There’s something elemental about foraging for wild food in remote places – whether you’re combing a wind-lashed coast for shellfish, mushrooming in an autumnal forest, or seeking the rare Arctic cloudberry in a mosquito-infested swamp.
Tune into nature and the seasons to find a little headspace – and hopefully some edible delights – in these fantastic European foraging spots.
Collect cloudberries in Finnish Lapland
When: July (exact season is weather dependent)
Swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes and deep bogs cannot deter the locals when the cloudberries ripen for an all-too-brief few weeks in July in regions north of the Arctic Circle. In the self-proclaimed ‘cloudberry capital’ of Ranua in Finnish Lapland, the passion for the elusive berry known locally as hilla reaches unrivalled heights when the entire village succumbs to cloudberry fever.
As soon as the berries ripen from red to amber, locals down tools, seize buckets and venture out into the boggy wilds in search of the hard-to-find berries – similar to a blackberry in shape but pithier, creamier and peachier. Packed with vitamin C, omega-3 and omega-6, they’re the ultimate Scandi super food.
These luscious berries that grow just one to a stem are gathered over the course of long, solitary walks into swamps wisped with pearl-tipped cotton grass. Getting a handle on the scene isn’t easy for novices but Ranua Tourism (ranua.fi/fi/matkailijalle/for-tourists) can arrange cloudberry guides or give you a map pinpointing cloudberry hotspots.
If you’d prefer to gorge on berries rather than pick them, check out Ranua’s cloudberry market where you can buy them by the kilo. Cloudberries also pop up on restaurant menus in season – mixed into cakes, served with the local leipäjuusto (squeaky cheese) and, at Pizzaravintola Vaaka (pizzaravintolavaaka.fi), as a pizza topping.
Seek out shellfish in the Outer Hebrides
When: Best during the ‘R’ months (September-April)
In one of the most off-the-radar corners of Britain, the Outer Hebrides dangle off the northwest coast of Scotland and bear the full brunt of the Atlantic’s mercurial temper. The archipelago’s long beaches of flour-white sand, topaz sea and silky machair – grasslands that form on the wind-blown coastline – are astonishingly lovely, but foragers see even more beauty below the surface.
Clear, cold waters mean these islands have some of the world’s finest shellfish. Head out with a bucket and a rake at low tide and listen for the chink of cockles below the sand, or scramble over the ancient rocks of Lewisian Gneiss in search of fat, sweet mussels. The rock pools here are miniature worlds unto themselves, matted with the tendrils of edible seaweed and encrusted with limpets (best prised away with a sharp kick of a boot), whelks and winkles.
In Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis you can buy some of the freshest shellfish and fish you’ll ever taste from Harbour Seafoods on Esplanade Road (the langoustines and scallops are outstanding). Further south, on the loch-splashed island of North Uist, the Hebridean Smokehouse does a brisk trade in peat-smoked salmon, mackerel, lobster tails and melt-in-your-mouth scallops.
Hunting for truffles in Piedmont
When: September-December for white truffles; May-September for the black variety
For Italian foragers, the tartufo bianco (white truffle) is the Holy Grail and nowhere is more synonymous with this pungent, richly aromatic fungus than Alba in northwestern Italy’s fertile Piedmont region, long a purveyor of the slow food movement. To stand a hope in hell of finding these nuggets of ‘white gold’, you have to enlist the expert services of a trifulau (truffle hunter) and a well-trained dog with a nose for the good stuff. The fact they cannot be cultivated and only grow in the wild adds to their mystique and scarcity.
Late autumn is prime time for finding the prized white truffles, buried underground in misty woods of oak, willow and poplar. A true truffle hunter never reveals his secret spots and you might be walking for some time before you dig up a marble-sized treasure. But it’s worth it for the flavour those shavings add to pasta or risotto, perfectly matched with the region’s gutsy Barolo red wines. Alba’s tourist office (langheroero.it) arranges hunts in season, as do the Consorzio Turistico Langhe (tartufoevino.it) and the National Truffle Study Centre (tuber.it).
Truffle hunting is not everyone’s bag. If you’d rather just indulge, time your visit to catch Alba’s gourmet Fiera del Tartufo from early October to late November, where the precious truffles are tasted and traded (sometimes for five-figure sums). They also star on local menus, for instance at market-driven La Piola and Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo.
Bag berries and herbs in the Alps
Part of the joy of walking in the pastures and forests spreading across the foothills of the Alps in summer is that they are ripe with foraging potential. You might come across tiny, sweet wild strawberries or raspberries, but more often you’ll find bilberries (heidelbeere in German, myrtille in French, mirtillo in Italian). A cousin of the blueberry, the bilberry is smaller, darker and tarter, loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants. Preferring a cool climate and part shade, they grow on low shrubs that cloak the spruce and pine forests. Picking them by hand is a slow, almost meditative process – silent apart from the drum of a woodpecker or the dusk chorus of birdsong.
Come summer, the high pastures in the Alps burst into bloom with herbs and flowers. Apple mint, cornflower, mallow, wormwood and buckhorn, pigweed, sorrel and yarrow lend interest to restaurant menus or are dried to make teas that are just as prized for their health-giving properties as for their flavour. In late spring, at lower altitudes, everyone seems to go crazy for wild garlic, which is blended into sauces and pestos.
Folk in the Alps have been making the most of the bounty on their doorstep long before ‘local sourcing’ and ‘seasonal’ became trendy. Find foraged berries at farmers’ markets and on restaurant menus, or stock up on teas prepared with medicinal Alpine herbs.
Unearth mushrooms in the Black Forest
When: June-August for chanterelles; September-October for ceps
As summer fizzles out into the golden, cooler days of autumn, the dense spruce and deciduous woodlands of southwestern Germany’s Black Forest beckon anyone with a love of pilze (mushrooms). Spreading 150km from top to bottom, this region of gently rolling hills and timber farmhouses looks like a scene from a Grimms’ fairy tale – one look at the paths wriggling deep into its thick, pine-scented forests has foragers itching to hit the trail. Wild herbs and bilberries abound, but nothing is as revered as mushrooms. The best spots are often a closely guarded secret.
Uniformly peach-yellow, with a trumpet-like shape and an apricot aroma, chanterelles (pfifferlinge) begin popping up in sun-dappled forests from June onwards. But it’s after the first rains of autumn that the mushrooms really come into their own, including much sought-after penny buns (steinpilze – otherwise known as ceps) – fleshy, chestnut-capped mushrooms with a distinctly earthy flavour that do wonders to a risotto or soup. Forest fringes and glades are their preferred habitat. In the damper October days, their cousin, the smaller bay boletus, emerges on the banks of woodland streams. Take a pocket guide for identification and, if in doubt, confirm mushroom varieties with locals.
The Black Forest takes pride in local sourcing, so you’ll find chanterelles and ceps at farmers’ markets and restaurant menus when in season.
If you’re new to foraging, start small and inform yourself by asking locals or enlisting an expert guide. It goes without saying that you need to take care with mushrooms.
Sensible footwear, a knife (for mushrooms – cut at the base not the root) and a hessian bag or basket are a forager’s best friends. On the coast, you’ll need a bucket, or sealable plastic container, rubber boots and, for cockles, a rake. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk in forests, swamps and meadows, where bug spray and long trousers are advisable.
Check out the latest addition to our foodie series, From the Source France.