Woman becomes foraging instructor after sourcing free food as a skint student

Want to learn how to cook full-blown gourmet meals without forking out for any of the ingredients? 

Iona Fraser, 40, began foraging as a skint student and, now a mum-of-three and professional foraging instructor, still makes up some of her meals out of food she picked herself. 

Growing up in Brighton, East Sussex, with her mum, Liz Walker, 70, and dad, Angus Fraser, 76, Iona learned how to forage for food on weekend trips with her dad. 

‘My dad owned a game restaurant, where he worked as a chef and sold wild meat,’ she said.

‘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.’

Leaving home and attending sixth-form while living on benefits at just 16, Iona was forced to scrape by on just £7 a week after bills. 

‘I got used to surviving on very little,’ Iona said. ‘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.

‘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.’

Later, after getting into Brighton University to study Social Sciences, Iona was forced to drop out when she fell pregnant with her son Steil Fraser, 20, when she was only 19.

Despite finding a job, making ends meet as a single parent was tough, and Iona found herself foraging for food once more. 

‘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,’ she said.

‘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.

‘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 to a village near Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, Iona soon became passionate about identifying different mushrooms and fungi, eventually leading her into her career as a foraging instructor and launching her business, Ashdown Forage, in 2012. 

She now teaches people skills ranging from basic foraging and plant identification to full ‘forage and feast’ experiences.

While she doesn’t think foraging should be ’touted as the solution for the cost of living crisis,’ Iona believes that learning to find food instead of buying it could help people out, as long as they have enough time. 

‘In the short term, if you have enough time, it can definitely be a hugely useful tool,’ she said.

‘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.’

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 says that The Poisons Group, an emergency service for any potential poisoning cases, is also a vital contact. 

Meanwhile, Iona is keen to encourage anyone and everyone to forage.

‘Everyone can learn to identify some edible plants,’ she added. ‘It is something we can all try and take huge joy from.’

How to start foraging

  • 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

Iona Fraser, Foraging Instructor

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