The life of a professional forager

In dense bush, somewhere in the back-blocks of the Kāpiti Coast, Mike King is tearing a handful of leaves off a magnolia tree.

He crunches them between his palms, waves them under my nose and asks if they smell of bay leaves. They do. They also taste of them.

Foraged salad and stirfry

- Sharon Stephenson (originally published in Stuff Oct 16, 2019)

So far, we've plucked and nibbled chickweed, wood sorrel, golden elm seeds and the spindly fronds of water celery that, weirdly, taste like parsnip. Still to come are ginko berries and delicate purple princess tree flowers that couldn't look more different from mushrooms, yet taste of mushroom soup. 

King, 37, is a professional forager who scours Kāpiti's lifestyle blocks for wild edible vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers for restaurants such as Paraparaumu Beach's 50-50, where chef/owner Helen Turnbull incorporates King's foraged goodies into her inventive menu.

"Helen's wish-list for this week includes Barbary flowers, bamboo, watercress and lemon wood flowers," says King. 

The pair met a year ago when King was growing oyster mushrooms in an insulated shipping container on the lawn of his Otaki home. "I was supplying local restaurants with mushrooms and Helen asked if I knew where to find green walnuts that she wanted to pickle. I did but asked if she'd ever tried Japanese walnuts or black walnuts, which I also forage locally." 

Before long, King was stumbling across other edible plants and flowers such as loquats, titoki berries, mountain pawpaw and staghorn flowers, which taste like sumac.

"I started to read everything I could about exotic and native plants to see what was and wasn't edible." 

Foraging, of course, isn't new. Our ancestors knew how to identify and prepare wild plant foods, a skill that was essential to their survival. And while some of this knowledge has been passed down through generations, much of it has been lost along the way. 

Turkey tail mushroom v2
Himalayan strawberry tree v3
Camelia flowers v2
Finders Eaters Kawa kawa berries and ice plant fruits v2

People are really interested in what's out there and the different flavours they can add to their food.

Mike King

Finders Eaters Mike King
Finders Eaters Kawa kawa berries and ice plant fruits
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A few years ago, the trend of plucking wild plants from the countryside was spearheaded by celebrity chef Rene Redzepi who did so for his $500 tasting menu at Copenhagen's Noma restaurant. 

Around the same time, sustainability became more than just a buzzword and, as people seek to fill their plates with locally sourced, low impact, seasonal food, foraging is becoming more popular. 

Six months ago, King got more serious about his part-time job (he's an arborist by trade), gaining a food safety certificate and becoming licensed with the Kāpiti District Council.

These days, he's also the go-to forager for a Paraparaumu florist and a couple of gin distilleries. The first, The National Distillery Company, was established in an art deco building in Napier by a pair of Kapiti restaurateurs.

"They wanted to use native botanicals for their gin, so I sent them samples of seeds, berries and bark." The distillers finally settled on flax seeds, which King continues to source for them.

He's also been working with Marlborough-based Elemental Distillers, foraging gorse flowers and kawakawa berries for their gin. 

King recently started selling boxes of salad and stir-fry foraged greens at Wellington's Sunday market and Paraparaumu's Saturday market under his Finders Eaters brand. Recent boxes included wild fennel, pine pollen catkins, beach spinach and abutilon and calendula flowers.  

"People are really interested in what's out there and the different flavours they can add to their food."   

It's a long way from the kindergarten teaching role King originally trained for. But when love intervened – in the form of German social worker Nina – King moved to his now wife's homeland for a decade.

"We lived in Germany's Black Country, about 1½ hours from Stuttgart and, while Nina completed her social work and art therapy qualifications, I changed career and took on a landscape gardening apprenticeship."

Finders Eaters salad box
Finders Eaters Kahikatea berries stag horn sumac and burgandy wine cap mushrooms

That eventually morphed into specialised arborist work and King had his own business for six years. The couple moved back in 2014 and, after travelling around New Zealand in a house bus, settled with their daughter Maia, now two, on the Kāpiti Coast, where King started his own arborist business.  

Next up, is another collaboration with Helen Turnbull, selling ready-to-eat meals that will showcase the fruits of King's foraging labours. 

"We'll probably start selling them at markets, but I'm really keen to get a food truck, because it can get cold when you're standing on a windy market stall!"