Have you 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 wild garlic shoots in the Nidwalden canton near Lucerne, 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 as a boy.
“It is about making people aware that there are wild foodstuffs that they can eat,” Buchi said, 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. This is because the country is spoilt with a long coastline and an abundance of mountains, valleys, rivers and rolling farmlands, plus one of the lowest population densities in Europe. In the south at the annual Abergavenny Food Festival (this year from 21 to 22 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 tailored foraging courses depending on the season, and Monmouthshire farm Humble By Nature offers summer classes where you can learn how to tap and drink from beech trees and make puddings, preserves and syrups from the leaves and buds picked from rowan and bramble bushes. Further south, Dryad Bushcraft, located on the rugged Gower peninsular in southwest Wales, offers a variety of foraging courses, while Wild About Pembrokeshire, specialists in beach foraging for seaweeds and shellfish, offers 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, 40-miles 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 estuary’s mouth and the low-lying foothills of the Cambrian Mountains. Indeed, it is also a Unesco Biosphere area, a site recognised for its promotion of sustainable development, the first in Wales and only the second in the UK – all of which helps to make it one of the best food foraging spots in the UK. Cardigan Bay, a short drive from Ynyshir, teems with sea beet, a wild relative of beetroot and Swiss chard used for salads and vegetable dishes, and crunchy samphire, an asparagus-flavoured seaweed. The seashore at the village of Borth, a 10-mile drive southwest from Ynyshir, 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 runs from March to October, but, Buchi explained, good free food can be found at any time if you are willing to look hard enough. At the hotel, guests are encouraged to join him, owner Joan Reen or local chef Paul Croasdale 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, mushrooms and berries. You could find yourself dining on wild garlic with Welsh rarebit (toasted bread with a hot cheese sauce) or wild leaves with spring lamb.
Buchi’s favourite foraging spot for rich pickings is Cwn Einion, also known as the Artist’s Valley, a scenic semi-shaded wooded glen just two miles 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 fans. Since the mid-1970s, the valley has been renowned as the place where Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page wrote the rock epic Stairway to Heaven.
Moments from the single-track road that winds up the valley, Buchi unearthed a fresh cluster of blossoming wild garlic growing on the moist, fertile banks of the river Cwm Einion. It tastes like chive, he said, and he recommended using it to stuff fish, make pesto or add to a salad. Disappearing behind some trees, he then spotted wood sorrel – a bitter-tasting grass used for light garnishes – and filled his basket to take it back to the hotel kitchen. He explained that later in the year when it is in season, he will return to pick the yellow gorse flowers (which have a distinct coconut taste) to use in meat marinades and Thai curries, as well as burdock root, which is popular in Japanese cooking and can be used for vegetable soups or mixed with dandelion to make a root beer-like soft drink.
“Food foraging needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he said, 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.”