Liz Knight founded Forage Fine Foods in 2011, supplying what she describes as “simple blends” of flavours in the form of conserves, jellies and dried herb blends to the likes of Fortnum and Masons. She wasn’t always a forager, though food has always been, in her words, “a key thing. I didn’t have any training of pairing flavours, that must have just been instinctive.”
She describes the early days of the business, and how her knowledge base grew. “The ingredients I was using were really really obvious, like elderberry, and hawthorn; you could get a little field guide like that little Phillips book I had, and that pretty much was my guide at the beginning of discovering stuff.
“Social media was an amazing thing for this, a massive learning tool. It made the possibilities seem endless; all these triggers – “this is what a shrub is” “I’ve been out picking rosebay willow herb and making it into a syrup”, “right if I stick some wood into that, that could happen.” – and the access to people, foragers, chefs, people doing exciting things in the drinks industry… I think it’s been revolutionary. It becomes like a conversation that just never stops.”
Before taking the plunge into wild food full time, she had job in IT account management. “I hated it; I used to have squidgy berries in the bottom of my handbag whenever I’d go into meetings I’d pull out like mouldy hawthorns and stuff.”
After the financial crash in 2000, Liz was made redundant, and she says that was the moment when she found herself going foraging, “a lot more than what the average person would”.
“I had three months where I wasn’t working. And I gardened, and I gathered stuff. We’d just moved to this house and we’d made quite a lot of friends and I was really into cooking. I didn’t want to stop being able to have friends around, so I’d do things like make an elderberry pie, or do like an apple tart with a rosehip syrup. And people were going, “This is bonkers, I didn’t realise you could eat this…” And to me it was kind of obvious to know you could eat that, and it never scared me. Maybe it’s just gumption. Probably is just gumption! But I was always willing to just stick something in my mouth and go, “oh, I wonder what that’s like,” and to assume stuff was food.”
She traces the origin of this attitude to encounters as an 8 year old in her home town, Letchworth Garden City, with an elderly couple who lived on her route to school.
“Cath had greenhouses and she grew cherry tomatoes, which were ridiculously exotic at the time, and “mind your own business”, and fuscia. And she one day fed me a fuscia berry, and I can remember her giving it to me; I can remember seeing it, the exact berry and having it. And it tasted of fig and it tasted of plum, and it was amazing! I really think that probably, as a child, being allowed to do that, to eat something that was so not food, conventionally, must have been a huge trigger.”
In Liz’s view, the trust implicit in this exchange was amply rewarded, and has informed many of her relationships going forward – being a bit vulnerable maybe, being open to strangers.
“Actually you can meet – every day – you can meet amazing people, can’t you? And it’s just kind of what life is, it’s so short and it can be so enriched. Because it just takes that moment of talking, doesn’t it?”
“And I think it’s the same for food and for plants and for experiences. You know, you can walk past food, you can walk past nature. Foraging allows you to see it as being something beautiful rather than being like, “oh that’s just a dock or that’s just a nettle,” it’s got a reason. It’s validated. And I think that makes you see the world differently.”