Quite often one of the weights in your pack that can sneak upwards into the ‘ouch’ range of heaviness is your food for a trip. Depending on your personal philosophy and bank balance, you can fight that weight by buying expensive freeze-dried meals, or inventing meals using dried ingredients from your supermarket (dried potato, noodles, dried milk – they all leap to mind!) or even just don’t pack any food (obviously only if you’re confident you can hike the distance planned on no food without ill effect – personally I know I can go ten days without food without a problem but you have to find your own limits here!)
Another way to keep the pack weight down is to forage for food while you travel. Depending on the time of year there’s usually something you can scoff in the hedge or amongst the trees – just this week I’ve been day-hiking on Exmoor with a friend and we’ve been foraging mostly fungi but at this time of year that’s a bonanza crop in the countryside. We’ve had shaggy parasol (needs long gentle cooking), shaggy ink cap, common puffball, field mushrooms and fly agaric (be VERY careful – fly agaric can be a potent hallucinogen so don’t experiment without doing all the research I’ve spent this summer doing on how to eat it safely!!) I’ve also had ceps nearer home in Aberdeenshire recently.
Mushrooms and other fungi are a tricky subject – here in the UK we have some of the world’s most delicious mushrooms growing free all around us, but we don’t know what they look like and we’re all brought up to think wild mushrooms are deadly poisonous so we don’t touch them! It’s true that we also have some of the world’s deadliest species of mushroom in the UK – beautiful but toxic Destroying Angel, for example – and some of them will do very interesting things to your head if you eat them in the wrong way – such as the common ‘magic mushroom’ or indeed fly agaric. There are three golden rules to eating wild mushrooms safely:-
1. Learn to identify mushrooms from an expert – or at the very least, someone who’s regularly eaten them before and is still breathing, so is clearly either competant or extremely lucky! Make your own decision on how much you trust their judgement, of course.
2. Get a good field guide with lots of pictures. When you see what you think is an edible mushroom, note where it grows, what’s around it, take a small specimen and note any changes in its appearance after you’ve picked it. Pack it carefully in a container and take it home to compare against your guide until you’re POSITIVE you know exactly what it is. Take some photos of it growing in its native habitat, they can be a useful reference when you’re trying to remember if it really was that odd shade of lavender when you picked it or not!
3. Once you’ve double-checked and triple-checked your identification of the mushroom in question, cook and eat a VERY small bit to make sure it agrees with you. Don’t eat them raw! Check that the mushroom you just ate doesn’t object violently to alcohol before you crack open the champagne – there are some, such as common inkcap, that are delicious but if you have any alcohol for days either side of eating them, they’ll react with it and you’ll be sick for days! Check for information on cooking methods for that particular species – shaggy ink caps you can toss raw into a salad but fly agaric needs to be parboiled for 20 minutes (and make very sure you throw away the water!) before you can drop it into the hot butter for the evening meal.
As a final caveat, make sure you keep a specimen of what you just ate in the fridge in case your nearest and dearest has to rush you to hospital for acute fungi poisoning – it helps the medics if they know what you actually ate and they have access to experts who can very definitely check what it was under a microscope, which most of us can’t.
On the safer side of life, sorrel and dandelion are still growing fresh and delicious in the hedges as salad greens, too. The whortleberries (bilberries back in Aberdeenshire!) are gone for the year, snapped up by hungry birds and deer, but there are still a few spots where the beechmast is collectible (just peel the prickly outside skin off to reveal the little nuts, then peel each of them again to reveal the tasty oil-rich edible bit) and if you’re lucky you might find hazelnuts the squirrels haven’t got to yet. Hawthorn berries are edible but rather tasteless – make sure you just nibble the soft pith off and spit out the hairy pips as they can irritate the throat and, like all members of the rose family, the pip or stone of the fruit contains cyanide-producing compounds – not enough to kill you instantly but unpleasant if you swallow a lot! The blackberries are thinning out and getting more pips as their season comes to an end, but in September I was getting handfuls of them on Exmoor and they were excellent.
Bittercress is still growing in damp spots so you can pick a few bits to add to your sandwich or shred into your flask of soup – it works particularly well with eggs, cheese and tomato flavours, I find.
Al of these are varieties and species I know very well – well enough to be rock-solid-certain of my safety in eating them! Always choose clean specimens that look healthy to eat – if your food’s unhealthy what chance do you have of staying healthy? – and when trying out something new, eat a small amount and see what happens before guzzling into a pan-full of whatever! If you’re concerned about the effects of a foodstuff on your body, don’t eat it – simple as that!
I’ve eaten a fair bit of roadkill over the years – rabbits and pheasants are very tasty and nutritious so why not? Just make sure the carcase is fresh and relatively undamaged – if you have to scrape it off the carriageway on a hot day, you’re asking for dangerous food-poisoning. If it looks like something you’d find in your local butcher’s shop, though, cook a small amount well and see how it works for you! If you don’t know how to butcher the critter in question properly, get someone to teach you before hacking into a carcase – various bits of the insides of any living thing shouldn’t be allowed to mix with the edible parts. I’ve done a lot of roadside filleting in my time so I just whip out the trusty knife, swiftly extract the tastiest portion of whatever and then tuck the rest of it out of sight under a hedge or behind a tree – the foxes and crows have to eat too and out of sight is out of mind for other people passing by who may be squeamish.
The question of legality also rears its head when you start picking wild plants for food – or even collecting roadkill. Check your national and local laws before setting out on your hike to make sure you know the score – here in the UK, for instance, it’s illegal to pick up roadkill if you’re the one who ran it over but if the car behind or a passing hiker scavenges your pheasant as it stops bouncing, that’s legal! You can’t sell anything you forage without hitting some very stringent regulations. You shouldn’t ever dig up roots, strip a plant to the ground, or take every berry in the patch – that’s as much about moral right as legal wrongs, of course. Take what you need in passing – a handful of blackberries, a couple of leaves of dandelion, two or three mushrooms from a group – but always leave enough for the wildlife, and for the plant to seed itself for the future.
In short, my philosophy here is that I nibble a bit in passing or gather enough for a meal as I travel, but I always leave some for the next person/bird/deer/slug along and until they tell me I can’t, that’s what I’ll do! It fits in with the ‘leave no trace’ ethos of wilderness camping pretty well since I take care to browse lightly over the landscape and it keeps the weight of my pack down!