Totally Wild: James Wood's Foraging Revolution

“There’s something quite amazing with discovering new things, especially in places that you never expected them to be. With foraging I’m forever learning, and the truth is my main passion is for learning new things.”

Professional forager James Wood is the founder of Totally Wild UK, a company which offers foraging courses across the country, maintains a network of accredited foragers which supply restaurants and an online shop with products created with wild ingredients.

A group of foragers
Image courtesy of Totally Wild UK

Foraging has been increasing in popularity in the last few years and the trend shows no sign of stopping, particularly in urban areas. London boasts an abundance of foraging groups, courses and tours which seem to grow year on year.

The interest in foraging has been attributed to many sources. Celebrity and TV chefs have fuelled the trend. Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall’s A Cook on the Wild Side, a series where he drove around the British countryside exploring and eating from the land and kicked off the River Cottage series of programmes which explored the life of a small holder and sustainable living.

Rene Redzepi, of Noma, too has championed wild foods as part of the New Nordic Cuisine Movement, advocating wild foods as part of the national diet and democratising foraging with the development of a free app, Vild Mad, which provides a tool to explore the wild, edible, Danish nature.

Foraging’s popularity can also be attributed to the rise of nature writing, to increasing concerns about sustainability, food waste, or the fact that industrial farming practices have led to us becoming more and more removed from where our food comes from as supermarkets churn out perfect, uniformly shaped, overly packaged produce.

James believes, “As people become more interested in where their food comes from, the logical next step is to be excited and interested in actually physically picking the food and being involved with their immediate local spaces. The fact that all this food is growing right under our noses is astonishing, the key is learning what it is and how to use it.

I started Totally Wild UK with the main ambition to get as many people involved with foraging as possible, whether someone joins us on a forage, tastes one of our preserves or try one of our ingredients in a restaurant.”

The courses, led by James and his foraging team which spans the UK, have been honed over the course of eight years from trial and error and feedback from participants.

“We try to make them as fun and interactive as possible, on one of our courses you can expect to taste up to 30+ pre-made wild food tasters from flavoured salts to jams, pickles, ferments, syrups and alcohol infusions. Each attendee also is invited to take up the role of a forager, picking ingredients that we as a group will cook up in to our own wild food lunch.”

Bilberry. Image courtesy of Totally Wild UK

Having spent a day on one of James’ courses, I found them fun and surprising. It is easy to see why foraging is so popular. What is exciting is the range of wild ingredients that you can find in a small area and how you can create a free and unique meal from what you can collect on a walk and begin to think about how you can incorporate wild ingredients into your meals. For me, what’s exciting too is the regional differences in wild foods. James explains, “Bilberries, heather and sweet cicely are fairly common in the Northwest and to me stand out as being extremely special in flavour and uses. You can create a truly seasonal, local and fresh meal almost anywhere in the UK. I also love seeing the amazement on people’s faces when you introduce them to something incredible.”

James himself practices what he preaches and eats wild food regularly, “I eat some sort of wild food with every meal, whether we add seaweed salt to our fish or some wilted hogweed stems with a quiche.”

Having participated in a course, I feel more confident now of having a go and picking wild foods when I see them. For beginners, James has this advice, “Begin with plants that are simple and easy to identify and work lots with them, a good example of this is stinging nettles and dandelions. Of course, anyone looking to start foraging should get their hands on our foraging guide 'The Forager's Cookbook' as it walks you through how and what to pick, all the way to how and what to cook with it.”

James and his team of foragers also supply restaurants with foraged ingredients.

“We try to provide the freshest wild ingredients possible. Along with ingredients we have to provide the chefs with a wealth of knowledge on how they could actually work these ingredients in to the menus.

For example, how many chefs know what mugwort is? However, if we can tell them to use it like sage then it becomes a lot more easily available and usable. I personally find these discussions between forager and Chef really fun and exciting as there’s an amazing amount of information sharing, idea creation and ultimately a passion for food always comes out.”

With an increase in the number of chefs including wild foods on their menus, commercial foraging has increased, and it isn’t without controversy. While there are laws restricting commercial foraging to the places where the forager has permission from the landowner, the industry is currently unregulated.

James Wood filming with Liz Bonin
Image courtesy of Totally Wild UK

James set up a qualification and accreditation for foragers. “Currently almost anyone can pick something and try to sell it without anyone specifically saying ‘wait a minute, what gives you the authority to do this?’. I found this very worrying as what we do as foragers can be quite dangerous if not done correctly. For example, if someone served a guest poison hemlock (a deadly poisonous plant) instead of cows parsley (a lovely parsley flavoured plant) – which are similar in how they look – they could quite easily send someone to hospital.

Our Wild food and Foraging Accreditation has been designed in such a way to give people all the initial knowledge they would require in order to safely pick, harvest and teach foraging to others. From correctly identifying plants to understanding potential lookalikes the course covers a vast array of areas, even to how to safely control and cook on a fire, how to set up a quick temporary shelter for guests.

This is qualification hasn’t been designed as the be all and end all, however I hope that it will begin to push the industry in the right direction. Farming is regulated so surely foraging should be also.”

James and Totally Wild UK are leading the way to regulate the industry and provide a trustworthy offer to someone interested in a foraging experience.

He sees it also as a way to support people who are looking to take up foraging at a more professional level. “Totally Wild UK gives us the platform to bring in and train up the future professional foragers.”

This is one of the next steps for Totally Wild UK. “We are developing our unique team of foragers who will be running events all across the UK. I’m really excited to be involved with supporting other foragers in starting their journey to foraging and to the possibilities for us to get even more people involved in foraging.

Over the coming year we are updating our wild food database found through our website, including videos that people will be able to access easily.”

As for foraging, James sees the future as bright, “The future of foraging could go in many different directions, if we take professional steps in the right direction foraging will become more and more prevalent over the coming years.”