Where the Wild Things Are Served: How to be a Modern Forager
Every August, throughout my childhood, I used to go blackberry picking with my grandparents and our tribe of siblings. We would descend on the Cambridgeshire hedgerows in force, filling our baskets and punnets. The ripe brambles would be taken back to the homestead and transformed into epicurean delights – crumbles, jams and rich fruity wines. Happy days, as Jamie Oliver would say as he signed away another corner of his soul to Sainsburys.
All modern humans were hunter-gatherers until 10,000 years ago. Surprisingly, there are still many communities and tribes of people still living off the land, even in very harsh landscape. The Inuits thrive in The Arctic Circle and the Khoisian have for centuries coped admirably in the barren Kalahari Desert.
In western civilisation, as our economic supremacy starts to fissure, we are experiencing a resurgence of foraging. More fashionable now than it has ever been, wild food has become a major focus for restaurants at the cutting edge of gastronomy. Marc Veyrat, thought by many of his contemporaries as the best chef in the world, is known for his creativity and use of natural and organic ingredients. Rather than using butter, flour, eggs, oil, or cream, he instead uses roots, mountain plants, mountain herbs, and wild flowers harvested in the French Alps. This style of true back to basics has in recent years been spearheaded by René Redzepi’s reinvention and refinement of New Nordic Cuisine at Noma. Voted best restaurant in the world over the past three years, it has knocked El Bulli, Renés former training ground, off the top spot. Some of our most highly-prized delicacies have always been foraged or caught wild – truffles, morels, abalone, lobster and so on – but what’s new is that many chefs are now turning to humble wild plants, and even common garden weeds, in search of novel tastes and textures to excite their customers’ jaded palates.
But you don’t have to pay through the nose at a Michelin-starred restaurant to sample the best of nature’s own larder. Foraged greens, roots, berries and fungi have begun to crop up in more affordable and down-to-earth restaurants. But don’t dismiss the wild food trend as a pretentious fad. Just as wild salmon tastes remarkably different to the farmed variety, so many wild plants and fungi provide richer, deeper, more complex flavours than their cultivated cousins. Whether you’re out there combing the countryside for your own ingredients or sampling them in restaurants, there’s a new palette of genuinely exciting flavours to discover.
There are now scores of foraging courses to enroll in ranging from days to whole weeks in the wilderness. They begin with an introduction to the common and slightly lesser known varieties of wild plants followed by a safety talk guiding you from the pitfalls of an agonizing quietus by misdiagnosis. Then you start the hands-on practical side in the morning, where you end up collecting your lunch. The constituents of your harvest are dependent on the seasons and ever-changing landscape of Mother Nature. Seasonality and sustainability are driving factors for the modern forager. Your fayre can range from ramsons (Wild Garlic) or borage to hogweed and spear thistles. Each edible genus comes with a caution of its poisonous doppelganger. For example Wild Garlic can be confused with the poisonous Lily-of-the -Valley and hogweed with giant hogweed. Know your (wild) onions.
Richard Mabey, the forefather of modern foraging was known as “that man who eats weeds” following the publication in 1972 of his bestselling book, Food For Free. His pocket paperback inspired hordes of townsfolk to scour the British countryside in search of wild. Mabey was moved to write the book partly out of concern that the traditional skills and knowledge of country folk were in danger of dying out. The craze sparked by his book soon waned, but it has remained in print ever since, a veritable treasure-trove of information for subsequent generations of ‘weed-eaters’.
Unbeknown to most of us it is, in fact, illegal in the UK to uproot any wild plant with out authorisation. It’s also against the law to collect protected wild plants or enter land or property with out permission. The courses also explain the etiquette of the forager, such as, one should only harvest what they need from safe stocks leaving enough of the plant population to prosper.
So before you don your hunting gear and head off to the countryside to live as a Cro-Magnon and bite the heads off otters, it would be advisable to take a course or two with a master forager. One wouldn’t want to suffer. Legally or literally.