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Summer foraging

John Wright, River Cottage’s ‘captain forager’, shares his tips for a wild summer
Foraging at River Cottage

This article appears in the summer issue of Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 14 July 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online.

John Wright, River Cottage's captain foragerThe verdant wild foods of spring give way to those of red and brown in the autumn. Eventually. In late June, July and early August, the hungry months, we wait. This is accepted wisdom and there is truth in it, but even the most pessimistic forager knows that summer, too, provides.

Wild food is not just for us country mice. Perhaps a third of all edible wild plants are generally considered to be weeds. The summer vegetable garden, annoyingly for gardeners, provides one of the best sources.

Here you’ll find fat hen and spear-leaved orache, both first-class substitutes for spinach, and also chickweed, a straggling plant that can carpet a prepared vegetable plot in a month if allowed to do so.

Chickweed tastes faintly like grass, or maybe peas, and is good in a salad (if a bit stringy). The best way to prepare it is in a pakora, with lots of crispy bits sticking out all over the place. All three plants are unrelentingly dig-out-and-come-again plants, so you will enjoy repeated opportunities to pick young, fresh greens – all while you are ‘weeding’.

Summer delights

There are two denizens of summer which I look forward to with some impatience every year. The first is elderflower. The tree is of both town and country and something of a weed in both locations. Although the dry spring brought it into flower ridiculously early this year, it usually appears from late May and hangs around for six weeks or so.

I suggest picking as much as you can as soon as you see a tree in full bloom. The two classic uses are a cordial and the much-loved (and occasionally explosive) elderflower sparkly. However, most of my crop goes to make Elderflower and Lemon Turkish Delight. This is my own, proud invention; I’ve made 10 kilos of the stuff this June already. It won’t be enough.

The second is also a flower – that of the supremely fragrant Japanese rose, Rosa rugosa. A popular and vigorous hedging rose, it has escaped its urban confines and now makes a thorough nuisance of itself in the wild, notably in hedgerows and sand dunes. Its boorish behaviour aside, it is a delight to the forager. I have a general principle that if you like something, you either deep-fry it in batter or make a vodka infusion. Rose petal vodka is a wonderful cocktail ingredient, especially when matched with raspberries. I make about a gallon a year using petals ‘gathered’ from municipal flower beds and neighbours’ gardens. This is never enough, either.

Getting lucky

For those not confined to the city there is more. Streams frequently sport watercress in high summer; its drawback (if not cooked) is the liver fluke it can carry. Watermint is often found with it, and also in wet areas generally. A common plant, it is shamefully neglected in the kitchen; the flavour is that of peppermint without the ‘pepper’. Watermint and lemon sorbet is a glory.

While it’s a common plant, wild marjoram is fussy about where it grows, insisting on an alkaline soil. In West Dorset it can be found in large, dense patches on the chalk-banked roadsides – and once I saw some growing on lime-rich rubble in Basingstoke, so you can be lucky anywhere.

There is a brief period in the summer when elderflower is contemporaneous with its unparalleled culinary companion, the gooseberry. Sadly, gooseberries are hard to find even in the shops, and you’ll need to make preparations long before summer to find their bushes in the wild. Being unhelpfully green, they’re almost impossible to spot in the hedgerow and the bushes and leaves are superficially similar to the ubiquitous hawthorn. Look out for gooseberry bushes in April, as they leaf-up a few weeks before everything else!


You can join John Wright on one of his River Cottage foraging adventures from only £195. Choose from a day exploring the hedgerows, a seashore foraging adventure along the Jurassic coast or fungi foraging in autumn fields and woods. You’ll be treated to a host of River Cottage treats along the way and your day will finish with a Forager’s Feast back at Park Farm.

Click here to find out what’s on at River Cottage, TV’s most famous farmhouse.

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