PUBLISHED IN VINTAGE LIFE MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 2015
Over the last century, the ancient art of foraging has been given a decidedly modern makeover. It has gone from Hedgerow Harvest during World War II, when people foraged out of a sense of both duty and necessity, to today's eco-epicurean delights, with foraged 'weeds' now gracing the tables of Michelin star restaurants and TV Cooking shows.
Today's foraging courses are more often urban affairs where weeds, not apples, are the most sought after morsels. I was extremely fortunate to recently have the experience of attending foraging courses both here at home in Australia and also in the UK.
In Australia my course was instructed by Diego Bonetto (also affectionately known as 'The Weedy One' or 'Weed Nerd') who describes weeds as our “brothers and sisters” who have “evolved to grow with us”. He believes they are our “symbiotic species”; a reflection of how we treat our natural environment, often springing up in areas of depleted land as a way for nature to reestablish itself.
Diego migrated to Australia over twenty years ago from Italy, where he grew up foraging as a child, but this year Diego's foraging took him all the way to the Opera House where he, and a group of fellow ramblers, served up boxes and boxes of foraged 'weeds' as part of the TEDx Sydney 'Rebel Food' experience, which celebrated pushing the boundaries of acceptable foods - including weeds!
Meanwhile, on a recent trip to the UK I was also fortunate to attend a course by Robin Harford of foraging site 'Eat Weeds'. Robin describes himself as an 'Ethno Botanist' who also began foraging as a child and whose love of the wild was rekindled again later as an adult. He beautifully describes foraging as a parting of “the green wall”; a way to escape the “top heavy”, head-centric way we live our lives today through technology. He sees foraging as a way to “get out of our heads and come to our senses”.
Robin has foraged for Michelin Star chefs, eager to try his foraged finds, but as Robin says, to appreciate foraged foods “we don't need to be master chefs or Michelin chefs, we're just people who like to eat!”
Weeds as 'A La Carte' is a long way from the Hedgerow Harvest days of WWII but surprisingly Dandelions (one of the most cosmopolitan of weeds) feature in both the past and the present as a foraging constant.
A recipe for Dandelion Salad from Mary Woodman's 'Salads For All The Year Round' published 1930
Young dandelion leaves
Pick over, wash and dry well some young dandelion leaves; toss them in French dressing, mix with thinly sliced beetroot and serve in a salad bowl, garnished with slices of hard-boiled egg.
Dandelions have now spread, along with humans, to every corner of the globe and have even been found as far away as the North Pole!
Not surprisingly then, Dandelions (or 'tooth of the lion') are often the first plant new foragers learn to identify. In both Diego's Australian and Robin's UK courses, both recommended this cheery little weed as a great plant to 'cut' your foraging teeth on. You might be surprised to know that Dandelions are a surprisingly nutritious addition to the diet as well. They are “chock full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc.” *
Diego recommends Dandelions as a spring green, a summer flower for salads, as well as many other culinary delights, and roots to make a roasted, caffeine-free coffee substitute.
Robin describes Dandelions as a “bitter green”, which he suggests are perfectly offset by combining them “with sweet flavours like tomato”. Robin also suggested creating spiced vinegars from the buds, and marmalade, honey, syrup or vinegar from the flowers.
I have found that the leaves are a great spinach substitute and have added them to stir-fries and even an avocado dip, and of course the flowers add glam to any salad. I love ripping them up and sprinkling the bright yellow petals like little rays of sunshine over my greens.
Interestingly a trick Robin suggested, of picking Dandelion leaves from the shade for a less bitter flavour, was also a wartime technique as well. One of my vintage cooking books from that era, actually suggests covering Dandelions with a flower pot to end up with less bitterness in the leaves, which is a useful technique even today.
Today's foraging does however, come from a completely different headspace. It has come to represent an eagerness to reconnect with nature at a time when we are consistently being distracted and disconnected from nature by technology. A time when our diets are often formed around convenience, rather than local environment and seasonal changes. I myself have found that the mindfulness connection I have achieved from foraging is just as amazing as the foraged foods themselves. The actual process of foraging, of focusing on the search for edible living things, even in urban areas, reconnects us with the world around us and makes us more aware of our own place in nature.
There is also a desire to conserve past knowledge. In previous generations knowledge of local plants and wild edibles was handed down but today we rely so much on mass supply chains that we have no idea about the edible resource we have growing all around us. Ever since participating in my first foraging course I've begun to look at my local environment in a completely different way. Now a walk to the local post office is more like a walk through the 'veggie patch' as I can now spot at least five edible species growing by the path along the way!
So, I would recommend one of the best places to start if you are interested in foraging is to take a course in your local area. Both Robin (in the UK) and Diego (in Australia) run a variety of courses and are fountains of knowledge about local species and foraging etiquette.
Of course there are many important safety concerns when foraging so please take my advice and learn as much as you can before you even think about foraging for food purposes.
Diego & Robin's Top Tips are:
“The best place to forage is your own garden. You know if it's clean and you probably know something about the soil it's growing in.” - Diego
In Australia our obsession with extermination of exotic plant species means many weeds in public areas are frequently treated with herbicides and poisons so please use extreme caution when foraging from a public area, even if you know it well.
In the UK Robin suggests ancient cemeteries as “clean spaces” for foraging (but even then, always do your homework).
“Positively identify everything! If you don't know what you're doing ask someone who does. If in doubt, go without.” - Diego
There are many poisonous plants and mushrooms in both Australia and the UK that can cause serious illness or even death so please exercise caution at all times. Additionally, medical conditions and allergies can also be serious considerations when foraging.
“Be nice to the colony. If you see a patch of ten Dandelions, only harvest two. Harvest only enough that you can process straight away and say thank you to the plants.” - Diego
Similarly, Robin suggests looking for those “zones of abundance” rather than “zones of scarcity” so that you don't exhaust your foraging areas. In the UK especially this is becoming an increasing concern. As foraging is becoming more mainstream, certain colonies are being exploited to the long term detriment of the area. Please be considerate and only harvest what you need for your immediate, personal needs.
And last but not least – always follow local regulations when foraging. For example, in Australia certain plants and regeneration areas are protected and should not be foraged. Please check for regeneration notifications before foraging in public areas for native species.
Robin recommends that in the UK asking permission is the polite way to forage.
“You may have permission to gather and forage but this will probably not extend to the roots of plants.” - Robin
Learning to forage can be the start of an amazing culinary and mindfulness adventure and one that I have personally found incredibly rewarding. In this busy world of smart phones and reality television, the realest experience you could probably immerse yourself in, is to step outside and stop to 'smell' the Dandelions once in a while. There is a whole natural larder waiting for you just outside your door and best of all, it's free!
For more info on either Robin or Diego's courses check out:
Robin's Site (UK):
Diego's Site (Australia):
*Source: Dandelion | University of Maryland Medical Center http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/dandelion#ixzz3f4uxrMkH