Mike MacEacheran | Food foraging in Wales, Lonely Planet
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Food foraging in Wales, Lonely Planet

Ever eaten nettles or chickweed? Thomas Buchi has. He started eating the plants in the forests behind his parents’ house in his early teens and what most people call weeds, he calls food.

The Swiss national first picked green wild garlic shoots in Mittwald near Luzern, before discovering that he could eat berries and a variety of mushrooms. Years later, he found himself running a sustainable farm in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. Today, the 52-year-old has been drawn to the wild and natural landscapes of the mid-Welsh coast near Aberystwyth – and he still uses the foraging techniques that he learnt when he was a boy.

“It is about making people aware that there are wild foodstuffs that they can eat,” he says, adding that Wales offers nature’s best larder. “It really is a passion I want to share. Why go into a local supermarket if you can eat in a safe and sustainable way with what nature provides?”

Food foraging in Wales is big business and a number of bush explorer and plant-lore identification courses now run the length and breadth of the country. In the south at the annual Abergavenny Food Festival in September, foraging experts run fungi picking and recession-dining classes. Elsewhere,  The Foxhunter, a Grade II-listed, stone-clad hotel set on the edge of the Brecon beacons National Park, offers foraging courses (from £140 per couple), and Humble By Nature, a farm in Monmouthshire owned by BBC TV presenter Kate Humble, runs classes where you can learn how to tap and drink from Beech trees, and make puddings, preserves and syrups from leaves and buds picked from rowan and bramble bushes. The courses cost from £95 and run only during the summer. Further south, Dryad Bushcraft, based on the rugged Gower peninsular in southwest Wales, and Wild About Pembrokeshire, specialists in beach foraging for seaweeds and shellfish, offer a variety of tours throughout the year.

For his part, Buchi runs regular food foraging excursions at Ynyshir Hall, a five-star country house hotel once owned by Queen Victoria, a 40-minute drive south of Snowdonia National Park. The hotel has the good fortune to share its Dyfi estuary location with the golden sands of Ynyslas Beach at the mouth of the estuary and the low-lying foothills of the Cambrian Mountains. Indeed, it is also a UNESCO Biosphere area, the first in Wales and only the second in the whole UK – all of which helps to make it one of the best food foraging spots in Europe. Cardigan Bay, a short drive from Ynyshir, teems with sea beet and crunchy samphire (an asparagus-flavoured seaweed) and the seashore at Borth throws up bountiful supplies of cockles, molluscs, winkles and whelks – often underutilised seafood. The rivers too, which fan out from the base of the valley, are home to plenty of wild salmon.

The foraging season in Wales lasts for around eight months of the year, but, says Buchi, good free food can be found at any time if you’re willing to look hard enough for it. At the hotel, guests are encouraged to join him, hands-on owner Joan Reen or local chef Paul Croasdale’s as part of Ynyshir Hall’s award-winning restaurant project. The team takes turns to lead guests on nature rambles through the local woods and foothills to pick their own dinner. Back at the hotel, Croasdale then shares his cooking tips on how best to identify and use the edible plants, wild mushrooms and berries found that same afternoon. You could find yourself dining on wild garlic with Welsh rarebit or wild leaves with spring lamb – it really depends on what you’re lucky enough to find.

Buchi’s favourite spot for rich pickings is to forage in Cwn Einion, also known as the Artist’s Valley, a scenic semi-shaded wooded glen a 20-minute stroll from Ynyshir Hall. The valley is the part-time home of former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who has a farm house estate in the vale, and it has become something of a pilgrimage site for die-hard fans. Since the mid-1970s, the valley has been renowned as the place where Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page wrote rock epic Stairway to Heaven.

Moments from the single-track road that winds up the valley, Buchi unearths a fresh cluster of blossoming wild garlic growing on the moist, fertile banks of the River Cwm Einion. It tastes like chive, and he recommends using it to stuff a fish, make pesto or add to a salad. Disappearing behind some trees, he then spots wood sorrel – a sour grass used for garnishes – and fills his basket to take it back to the hotel kitchen. Later in the year when it’s in season, he’ll return to the upper stretch of the river to pick the yellow flowers from the gorse bushes (which have a distinct coconut taste), burdock grasses and succulent wild strawberries.

“Food foraging needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he says, gathering up another handful of wild buds. “It’s important to only pick the leaves and leave the bulbs in the ground for the following year. We need to work with nature rather than against it. Ultimately, it really is that easy.”