The deadliest salad

Hemlock salad anyone? We get our hands dirty on an outdoor foraging Feed in search of forgotten wisdom.

By: Nicola Robey,   3 minutes


Leaf through any Sunday supplement or hazy Kinfolkesque foodie magazine and you’ll probably be rallied into slipping on your boots, escaping into nature, filling your arms with its bounty and then tossing it all in a bowl with some aged olive oil. Abundant, blossoming and spilling with offerings so plentiful that you’ll never have to brave the supermarket’s aisles again. Oh foraging in nature, what could be better?!

The truth of it – as I came to discover on this foraging Feed – is that not only is wild food hunting hard, hungry and ironically fruitless work, but it’s pretty darn dangerous too.  Without the right guidance, of which I had none, it’s quite possible to make yourself very ill indeed. So much so that I was a mere mouthful away from tucking into the world’s deadliest salad, a potent concoction of three types of hemlock masquerading as wild parsley.


After listening to an entire series of podcasts from Radio 4’s ‘From roots to riches’ series for botanical context, and armed with three separate tomes on foraging, I set off thinking I was in with a fairly good chance of bringing home the spoils. But even with bucket loads of enthusiasm, unearthing the tastes of the outdoors is a truly tricky task.

Apart from the occasional blackberry crumble or sloe picking for the annual gin horde, I’d never really tapped into the hedgerow before. Team that with a lack of knowledge of seasons, no bushman to hand and little to no area specific knowledge and I was at an even greater disadvantage.

Undeterred, my keenness led me to scrabble along stormy Cornish cliff edges, teetering on granite and grasping at what I thought was rock samphire (and turned out to be, well, grass), I came away with little more than a bag of mousey smelling, woody looking specimens. Not exactly the abundant armfuls I’d hoped for.

It had me thinking about our ancestors, gatherers that lived off the land, folk that knew their belladonnas from their burdocks. But when did we lose the knowledge that used to be so embedded within us, and why was I still so hungry?

A bit of digging around in some foraging theory after my escapade, I discovered a potential reason for my lack of green fingered finding skills. According to foraging expert Miles Irving in his ‘Foragers Handbook’, it’s all about my poor plant ‘gestalt’. Something country-dwellers used to have by the shovel load.

Flower bag

Loosely defined, gestalt is a combination of two different types of recognition. One type is more analytical; where you can spot different shapes, sizes, colours of plants, flowers and so on from their appearance. The other is a recognition of involvement. This is the finding, gathering, cooking, tasting, touching side of things, the part that knows all of the idiosyncrasies of a plant, the way it moves, its textures and more.

According to Irving,  the reason why it’s so hard to crack the outdoors is because we sadly lost that knowledge. We let slide a sophisticated understanding that went far deeper than any Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall manual could ever dare to go

Out in the wild Irving’s grasp of gestalt is what makes him familiar enough with a plant that he can see it from afar and instantly identify it, even against similar species that may be disguising themselves very well.

It’s not about taking a ruler with you each time you venture into the outdoors, no more so than why we don’t have to measure our friend’s noses to know that it’s them in a busy crowd. Even if your sight is a little dodgy. It’s the same way we know a daffodil is different from a dandelion, but on a deeper more complex level, the same way that Miles Irving would be able to tell a tasty salad from one that will have you paying the local A&E a visit.

The key to the outdoors it would seem, is to train your plant gestalt, never test your samples unless you’re 100% sure they’re not going to kill you, and always take a sandwich with you – you’ll need it.

Illustration by Brucie Rosch.

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