Foraging: Living Off the Fat of the Land

Noun 1. foraging – the act of searching for food and provisions.

The prices of staple foods such as rice & wheat could stay high for the next three years, hindering the battle against poverty, a top World Bank official said recently. I personally think this may be the understatement of the year. With austerity measures to stay around for at least another two to three years, I doubt very much staple food will come down as the price to fill a gas tank could, more or less, double within the next five years. Foodstuffs need reasonably priced transportation and it looks as though it’s going to get worse before it gets better. On the one hand this is good news as we all should eat locally, as much as possible, and on the other, staples like coffee, chocolate & spices, among others, are hard to find in your nearest forest let alone in the local grocery store if transportation is limited.

Welcome to world of foraging, a lost art for most as more and more convenient stores and supermarket chains crop up in neighborhoods with dizzying regularity. Try this for a change: take your family to the nearest forest, gather wild produce and see if you can bring home the bacon, so to speak. There is such a thing as a free lunch after all, the elite forager insists, as long as you know what to look for. Henry David Thoreau, the master forager, understood that gathering foodstuffs was about more than the end crop:

“The bitter-sweet of a white-oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pineapple.”

Foraging isn’t just fun, it’s green as well. No food miles, no pesticides, no pointless plastic packaging, plenty of fresh air, no money exchanged…what’s not to like?

My life as a forager started early. My great grandmother, a tireless walker with an encyclopedic knowledge of Provencal lore and the woods around us initiated me aged five. Off we went on most clement mornings, our jute bags with large carrying handles over our shoulders and our Opinel knives (a must have for serious foragers) safely sheathed in our back pockets. She would decide, depending on the season, of the day’s gatherings. Most days we would head for the forest and on others we’d go to the seaside and explore our pine trees covered “calanques” for seawed, baby clams, tiny crabs, sea-urchins (my job was to dive and select females only, as males didn’t bear eggs), whelks, and of course pine nuts which were plentiful. The trips to the forest were longer and more exciting: we had to climb the nearest tree to avoid galloping wild boars a couple of times.

When the mushroom or the stone fruit season wasn’t on, we’d set off for specific areas, all intimately known to her and start gathering wild carrots, asparagus, garlic, artichokes, nettles, all kinds of edible berries, wild spinach (though it could have been collards), wild herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and when our bags were nearly full, we’d pick some wildflowers for our favorite family members and head off home. The only bit of food we’d ever take with us was a small loaf of country bread, and two small bottles of olive oil and vinegar, and a little salt, in case we decided to make a salad on the spot. To my best recollection we came back with full bags each foray.

Here are a few tips on what to look for should you wish to explore the nearest woods.

First of all be very sure of what you are eating and know what Poison Ivy and wild Parsnip look like to avoid them while foraging. Be a responsible forager, asking for permission when necessary. Be kind to the trees and plants you harvest, leaving enough behind for them to regenerate or reseed. Always leave some for the wild birds and animals that depend on them for survival. Never gather too much in one area that looks stripped or bare.

Violets: the purple or white flowers of all American violet species are edible and can be found in the early spring on lawns, on roadsides or in the woods. They can be used as beautiful garnishes in salads, or candied for cake decorations or an elegant dessert.

Dandelions: many people know that dandelions are edible, but few know how to deal with them. The leaves must be picked before the flower heads open, or they will be very bitter (my great grandmother used to soak the leaves overnight in water with the juice of one or two lemons). They are very good in a salad, especially one with a Dijon mustard dressing.

Elderberries: it’s easy to pick elderberries, just snap off the entire cluster and drop it into your bucket. They are not tasty fresh or in pies, but cooked into juices or jellies, they are delicious.

Purslane: this plant is a weed in the States but is cultivated in Europe and Asia today and has been grown in India and Persia for centuries. Added to soups and stews, it can help to thicken the broth, as does okra. It is also good fried with bacon, or in an omelet.

Yellow wood sorrel: a tart, delicious three leaved plant that I have gathered in my childhood. It is first seen in early spring, and its tiny yellow flowers are a cheery sight after a long winter. It has a lemony flavor that goes well in salads and cold or hot fruit soups.

Ah, and the mighty chestnut, the most delectable wild source of carbohydrate bar none. There are, of course hundreds more wild eats, and I could go on till the cows come home, but diary size matters!

The most overlooked area to forage is our own gardens, yards, and property, and that could be another diary in the future. In the meantime here’s a small list of websites for your perusal, should you decide to give foraging a try.

LearningHerbs.com, is a site with some great wild food recipes. The Journal of Wild Mushrooms; Modern Forager;Fergus the Forager; Backwoods Home; About Forager’s Harvest Classes; Wild Food Foragers.

This entry was posted in Activism, Environmental Issue, Food, Health, Memoirs and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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