On your next walk around the block, take note of what’s growing by footpaths and on verges. There’s a world of flavour just waiting to be foraged.
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We’d arrived on the coast, south of Naples, to watch the friend of a friend of a friend’s house over summer.
After a morning swim, I noticed a familiar weed growing in a car park. I plucked a leaf and tasted it. Fresh, peppery. “It’s rocket,” I said.
We gathered more, cradling it in damp beach towels. With some fresh cheese from the local market and juicy tomatoes grown by the lady next door, we made a salad. The young Italian guy from a few doors down who’d adopted us stalked off like a surly child. He wasn’t going to eat weeds, not when nonna would make him pasta.
We sprawled on the terrace, August sun beating down on our tissue-paper pale legs, picking at what was possibly the freshest salad ever consumed.
At the time, I didn’t even know it was foraging.
This was before guests at chef Hisoto Nakahigashi’s ryokan Miyamaso were yet to enjoy kaiseki meals created using flowers, herbs, mushrooms and other wild ingredients found in the Japanese forest.
Patience Gray had published Honey From A Weed, but it was yet to reach cult status. Rene Redzepi, possibly the world’s most famous forager, was yet to pluck pineapple weed from the cracks in the footpath for his dishes at Noma or release an app called Vild Mad (Wild Food).
“The basic premise is simple: Everyone in the world should grow up as a forager,” he said at its launch in 2017.
“Knowing your ABCs in nature, the flora and fauna, the patterns of the landscape and the rhythm of the seasons, is as important as learning how to read and write.”
Of course, foraging is an ancient practice – common weeds and seeds were found in the mummified stomach of Tollund Man, who lived in Scandinavia around fourth century BCE – but hasn’t really become mainstream until the past decade or so.
“All cultures around the world have huge histories of using these plants,” says horticulturalist and avid forager Annie Raser-Rowland. “Not just in times of famine, but because people were sensible and said, ‘Well, they’re there, they’re edible, why would we not eat them?’”
Annie and her foraging wingman, Adam Grubb, run weed walks and workshops in Melbourne, and have written two books, The Weed Forager’s Handbook and The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More.
She says a light go on in city dwellers’ eyes when they realise edible plants – dandelion, marrow, nettles, dock, wild brassicas – are all around them and that it’s a far more ethical way of eating.
“Even when you grow your own vegetables, there’s an environmental impact,” she explains. “Maybe you drove to the nursery, you bought some seedlings, they were in plastic punnets you had to throw away, you watered them. If you eat a self-grown – we like to call them autonomous – plant, there is no environmental impact.”
That goes equally for plants we consider native and those that have been introduced.
“The whole nature of lots of these plants is that they are global citizens,” she says. “They’ve adapted to being carried around by birds and winds really easily and coming up in all sorts of different environments.
“We call them the rock stars of the plant kingdom – it’s live fast, die young, make a lot of babies.”
While there may be a slow acceptance of weed eating among the civilian population, some chefs have completely embraced it.
In Australia, Aaron Teece serves up lantana, purslane and society garlic at The Valley Estate on the Gold Coast. Analiese Gregory cooked at Quay in Sydney, The Ledbury in London and with Michel Bras in the south of France, where she honed her foraging skills, before moving to Tasmania and writing How Wild Things Are: Cooking, Fishing and Hunting at the Bottom of the World. Ben Shewry forages for more than a hundred different species of wild plants throughout the year for his menu at Melbourne’s Attica.
Chef Ray Capaldi now does most of his handiwork in the commercial kitchen of his company Wonder Pies, but when he was cooking at Melbourne restaurants like Fenix and Hare & Grace he would often forage for ingredients to add to dishes. These days, he does it for himself.
“It must have been 20 years ago,” he recalls. “We started using food that was on the banks of the Yarra and in the backstreets in Richmond. If I needed saltbush or seaweeds for salads I’d drive to Black Rock or Mornington once a week.”
His education started a long time before that though, in the forests near his childhood home in Scotland.
“My nonno always used to take me out into the forest foraging for mushrooms,” he says. “We’d take a gas burner and fry up the mushrooms with a little bit of fresh garlic. They were my favourite times because he would teach me about different wild herbs, like dandelion leaves, wild rocket and all the other things we’d find.”
Nonno also taught Ray about honouring nature’s cycles. They always collected mushrooms in a wicker basket so that spores shaken free would fall back to the forest floor.
“If you really wanted to give back, once you’d picked your mushrooms you’d sprinkle the spores on an ant hill, so the ants would take them and put them all over the forest floor. So you’re taking and you’re replanting.”
For Anna, the storytelling aspect of foraging – regaling people with the lengths to which you went to secure their meal, recalling hunting for mushrooms with a beloved grandfather – elevates a meal: “It makes the act of consuming inherently more satisfying.” It also connects the forager to the land around them, and makes them look at it with fresh eyes.
“I was doing a very long hike in the Central Desert and had definitely under packed on food,” she says. “I realised there was sow thistle growing in cracks in the gorges, and it became this precious green vegetable to add to my pot of lentils and rice every night.
All day long my eyes would be searching the landscape, which meant I looked at that landscape in a much more intimate and meaningful way, rather than just going, ‘Oh, look another rock wallaby.’
“It made my eyes peel away that layer of just being a tourist.”