Last Thursday evening I had the absolutely joyful experience of going on a local forage walk with a local girl I follow on social media. I met up with Clare, who I had met through Instagram, for a beautiful sunny evening stroll through Cregagh Glen in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.
I had started following Clare on Instagram a while back because her beautiful food photographs really caught my eye and I have been keen to learn more about foraging for foods for quite some time now. Foraging is a real passion of Clare’s and is something that is incorporated into her daily life and I was keen to hear more. I love the idea of going for a wee dander and collecting a few edibles along the way – healthy, nutritious foods that are growing in our local environs that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or packaged in plastic before being placed on a supermarket shelf and haven’t travelled hundreds of miles to get there.
I contacted Clare a little cheekily and asked if she would have some free time to take me for a local walk and educate me a little bit. As much as I love to cook and eat, I wouldn’t know how to identify plants in the wild and certainly wouldn’t have the confidence to sample them without some guidance. Clare kindly agreed to take me to Cregagh Glen during the month of June as part of the 30 Days Wild challenge my family and I are enjoying, and introduce me to some of the edibles to be found growing in Belfast.
I have to admit I was a little over-excited and when we met up – I gave Clare an over-enthusiastic bear-hug, and thanked her for giving up her evening. She graciously laughed-off my eagerness and off we went a-foraging. We arrived at Cregagh Glen around 7.30pm on a beautiful, bright evening, a fox silently ran across our path, and to our left far away in Newcastle, the Mourne Mountains were a jagged silhouette against the bold blue backdrop – all in all a perfectly magical evening for a stroll through the farmland and wooded glen.
We set off slowly with Clare explaining to me that in her daily life all of her walks now tend to be on the slow side as she’s permanently hunched over hunting for edibles! Wherever she travels, whether it be walking to the bus stop, an evening walk on the Connswater Community Greenway or Comber Greenway, or a stroll in a local park, she is constantly on the lookout and tells me there are always delicious edibles to be found. I was shocked to hear this, realising my ignorance and also how much I had been missing out on!
Within a few minutes of starting our descent through the farmscape section of the walk, Clare was already pointing out edible greens and flowers – things we all walk past all the time and just don’t realize there’s a healthy snack within arm’s reach! We continued onwards, pausing every few metres so that Clare could point something out to me. Although she considers herself to be fairly new to the foraging scene, I was impressed not only by her knowledge, but also her willingness to share that information with me. In our modern era of computers and instant access to information, I can’t help but feel we miss out on this word of mouth passing on of knowledge and the local stories and tales that go with that.
As we journeyed along the trail – a view to the right over fields and Belfast city, and to the left open meadows, we marvelled at how luscious and vibrant the land was. Everything was bursting and abundant, the result of a few weeks of great weather. We paused to taste-test Hawthorn, Common Sorrel and Bush Vetch Wild Pea, my tastebuds suddenly tingling with the new flavours they were experiencing. I couldn’t quite fathom how a little green leaf could taste like a tart green apple, or that a tiny purple flower could burst with the flavour of peas! I was hooked in an instant!
We continued downhill onto the beginning of the woodland trail, the hedges giving way to trees and the atmosphere altogether damper. In this wild overgrown space Clare pointed out several edible plants such as Hogweed and Comfrey before we passed through the stone tunnel which leads to the denser forest. As we walked, Clare told me about her family, how she had grown up spending her days outdoors, her parents very passionate about nature. It was fascinating to hear about her education and various jobs, and how through all her life experiences she has been learning and nurturing a love for food.
In the darker, damper woodland we discovered numerous edibles – way more than I ever anticipated! I was amazed at Clare’s ability to pick them out among the overgrown banks of the valley – wood sorrel, speedwell, golden saxifrage, woodruff, bittercress, ground elder – all completely new to me! We sampled, my eyes no doubt the size of bin-lids with each new flavour! We chatted about all sorts as we worked our way down through the forest, past the waterfalls and the Lisnabreeny Hills; about sustainability, eating with the seasons, buying local produce and supporting local traders and everything else in-between. My hopes for a fun evening of learning were far exceeded as Clare generously shared her passion and we connected. It was so calm and peaceful to wander along in that wild space just outside Belfast city centre and enjoy nature’s bounty and a newly-formed friendship – definitely cause for gratitude.
As we neared the end of our route, which emerges onto a busy dual carriageway, I was struck by just how much lovely edible stuff is growing right here in our urban landscape. I had expected to find maybe 5 or 6 edible plants, when in actuality we discovered more than 20 which were flourishing magnificently!
I am so glad I asked Clare to take me for a forage walk. It was a truly eye-opening and exciting experience for me and I am so eager to learn more about foraging for foods within my local surroundings. There seems to be so much on offer, for free no less, and that’s extremely appealing in our modern times when people are becoming increasingly conscious about their food choices – where it comes from, how far it has travelled, how it is packaged and so forth.
I want to say a big thank-you to Clare, for kindly giving up her time after a busy day at work, for being so generous with her knowledge and for tolerating my endless questions and happy-dances. It was a super way to spend some wild time and learn something completely new.