A mum-of-three who foraged food from the hedgerows to help make ends meet when she was a hard-up student and a struggling first-time parent has told how she now creates gourmet meals for free.
Iona Fraser, 40, used the foraging skills she learned as a child from her dad to bulk out her sparse meals when she was living on benefits and then when she became a single mum to her son at 19.
Now a professional foraging instructor and living in the village of Scaynes Hill, West Sussex, with her dairy worker husband, Josh Hubrick, 30, and her two youngest sons, Alexei, seven, and Ever, three, her ability to pick her own food from nature means she can conjure up mushroom pate or wild rose Turkish Delight without paying for the ingredients.
Recalling how foraging helped jazz up her meals when money was tightest in her life as a student, she said: “After I’d paid the bills, I had £7 left a week for food, so I got used to surviving on very little.
“I then started to realise I could supplement the very basic things that I was buying for very little money by picking things that were much more exciting.”
Still spending up to eight hours a day foraging, Iona believes that learning what to pick could be a helpful tool for other people facing the cost of living crisis – as long as they have enough spare time to do it.
She said: “I don’t think foraging can be touted as the solution for the cost of living crisis but, in the short term, if you have enough time, it can definitely be a hugely useful tool.
“If you have a lot of time but not a lot of money, you can learn to identify wild food and explore things like preserving or drying and dehydrating food like mushrooms, so they last longer.”
Growing up in Brighton, East Sussex, Iona learned her cash-saving ways from her dad Angus Fraser, 76, who was a professional chef, and mum Liz Walker, 70, a green-fingered home cook.
She said: “My dad owned a game restaurant, where he worked as a chef and sold wild meat.
“He would take us away at weekends around Ditchland Beacon, near where we lived, and show us how to pick nettles without stinging yourself and have us up for hours at night pricking sloes with a pin for sloe gin.”
But Iona struggled with school in her early teens and, leaving home at 16, she soon found herself trying to scrape by on benefits while studying for her A-Levels at her sixth form college in Brighton.
Realising the hedgerows would help stretch her £7 a week food money, she started foraging in earnest and said: “I would buy pulses and grains and beans and then go out and pick greens and herbs like sorrel and fennel and hogweed to make the food vibrant, colourful, interesting and tasty.”
Winning a place at Brighton University to study Social Sciences, Iona faced another testing time when, aged 19, she fell pregnant with her son, Steil Fraser, 20, and dropped out of her course.
Becoming a single parent, she found a job, but coping with a young baby and meeting the bills was difficult.
Again foraging helped her and she said: “Soon after my son was born, I started enjoying the outdoors again, probably because I needed to get out of the house and get into nature.
“I was working in telesales, but as a single parent with rent and bills, it was tough.
“I used to walk down through the farms and countryside for an hour and a half every day and pick things as I walked.”
She added: “I brewed wine to cook with and make beer or created staples like Hawthorn ketchup and great standby condiments that you could then make into marinades.”
After moving into a village by Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, Iona got her career on track by becoming a baker at a local bakery, before developing a new passion project – fungi.
She said: “I was foraging more and more and I remember first going out and picking 20 different species of mushroom and being able to identify about three of them.”
She added: “My brain loves a challenge and I was determined to learn how to identify them.
“Identifying mushrooms is like nature’s treasure hunt. It is like chasing the dopamine every time you find a new one.”
Purchasing a microscope and a selection of books for her own studies, while joining the online mycology community – who study fungi – Iona was bursting to share her new expertise.
She said: “It became a crusade to introduce everyone to foraging.”
Eventually, in 2012, she launched her foraging business Ashdown Forage, charging between £10 to £250 to teach people skills ranging from basic foraging and plant identification to full “forage and feast” experiences.
Then, in 2014, she met her husband Josh at the eco-festival Small World in Kent, while working in the café, and also launched a catering business that, of course, featured foraged food.
She said: “It was catering with a twist, so the preserves were all foraged, with homemade wines, or sloe jelly and gravy and wild herbs in meat pots.”
Now foraging is not just Iona’s career – it is also an important part of her family’s life.
She also fits in home-schooling her son Alexie and looking after her youngest Ever.
And her little boys love helping her to fill the kitchen cupboards with yummy finds.
She said: “Most days, we will go out for a foraging walk together. My three year old loves finding mushrooms.
“If I don’t have the children with me, I could spend up to eight hours a day foraging around the hedgerows and village common.
“The side veg of our meals is often foraged, like sea kale or hogweed shoots or buds and we never buy jams or preserves.”
There are many other menu options and, listing the kind of gourmet meals she teaches people to cook from foraged ingredients, they sound delicious.
She said: “I will do things like a mushroom pate to start or pickled walnuts or mushroom soup.
“Then for the veggies and vegans, I do a big bulgur wheat and quinoa salad with all the wild herbs and flowers, or rose petals in a chimichurri.”
She added: “The deserts are really fun though because you can make all sorts of wonderful things – like elderflower cheesecake with a wild mint jelly and a wood sorrel granita or a wild rose locum, which is like a Turkish Delight.”
For those tempted to get started, Iona stresses it is vital to learn which plants can be safely eaten – and how to spot and avoid the ones that are poisonous.
She strongly encourages any keen foragers to get to know The Poisons Group, where she volunteers, which is an emergency service for any potential poisoning cases.
Meanwhile, Iona is keen to encourage anyone and everyone to forage.
She said: “Everyone can learn to identify some edible plants – it is something we can all try and take huge joy from.”
IONA’S TOP TIPS FOR NEW FORAGERS
– Read up on foraging and identification.
– Start by picking an easily identifiable wildflower or food to find first, like elderflower.
– Ask for advice from people you trust in wild food/foraging groups, for example the Foraging and Folklore Facebook page.
– Find books which will help you with foraging and identification.
– Know what habitat the herb or plant you are looking for grows in, so you are looking in the right place.
– Don’t use artificial intelligence ID apps, which are not always reliable.
– Familiarise yourself with the most toxic plants, including the family of Apiaceae, which contains two of the most deadly plants.
– Understand how common the plant you are picking is and how your foraging will impact it – for example, picking one leaf of wild garlic will not kill the entire plant.
– Ensure your surroundings are safe before you start foraging.
– Find out if the land you are foraging on uses pesticides.
– Familiarise yourself with foraging laws.
website – https://www.ashdownforage.com/