How and Why to Eat the Wild
You can look at a landscape for years, grow fond of it, paint it, photograph it - but never really see it.
An old friend used to say the countryside in summer looked like a pile of unappetising spinach. While its easy to pick out obvious landmarks such as hills, rivers, woods and buildings, the rest can sometimes seem like indistinct green filler. Only when you get closer that you realise there are thriving ecosystems of plants, creatures, insects, mosses and fungi all competing, co-existing and responding to one another in an intricate dance.
Channelling your childhood self, you could crouch right down until you can smell the earth and feel its dampness through the fabric of your jeans. Impenetrable walls of green stuff become complex forests of tall cow parsley, nettles, jack-by-the-hedge, and docken, with twining vetch, ground elder and shy speedwell underneath, all teeming with bees, beetles, and bugs of all kinds. You would find a whole other world as oblivious to us as we are to it.
And realistically, why would you look? Unless you've lost a football, dog, or car keys, it's rare you would ever get involved with the tangles of vegetation edging our roads, woodlands or riversides.
That is unless you want to eat it.
In the UK, 'foraging' or gathering food from the 'wild' has fallen in and out of favour over the last few centuries. This says more about our perception of nature than it does about the eating quality of wild foods. Even though foraging is something human beings have done - and relied upon to survive - since the beginning of time, we have created all kinds of societal rules and perceptions that make incorporating the landscape alternately aberrant or admirable behaviour. At present, there is a trend for wild foods amongst the cheffy crowd, with most restaurants worth their salt employing their own forager. This has the dual effect of encouraging more folk to be aware that food does not have to come from a supermarket, and also supporting the alienating perception that it is only something that can be done by 'professionals'.
It is true that knowledge of a broad range of edible plants and fungi is no longer common, but that's not surprising when you consider the UK's history of industrialisation and persistent trajectory towards urbanisation. When one generation no longer has ready access to plants for food or medicine - perhaps because they have moved into the city, or have decided that behaviour is no longer appropriate - it becomes harder to pass that knowledge on to the next generation. Historically, wild foods have been relied upon by rural and poorer communities - also being known as 'hunger foods' in times of starvation. For many, wild foods, and even game, retain negative connotations associated with times of desperation and poverty.
And in truth, why would you risk getting stung by nettles and scratched by brambles for a few leaves, when our supermarkets are abundantly stocked and attractively cheap? We don't need to forage for our food anymore. Add yet, I'd argue there is more reason to eat the wild then ever before.
I recently offered a wild food course around the village where I grew up. It's a landscape incredibly familiar to me, but since my interest in plants and our relationship to them has grown, I have come to see it in an entirely new way.
When looking for your favourite edible plants, you become attuned to their preferred spot. Wild garlic and sweet cicely prefer riversides and damper areas. Wood sorrel and violets can be found in darker wooded areas. Pignuts proliferate in lightly grazed meadows. As you learn the preferences of each plant, you also come to observe which other plants tend to grow alongside them and how they interrelate with other living things around them. Many years ago, on an impromptu forage with Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods, I remember him saying that plants themselves become landmarks that form a map, guiding your exploration and understanding of an area. This is seeing the landscape from a totally different perspective: not as something 2-dimensional to be looked at out the window, but as a multidimensional, dynamic space to be engaged with.
Mark also expressed a clear enthusiasm for the weird and wonderful eating experiences afforded by wild foods. Nowadays, most of the vegetables and leaves we buy or grow are bred to be sweet and quite bland. The flavours of many wild herbs, leaves and roots can be hugely surprising to the modern palate - sour, bitter, pungent, perfumed, lingering. Equally, the texture can be challenging: rough, hairy, tough, juicy, viscous, delicate. Of course, there are great culinary merits in the cultivated foods we enjoy everyday, and it would be crazy, unnecessary, and not very pleasurable, to try and survive entirely from wild and foraged foods. But including some flavour diversity in your diet with a bit of sorrel, garlic-mustard, or meadowsweet keeps the daily task of eating interesting!
Many of the folk who came foraging with me at Bedrule were motivated by the perception that wild foods are better for you - a belief that has actually long informed our search for medicinal plants. We named many plants for their ability to heal, for example, goutweed (ground elder) traditionally used as a poultice for gout, or 'knit-bone' (comfrey) believed to mend broken bones. When it comes to wild plants, the distinction between food and medicine is often vague, but as to whether wild plants are more nutritious, chemical analyses of various common edibles shows that their levels of minerals and vitamins far exceed those in 'cultivated' vegetables, something you might guess from their intense flavours. For this reason, you don't have to eat tons of it. Eating small portions of wild greens and herbs occasionally - perhaps even just grazing as you walk - can have a much greater effect on health than you might imagine.
But beyond nutritional content, the best benefit for health has to be just getting outdoors and being in touch with nature. Having a delicious reason to get some fresh air and stretch your legs is great incentive, and there's a deep satisfaction to be had when you can begin to identify more of the plants you see along your walk.
By far and away the most compelling reason to forage in my opinion, is becoming intimate with your landscape. Understanding its complexity, recognising the richness of life it supports, valuing its beauty and purpose such that you will be concerned if that life is threatened. As Richard Mabey pointed out in his famous book 'Food for Free', you are much less likely to allow the destruction of a hedgerow when it is the provider of your sloe gin or rejuvenating springtime salad. Care for our countryside is difficult if it is an anonymous blur of green stuff, but when we know the landscape around us holds immediate value for our culinary pleasure and wellbeing, we see it in a whole new light.
Some great resources on wild foods in Scotland:
Galloway Wild Foods - www.gallowaywildfoods.com
- courses, resources and recommendations from Scotland’s most energetic forager, Mark Williams.
Eat Weeds - www.eatweeds.co.uk
- A foragers guide to the wild edible plants of the British Isles.
Monica Wilde - www.monicawilde.com
- Writing, recipes and ruminations from another adventurous Scottish forager.