Wild food: Fancy some acorn gruel with your bramble tea and seaweed jelly?

Courtney Tyler is part of the Wildbiome Project, where people live as hunter-gatherers on wild, uncultivated food for up to three months

Fancy eating a breakfast of acorns and dandelion with bramble tip tea or a lunch of foraged greens, duck jerky and some seaweed jelly? It may read like a menu from a hot new restaurant opening, but is actually a snapshot of foods Courtney Tyler ate during May when she embarked on a month of eating only wild food.

Tyler is part of a study called the Wildbiome Project, the brainchild of the aptly named Monica Wilde, who spent a year living off foraged food in Scotland and noticed a profound improvement in her gut microbiome and health and has now set up the study to delve deeper into her theories.

Tyler is one of 26 project participants in the UK and Ireland who have lived on wild food, some for one month, and others for three months. “We were living a hunter and gatherer lifestyle, so there’s no cultivation and no cultivated food,” she says. “It was simply anything that could be foraged from the wild or that we had previously stored from other seasons.” She relied solely on these foods, there were no cheat days, no just-in-case supermarket staples (except for one jar each of local honey), or even eating anything you’ve grown yourself.

I didn’t ask for help on social because I wouldn’t have survived

Admittedly, Tyler embarked on the challenge with more of an advantage than you or I probably would. She’s a professional wild food and fungi forager and educator based in Wicklow, so there’s already an excellent knowledge base along with a well-stocked store cupboard, and I assume there was already plenty of wild food in her diet? “Some, but to be honest, a lot of them might have sat at the back of the shelves.”

READ MORE

Before she began she raided her cupboards and found forgotten stashes of nuts, dried berries and preserves she could use. She foraged for extra stores of nuts and leaves and flowers to dry, and she swapped, bartered and was gifted harder-to-come-by wild foods such as venison, duck and fish, making biltong from duck and jerky from wild salmon. She knew there weren’t going to be any easy fixes, “you can’t use onions or garlic or olive oil or milk or cheese or butter, you know you have to become really creative”. The only cooking fat she had was venison tallow, fat from around venison kidneys that had been rendered down for cooking with. “That was an adjustment,” she tells me. “I might have thought before that was too strong-tasting, but now I think it’s really nice.”

Taking away daily basics certainly made Tyler get creative. A typical day might kick off with acorn gruel, then she would rely on nutrient-dense snacks such as jerky or crackers she’d made during the day, and maybe one big meal consisting of foraged wild greens, mushrooms and seaweed and either fish, duck, or venison.

She shared her food diary on her social media pages during the month, kicking off with her acorn gruel – a sort of porridge made from acorns and chestnuts she processed herself. “It was very brown,” she tells me, so she topped it up with gorgeous foraged leaves, flowers and berries. It is fascinating to scroll through the bounty of food she incorporated into her diet and the array of options she had available, it was certainly a varied diet, but I wondered whether there was concern about getting the right balance of macronutrients – basic fats, carbohydrates and proteins?

“Protein was really easy to come by actually, with game and fish and plant proteins, but carbohydrates and fat – the two ways you get energy – they are both in short supply.” Others that had started the challenge in March flagged this, and so Tyler was conscious to keep a good supply of carbohydrates. “Carbohydrates would come mostly from nuts and roots in the wild.” On busy days, snacking became essential. “It was an awareness of myself as a machine and what do I need in order to keep running.”

There were many culinary adventures and discoveries made during the month, especially from her call-out on social media, which she tells me was more about community than the food. “I didn’t ask for help on social because I wouldn’t have survived, I would have been fine on my own, but it was the sense of community, just not chewing on the acorn biscuits on my own.”

The challenge brought her to Kerry where she foraged for seafood with James Coffey, head chef at the Park Hotel Kenmare, and together they made dashi made from kelp, with cockles, oysters, periwinkles, clams and sea vegetables. “It was exploding with flavour and so satisfying,” she says. He sent her home with gifts of brown trout, venison and sea buckthorn.

