foraging for their own wild mushrooms and fungi due to the potential dangers. What tips do you have for newbies?
If you are apprehensive that is a good thing. The people who die are the ones who are not apprehensive. You really do need to know what you are doing if you are picking wild mushrooms because you can get it wrong and kill yourself or your family. You need to go on a foray with people who know what they are doing. And you need to get at least three good books, one of which is mine (The River Cottage Mushroom Handbook).
You’ll be taking Summer Lodge guests on foraging expeditions this autumn, what essentials does one need when foraging?
All you need is suitable clothing, so Wellington boots are a must. Don’t come in a twin-set, pearls and heels.
Feel free to field your foraging questions to John on Twitter @johnmushroom.