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When you get a message from the person you are meeting to interview saying ‘sorry, I’m running a few minutes late. I got distracted by mushrooms!’ and they appear brandishing a gift of a tiny bottle of larch cordial, a wide basket worn across themselves inviting you to venture
forth with them into the woodland you know you are in the company of a forager.
I met up with Ardgour resident and wild food aficionado Lucy Cooke to learn a few tips about gathering your food free and how foraging is great for physical and mental health.
Our walk through the ancient Ariundle Oakwoods may not have been as high octane and adrenaline filled as hunters and stalkers searching for food but as gatherers it was no less exciting or filled with watchful progress, detective work in looking for clues and still netted us bounty in the shape of a basket filled with fungi, leaves and berries.
Unlike deer stalking or bird shoots I have tagged along with in the past there was also no requirement to be quiet for fear of scaring off our prey.
Chanterelles and blaeberries rarely move faster than you do once you have spotted them.
Lucy combines her passion for foraging with her post as a development officer for Kinlochleven Community Trust and is involved in various wild food and foraging events and experiences locally.
Having grown up in rural Shropshire where bramble picking was part of childhood late
summertime, Lucy is a self-taught forager who explains that there is often more detective work at play in identifying wild food than simply checking a picture in a book.
As she darts off the path to pluck a stunning looking fungi holding it aloft and showing me how the underside of it turns from beige to blue as she touches it, almost like an instant bruise, she confidently identified it by appearance, behaviour and location, as true to its name – birch bolete, it is growing beneath a birch tree.
This particular mushroom is only edible once cooked but as I shamefacedly admit that I don’t actually like mushrooms anyway Lucy assures me I am a forager’s dream accomplice as it means she does not need to share her haul.
She stops again whipping out a special knife to cut a small amount of chanterelle mushrooms before spotting a prize patch of blaeberries. This is a find I am more than happy to sample.
Lucy explains how gathering wild food, which is available in every season of the year and in all of the different habitats we enjoy here in Lochaber from coastal salt marshes, to woodlands to mountainsides, is a real boost to mental wellbeing.
The very act of being outside, getting fresh air, gentle exercise and exchanging greetings with people you walk past is known to improve our mental health but the slowed down mindfulness and connectivity to nature which foragers depend on to find their treasure adds an extra dimension to that time outside.
Understanding the brief and transient nature of wild food, knowing the perfect combination of weather, temperature, time of year, location and conditions ticks boxes in learning new skills, connecting to the outdoors, remembering that just like the perfect season for gathering elderflowers will pass and return, it is also important to leave part of any crop behind, to share with others whether they are birds, pollinators, fellow foragers, mammals or simply your future self as your return later in the season to gather elderberries.
Being able to look forward to the coming seasons and know that there is always more and better to come is a good motto for life.
Of course eating lovely fresh produce, rich in flavours along with vitamins and often packed with beneficial physical health properties offers yet another benefit.
There is definitely a sociable aspect to gathering wild food too if you want that, whether it is heading out with someone else of a different height to you (my children were excellent foraging buddies when they were small, often finding low hanging bounty that others had missed), or friendly competition to see who has gathered the most.
Foraging should always be approached with care, never pick or eat anything you are not sure of, make sure you are adhering to guidelines about access, never damage paths, plants or property and never take more than half of what you find to make sure there is plenty left behind.
There are many wild foraging walks, courses, books and events happening where you can learn more.
Based on Lucy’s groaning basket of finds when we said goodbye at the end of our walk I can highly recommend getting in touch with her to find out more too. Write to
Thewildcooke@gmail.com for more information.