FORAGING is something of a craze right now: a skill that can bring out the hunter-gatherer in most of us and a useful cost-cutting exercise to boot.
And while rummaging around city centre parks is all very well, if you’re going to learn about the fundamentals of survival, it makes sense to head for the wilderness – or, in this case, to the Peak District.
Foraging is one of a range of courses on offer at the new Tideswell School of Food, an operation founded as part of a lottery-funded, televised mission to to create ‘a thriving, prosperous community sustained by its own food economy.’
All of which explains why I find myself among a group of fellow would-be foragers, poking through woods in the depths of Miller’s Dale on a rainy Saturday morning.
Our leader is Dr Patrick Harding, the Sheffield-based mycologist and botanist who has made a name for himself on TV programmes from The Flying Gardener to Castle in the Country.
He’s engaging, slightly eccentric and oozing enthusiasm: a skinny, white-haired version of the once-ubiquitous David Bellamy.
“Over here!” he yells, pointing eagerly with his umbrella and setting off at a run across the car park while the rest of us are still scrambling out of the mini-bus.
The object of this excitement is an elder tree: source of flowers and later berries for making wine and ‘champagne’.
It also serves as host to a curious fungus known as jew’s ear, which is said to be good for a sore throat. And, what do you know, we actually find an example of this astonishingly ear-like fungus that I’ve never noticed before.
Next up is a clump of cow parsley – no, sweet cicely – with its distinctive aniseed aroma; the seeds are great with gooseberries or rhubarb.
But correct identification is crucial, we’re instructed. While many of these similar-looking plants can be eaten (pignut and angelica, for instance), the plant can also be mistaken for deadly hemlock.
Beware of hairless stems with purple blotches!
In fact, we’ve already been given the lowdown on a good many of the plants we’re likely to encounter. The course begins with coffee and an illustrated talk about what to keep an eye out for – and what to avoid.
There’s an amazing wealth of tasty vegetation, free for the picking, if you know what you’re looking for: our footpaths and byways are veritably littered with tasty foodstuff.
We find aromatic ground elder, burdock (tasty in a stir-fry), salad leaves including wild rose, hawthorn and meadowsweet, and wild garlic (“the leaves make stunning pesto”).
My personal favourite is garlic mustard, otherwise known as jack-by-the-hedge, whose leaves are more tasty than any lettuce you can find in the local supermarket.
It’s an education – a revelation – and our guide is a fount of fascinating facts and anecdotes.
Here’s butter burr, so called because its huge leaves were once used to wrap fresh butter before storing it in the river, weighed down with a stone.
There’s lords and ladies: poisonous, but its roots are great for starching the laundry.
And water mint, great for the digestion: “Hold my leg to stop me falling in,” cries Patrick, launching himself horizontally down the riverbank towards a clump of leaves.
So does he always manage to find interesting plants to forage on his excursions?
“There’s always something. You can usually find a whole range of things without even moving out of the car park.”
But he wasn’t always so confident, he admits: “I have done TV programmes in the past where I went down early and stuck a few things on the logs before the film crew arrived!”
Our foraging excursion ends back at the bus, where we stow our bulging bags and head back to the School of Food for lunch.
Chef Otto Thissen has been busy during our absence and we tuck into a surprisingly delicious nettle and pimento soup, with home-made foccacia, washed down with glasses of elderflower cordial and Tideswell Tipple – brewed in the on-site nano-brewery.
And the day concludes with a session in the cookery school, set in the heart of the picturesque Peak village.
Otto shows us how to transform the products of our foraging expedition into a tasty dinner to take home – nettle soup, dressed salad, bilberry crumble and rabbit stew.
OK, we didn’t actually catch the rabbits, but who knows where our new-found skills will lead?
The Tideswell School of Food is due to be featured as part of BBC1’s Village SOS series, due to be screened on August 10 at 8pm.
lGo to www.tideswellschooloffood.co.uk or call 01298 871262.