Look on the wild side

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

WILD FOOD:HERE IS NOTHING new about foraging for food. It might be considered fashionable right now, but food collected from the wild has always been a part of our diet.

What is new, however, is foraging for fun, foraging as a pastime. Along with the fun, however, there is a serious and seriously helpful aspect to foraging. Wild foods are the most healthy foods you can eat.

The ancient foragers who were our distant ancestors knew a thing or two about eating for optimum health. The diet of these hunter gatherers, we now know, exceeded our modern recommended daily requirement of vitamins and minerals between two- and 10-fold.

Foraged food is recognised to be even more nutritionally rich than any of our modern day health diets, including the food pyramid. And, just like wood that heats you three times as you cut, chop and burn it, so foraged food nourishes repeatedly, as you study, search and cook with it.

It took a restaurateur, René Redzepi, to rekindle our love of foraging and turn it into a fashionable pastime. Copenhagen restaurant Noma, voted for the past three years as the best in the world, specialises in foraged food. And this trend has infiltrated the minds of chefs the world over. Now many restaurants want to be seen to be using foods from the wild, and many even employ full- time foragers.

In Ireland, we are blessed with pristine and bounteous landscapes in which to find different foraged foods. We have woodlands, grasslands, hedges and gardens for “wildculture” and a long, beautiful coastline for sea vegetables and seafood.

If you want to learn to forage, you need a good wild flower book, a penknife, some ziplock bags and probably a pair of wellies. It may seem daunting at first, when you confront the natural world, but if you start with a few plants that you already know, you can soon stockpile some forager recipes.

Plants that you are probably already familiar with include nettle, dandelion and blackberry. You surely know the banks of white-headed garlic that line our roadsides. You may already have been lucky enough to find wild sloes. These are all forager foods.

On our coastlines, it is comforting to know that all seaweeds are edible. Look a little closer and you’ll find scurvy grass, sea beet and the lovely yellow flowers of wild radish.

Then take each environment or ecosystem and get to know the plants that grow there. Woods are full of mushrooms, but the trees themselves are often edible. Mayflower is delicious, and tastes of almonds. Spruce makes a wonderful syrup and, at the base of the trees, wood sorrel is easy to identify. Grasslands offer sorrel and dandelion. Hedgerows bring mustards and berries. Your own garden probably offers wild cress and chickweed. Springs of water produce watercress.

There are plenty of rules to foraging, so take care and forage sustainably. Know that there are deadly poisonous plants and mushrooms. Try to learn the plants by their families, and don’t eat anything you haven’t properly identified, especially avoiding the umbelliferae or carrot family, until you know more, for this family contains some of the most poisonous plants. Avoid water plants where sheep have grazed. And don’t turn your back on the tide when you are collecting seaweeds.

But with a little knowledge, and a lot of enthusiasm, you can re-tune yourself to your environment and rekindle what is already a part of your genetic make-up. You can bring on the hunter gatherer that you instinctively are.

WHAT TO FORAGE FOR NOW

This is the season of berries, nuts and mushrooms. The September harvest moon will bring low tides for seaweed, and it’s a great time to start scouting for shellfish.

Hedgerow finds:make jams and jellies from haws (the fruit of the hawthorn tree), rowans and sloes.

Elderberries:when the berries are still green, and the branches upturned, with slightly red stalks, you can use them to make pickled elderberry capers. Leave 1kg of elderberries in 300g of salt for three weeks. Drain, rinse with water, sieve and jar. Cover with cider vinegar and leave a further six weeks. When the branches drop the fruit is ready to make jams and jellies.

Rose-hips:are packed with vitamin C. Make syrups and jellies with them.

Mushrooms:we all know how dangerous it is to randomly pick mushrooms, but there are a number of varieties that are unmistakeable. A good one to start with is the hedgehog mushroom. Nothing else looks like it. Otherwise do a course, buy good books, and try to follow an expert.

Hazelnuts:these grow wild on our roadsides. The trick is, everybody’s waiting for them to ripen, including the squirrels, who have something of an advantage when it comes to foraging. Likewise birds and berries – it’s a question of who gets there first.

Seashore bounty:September is the month when shellfish can be harvested again. They’ve stopped spawning, and the waters are getting colder.

Catch razor clams with salt, rake for clams and cockles, pick mussels from rocks – but be utterly fastidious about where you forage for shellfish. They hoover up pollution, and only the cleanest, wildest coastlines are safe for shellfish foraging.

There are still mackerel in our waters; fish them from a pier. Cook them straight away, or marinate them with salt and bog myrtle to make an Irish gravad mackerel.

Seaweed is bountiful throughout our coastline. Look for kelp for making soups, sea spaghetti for salads, and delicious pepper dulse.

Sally McKenna blogs about wild foods at lifeskills.ie

TRY IT FOR YOURSELF

Slow Food Sugar Loaf invites those with an interest in foraging to take part in a Coastwatch survey guided by Karin Dubsky, an international co-ordinator with Coastwatch Europe, followed by a wild food forage, at Ennereilly Beach, 6km north of Arklow next Saturday, September 15th at 2pm. Bring scissors or a knife and a container for your gatherings. The event is free and open to all, but you must register in advance by sending an email, stating how many will be attending, to latimerd@gofree.indigo.ie.

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