From a discarded core
Take a drive down any small country road and you are likely, at some point, to spot a wild fruit tree. A fruit stone or core, discarded by a passing traveller years earlier, had resulted in a wild tree – a focal point for foragers. Not only do these wild fruit trees provide treasure for those seeking fruit; they have also had an important role to play in preserving old varieties of fruit trees. Critical knowledge about apples, for example, is being found through the investigation of ancient varieties in China and Kazakhstan and, for the geeks out there, research conducted in 2010 on the domesticated apple mapped its whole genome, discovering more than 57,000 genes – that’s about 36,000 more genes than humans have. There’s some food for thought.
Something old is new again
It’s clear there is value in wild food. From a scientific perspective, it provides vital genetic information (that seems important in fighting the diseases that new, evolved, plants appear susceptible to) and, it can also provide food for humans and animals. Foraging is not new – it is undoubtedly a throwback to our hunter-gatherer phase of evolution, and it is common-sense to make good use of what is around you. What is relatively new is how it is now “on trend “meaning that there is an explosion of books and articles published on the topic (one author enthusiastically claims “turn your weeds into delicious, nutritious food”), restaurants claim it in their repertoire and online support groups are established to help you distinguish your parsley from your hemlock (as an aside, it was hemlock that killed Socrates, so maybe avoid eating hemlock). Foraging is also what wild animals do; by definition, foraging is searching for wild food resources.
Some authors suggest that foraging is something we should participate in as it increases our survival knowledge (which is actually inherently sensible for those not living in extremely built environments – the foraging that could be done in a state forest differs considerably to that which could be done in downtown New York, for example). It does increase physical activity (it is impossible to forage from the couch unless you include online pizza ordering as a form of foraging). Importantly, foraging also increases our knowledge about food: it’s origin, how and where it can be grown, and how to identify and cook it. It probably increases our appreciation of the particular food too – something that requires effort to attain is often valued more.
Food wisdom, food knowledge
Successfully collecting your own food from the forest requires a great deal of knowledge. For example, according to the Plant Conservation Network, there are expected to be around 22,000 different fungi in New Zealand, to date only 7,500 species have been recorded, and knowing which are safe to eat is vital to a successful (and long-lived) foraging career. Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), for example, make a great subject for photographic purposes but don’t put them in your stew.
There are a number of wild plants that are also associated with traditional cooking and health, and it is with these plants that we have seen an explosion within the restaurant and commercial food scene. Therein lies a paradox with the commercial use of foraged foods – when it is commercial it is no longer foraged by the diner: a chef may go into the forest and collect horopito, but if they onsell the horopito to diners, does that equate to a foraged food experience or rather a “local” or sustainable experience?
A few golden rules
There are a few golden rules for those interested in tasting a few wild plants, and, while they are obvious, it is worth stating them.
First up (most sensibly): Don’t use taste to test whether something is safe (Darwin had a theory on people who did that sort of thing). Positively identifying a plant or fruit is vital before it goes anywhere near your mouth. If in doubt, don’t collect/eat it.
Plants can look quite different at different stages of their life cycle. Don’t collect foods from where they may have been exposed to sprays, pollution or other contaminants (particularly animal excrement). And always get permission before collecting from someone else’s land – jumping the fence to retrieve field mushrooms is a bit of a no-no.
Forage at your own risk
The idea of foraging for food is attractive in that the cost is in time and effort, you are using something that would not be eaten otherwise and there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained by feeling a little more resilient or sustainable. It increases awareness of our natural environment and gets people outside, but the downsides are the risk to health from misidentification or contamination. Our usual buffers against contaminated or substandard food don’t apply to things we have plucked on a nature walk – it shifts from a case of ‘buyer beware’ to ‘forage at your own risk’.