Daniela, our forager, meets us at our hotel. She’s tall and willowy with mesmeric upper class teeth, the front bottom two of which seem to slope slightly forward like an old-fashioned up and over garage door. She’s wearing brown furry boots, jogging bottoms and a gilet and bounces like a spaceman on the moon. On the drive to the foraging place Daniela tells us she’s also a body and mind therapist and that her boyfriend’s one of the country’s foremost experts on fungi. ‘Self-taught,’ she adds, meaning I’m thinking, ‘Lots of trips to the hospital to have his stomach pumped.’
It’s half-term, we’re in Devon and I don’t want to go foraging. Neither do the kids (Phoebe, 8 and Charlie, 6). It’s windy, cold, too early and I’d rather be eating breakfast back at the hotel. The buffet bangers are under a metal hood beside cooked tomatoes and mushrooms and the toast’s brought straight to the table. There’s no need to forage. But my wife Dinah wants to. Foraging is new, sustainable, cool and growing in popularity, and besides she has to write an article about it.
We’re foraging in Sidmouth and, as Daniela scours the banks of the river Ford, the first edible plant she discovers is hogweed. It has a purple furry stem, smells like orange peel, is apparently the poor man’s asparagus and is not to be confused, she tells us, after we’ve eaten some, with giant hogweed that looks a lot like it but has photosensitive juice, which can cause burning of the skin, blisters and lifelong changes to skin colour. As we wait nervously for the potential third degree burns and permanent disfigurement, Daniela snaps off the top of a nettle in her gloved hand and fans it out for us like a bouquet of peonies. It’s great in nettle soup, abundant and our most overlooked salad leaf, she says, her eyes shining. Enthused, the kids sting themselves picking some and Dinah’s so mesmerised by Daniela she leans unwittingly forward to SNIFF the nettles and is stung on the tip of her nose.
We move to the beach. It’s now so cold and windblown that Charlie, who hates his coat more than anything in the world, has not only put it on but voluntarily pulled his hood up. Daniela moves along the foot of the rocky cliff and, as the kids complain they want to go, and are periodically blown into the brambles, she finds sea radish, sea plantain, rock samphire and alexanders, although by now I’m dubious. We’ve no idea what anything is. She could be making it up – adding the word ‘sea’ to the front of ordinary vegetables. My knowledge of green things ends at rocket, and Dinah’s so un-outdoorsy she doesn’t even own a proper coat. And besides isn’t there a reason people don’t eat random plants?
‘So have you ever eaten anything poisonous?’ I ask Daniela, as we chew what she’s suspiciously claiming is sea spinach.
‘No,’ she says, picking up something that she seems to believe we’ll accept is actually called ox-eye-daisy or whoopsy-daisy or something like that, ‘but a forager friend of mine,’ she adds, ‘once ate hemlock water drop wart.’
‘And what happened to him?’ I ask.
‘He went into a coma,’ says Daniela, matter-of-factly.
‘Oh!’ And I look at Dinah, who takes another defiant bite but quietly removes the plant from Phoebe and Charlie’s hands, I notice.
‘What's a coma?’ says Phoebe
‘It's when your heart gets out of control and you go to sleep for a few days and come close to death,’ says Daniela, breezily picking up something else. ‘Here try this. It’s Sea lettuce. No, hang on…’ She drops it, and picks something else. ‘This is Sea lettuce.’
‘That's why it's best only to eat leaves that experts say is OK,’ I say to the kids.
‘But he was an expert,’ says Phoebe.
‘The simple lesson is never eat anything at all that looks like a flat leaf parsley plant,’ says Daniela.
‘And what do they look like?’ I ask, as Charlie reaches into the undergrowth to independently pick some furry looking leaf he immediately pops into his mouth, but my question’s swept away by the wind, as is Phoebe, who flounders in a clump of what? Sea turnips, sea swedes? sea parsnips? …who knows what this stuff is.
Walking back to the car, Daniela tells us that a government minister once told a friend of hers that foraging would become more and more important as the banking system collapsed and currencies devalued and became worthless and people began scouring hedgerows to stay alive.
As she says this she is childishly kicking a stone along the dirt path. ‘But that's unsubstantiated,’ she adds, to Dinah, who’s making notes, ‘So don't take it out of context.’
Back at the hotel we catch the end of breakfast. Leaving half an hour later, warm again and bloated with bacon, sausages, toast and egg, the world order still looks relatively intact, leaving me confident enough of our survival over the next 48 hours to abandon the now squashed looking fruits of our foraging labour in the bin.