She reckons 50 or more people reached out on social media to send or share their wild food with her, including Nicole Dunne, better known as Howth Foraging on Instagram, who sent her a huge box of coastal greens and herbal teas, and a woman and her grandson who picked a load of pignuts and sent them on. “She picked a whole box and cleaned them meticulously, which take ages, and posted them to me with a little letter from her grandson and his favourite recipe.”

She cooked crabs on the beach with Aisling Rogerson from The Fumbally, a day that Tyler says “will go down in culinary history for me as one of the most beautiful tastiest things ever”.

She learned much more about food than ever before, gutting fish for the first time, and processing nuts. She discovered that dried seaweed she’d neglected in her stores for years became her go-to treat snack, simply fried in some tallow. “It was like this crispy umami that’s way nicer than ready salted crisps.”

So there were certainly plenty of new flavours to discover, but I wonder what foods did she miss the most? “Textures! I would have liked a crunchy carrot or crunchy red pepper or something, but they were off-limits.” Overall she was surprised that cravings didn’t kick in until about half way through the month. “I thought they were going to be the most challenging at the start, I expected headaches and withdrawal from coffee and sugar and carbohydrates and all that.” When the sugar cravings did hit, she says, “I was really like ‘Oh my god I would kill somebody for some sugar’,” while the usual chocolate cravings around her period were far more intense. She luckily had the honey on hand for some of those moments.

I was really like ‘Oh my god I would kill somebody for some sugar’

So after a month of eating like a hunter-gatherer, what were the major changes? “I really think it’s changed me, I feel a lightness in my body, I really feel a vitality and a life force from this wild diet that I’m a little bit nervous to let go of, you know, to jump back into normal food.”

She did lose some weight even though that wasn’t a goal, but really she won’t know the full health outcome until the study is completed and the test has been analysed later in the year. Overall, her senses and tastes all intensified. She even noted on her Instagram that her teeth felt cleaner all of the time.

She agrees it’s been a challenge, but a beautiful one, and she looks forward to keeping wild foods as a staple in her diet and sharing the knowledge she has gained, but she’s also really looking forward to savouring some simple comforts – sourdough, mint dark chocolate and maybe a coffee being top of the list. Meanwhile, I’m inspired to head out to my garden to see what I might add to my lunch.

Easy things to forage for

Wild Garlic

Early Spring from February to May

Young leaf shoots start early in the year, I harvest all parts through the season. Young leaves before flowering are the tastiest. Unopened flower buds are pickled. Flower stalks are lacto-fermented, as are the seeds. I make pestos, pickles, achaar and ferments with wild garlic, and enjoy it through the year until the next season returns. Wild garlic butter is also a must and freezes well.

Dandelion

March to May

Oh, I adore dandelions! So much sunshine in a flower, and so good for us. I eat the leaves in salads and pestos. I pickle the unopened flower buds. I recommend making dandelion flower pancakes with kids, just pick big open fresh flowers, dip them in pancake flour and fry them into tiny pancakes! Every kid loves them and they’re so nutritious and delicious! Another delicious recipe is dandelion flowers in a pineapple chilli jam a chef friend once made for me.

Nettles

February to May

Also, you can harvest them again with new growth in the autumn. Or cut back to continually enjoy eating the young growth of new young leaves.

Our Irish superfood! Do not overlook our humble nettles. In massive abundance and so high in plant protein and nutrition. Great to help mitigate hay fever as well. They are very stimulating and great for an energy boost. Use them in soups, pestos, energy bars, teas, syrups, kombucha and infused vinegars.

It’s important not to eat nettles once they’ve gone to flower. Cut them back and you’ll have a steady crop of young growth. Nettle seeds are great to harvest once they appear on the female plants.

Take care when you forage them, you can wear gloves to avoid the stinging and then lay them out on a tray to wilt, or blanch them in hot water. Once wilted they should no longer sting.

Elderflowers and Elderberries

May and September/October

I would never let the season go by without making the effort to harvest the elderflower in the early summer and the elderberry in the autumn. Cordials, jams and wines are my favourite thing to do with them. The same for blackberries and wild blueberries.

To find out more about Courtney Tyler and her foraging workshops check out https://www.hipsandhaws.com/links-to-book/