Meet the Forager: An Interview with Chris Lewis

Part of loving food is appreciating where it comes from, something that Fish for Thought has championed since the beginning. For many of us, collecting and eating wild food is a part of life, but for others, foraging is a food trend that has until recently, remained a mystery.

Before you get your walking boots on and embark on a foraging adventure, enjoy our interview with Chris, Founder of Bello Wild Food Limited, for the essential facts, do’s and don’ts, what’s out there and what to do with it!

Supplying wild food to restaurants and wholesalers across the UK, Chris has appeared on BBC1’s Countryfile as the expert guide and is lucky enough to call himself a full-time forager. Here, we tap into his vast bank of knowledge for all the expert tips, foraging favourites and of course, which ingredients to enjoy with seafood!

There’s nothing more fulfilling than wandering through the countryside picking your own food; crushing, smelling, nibbling and enjoying what nature has gifted us. Let’s eat on the wild side…

How did you first get into foraging?

I suppose it was from my childhood; it wasn’t so much foraging but more the way we lived. My upbringing was very hands-on when it came to our food and the natural environment. I was lucky to have knowledge passed down.

Tell us about your business

We supply restaurants and wholesalers across the country, foraging from the coasts of Cornwall right up to the most northern coasts of Scotland, identifying the best wild edibles from seaweeds to the wild mushrooms.

What does your working day look like?

We take orders on our App that customers download from Apple or Google. Every morning, we send our foragers out to pick the required ingredients. My job as owner has become more relaxed, traveling around finding new locations and products!

Why does foraging inspire you? What are the benefits?

I think it’s different for everyone but for me personally, I have struggled with life in the past and foraging has a massive sense of freedom and release from modern day life. A connection to nature is something very special that, in my eyes, is a privilege and I am lucky enough to have found a way to make a living from it. Foraging naturally slows you down you to become more observant and within this, you gain an appreciation for the little things which, for me, are the most important.

There seems to be trend in people choosing to forage. Why do you think this is?

I think food in general has become something people pay more attention to. A new respect for ourselves, with regard to how we treat our bodies, has pushed people towards smaller producers of better quality food. Small cottage industries and producers are now more popular with organic and natural processes being favoured, and there is nothing more organic than foraged wild food! It very often leaps above any cultivated varieties available when it comes to nutrition.

What are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to sourcing your own food?

It’s really simple - don’t eat anything that you are not 100% sure is edible and, even then, question where you find it! Plants and fruit have the ability to absorb toxins from the environment so town foraging is not ideal. My advice is; if you have a keen interest, look for a local foraging guide who offers days-out and you will learn a great deal.

Describe the foraging climate here in Cornwall. How does it compare to the rest of the UK?

We are very lucky in Cornwall to have some beautiful places which are very often, home to some stunning foragable goodies. Coastal foraging is great for beginners and the reward can be vast for a small amount of time and effort - and one thing Cornwall has is plenty of beaches!

What’s your favourite ingredients to forage for and cook with?

I love mushrooms! Not only the thrill of finding them, but we have so many great tasting mushrooms growing wild in the UK and all of them have a different taste and texture. It just excites me!

Favourite dish you’ve made from foraged produce?

I’m not sure I have a favourite dish but I’ve had some great meals using the produce I’ve sourced whilst out foraging. I think I love the experience more! The surroundings and people I share them with make a special meal for me - none of these would have been possible without the forage itself.

What are your 5 recommendations to forage for in the UK?

Any wild fruit - apples, blackberries, strawberries and elderberries Sea beet - a variety of coastal veg that is iron rich and very common Wild garlic Elderflowers Nettles

What seasonal produce can be foraged at the moment?

Wild garlic is everywhere and many coastal plants are appearing too!

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten!?

I’m actually happy to eat most things, from wood ants to the most bizarre fungi, as long as it’s safe, I’ll give it a go!

What’s a fail-safe plant/ flower/ fruit for beginner foragers to find?

That’s simple and has to be the stinging nettle! It is really easy to identify, even in the dark!

What do you recommend to find on the sea shore?

I have a real soft spot for seaweeds. They are massively nutritious and there are no poisonous varieties. Sea lettuce and sugar kelp are probably my favourite!

Any fascinating facts to share about foraging the UK? Any areas which are particularly rich and diverse?

Wild food is everywhere - it just needs some research! Once you start foraging, it becomes addictive and a real surprise when you realise what is all around us.

Can you tell us about preservation/ sustainability and why it’s so important?

We need to remember that we are very lucky to have our wild spaces and they must, without question, be treated with the upmost respect. I teach my pickers to only harvest from the very best available and even then, only take a third of what’s abundant. I have sons and it’s my biggest wish that when I’m gone, they continue to use the knowledge I pass down and if we don’t do things correctly, that simply won’t be possible. We are custodians of our planet and it’s high time we remembered that.

Do you think foraging will filter into home cooking in the future?

It’s sad that it isn’t already. It has and always was a normal thing for me and my family but I have seen it becoming more popular in recent years. For me and many others, it’s not foraging, it’s just a life skill.

If you could recommend a foraged ingredient to enjoy with seafood, what would they be?

It has to be seaweed. Obviously, it’s naturally just a perfect match and we have some amazing varieties in Cornwall! Cooking fish and seaweed together is so natural and there’s many ways to enjoy it - I really enjoy Kombu with ‘fishier’ species like trout and mackerel.

(Shop our organic seagreens on our website)

What foraged foods complement seafood?

I’m going to say wild garlic (but what doesn’t garlic go with?) so that’s an easy answer! I love sea spaghetti with white fish as a pasta substitute. Rock samphire and fennel are also fantastic.

Do you have any favourite foraged recipes to share with us?

Anything you can get as fresh as possible is always going to taste good, but wild garlic pesto should be on everyone’s list. It’s truly incredible!

What advice would you give to a newbie forager, particularly in terms of identifying if something is safe to eat?

Don’t eat it! As I said previously, go on a guided walk and then go exploring. Always put safety first.

What are some of the things that people should know before beginning to forage? Importantly, what to avoid!?

We actually have some very poisonous plants in the UK so if you’re a beginner, I would recommend starting with fruit and again, do not anything if you’re not 100% sure what it is!

Committed to local, sustainable sourcing, our aim is simple - to bring the finest fish and shellfish directly to your door - it’s about making the sea to plate journey as quick and simple as possible. The finest seafood in the world deserves the freshest ingredients, so for us, foraging is a natural pairing which reflects the values at the heart of our business; delicious, nutritious food with real provenance, ethically and sustainably sourced.

As Chris so clearly explains, there’s a right and a wrong way to harvest wild food. Understand the plants, respect nature and if you’re unsure, don’t eat it. The very act of foraging is a joyful experience and the benefits extend far beyond putting food on the table. Release your inner hunter/gatherer, explore and enjoy!