The lost art of foraging

wild-strawberry-523882_1280I had a fantastic day out recently at the Great British Food Festival, held at Harewood House in Yorkshire. However, tucked away in the line-up among the hog roasts, cooking demos, and coffee kiosks was a little treat: a guide to foraging. Foraging for food in the wild has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last decade, after two generations (really since rationing ended in the mid-1950s) of neglect. This has been helped by high profile chefs such as René Redzepi at Noma, a restaurant which has been awarded the title of “best restaurant in the world” in four years out of the last five, where locally-sourced and foraged ingredients are given centre-stage. Suddenly an innocuous-looking green weed growing up between the flags in your garden path has become haute cuisine!

I wanted to share a few interesting points that our foraging guide (Adele Nodezar) offered to the group:

  1. Elder turned out to be her favourite tree and she offered a few fascinating facts. The first is that the world “elder” comes from the Anglo Saxon word for fire: “aeld”. If you were to cut a length of elder branch you can push out the pith from the centre of the stem to use as kindling and then use the hollow stem to blow air into the base of the fire.
  2. Elderberries apparently possess anti-viral properties. I was a bit skeptical of that, but apparently there are flavanoids in elderberries that adhere to viral particles and prevent them from entering the body’s cells (Roschek et al. 2009). Pharmaceutical companies are now synthesising the chemical for clinical purposes.
  3. Hedge woundwort has an anti-coagulatory property that makes it ideal for first aid.
  4. There’s a veritable feast of salad leaves lying around: wild garlic (but only until early June when the season ends), chickweed, and many more.
  5. The Romans brought nettles with them wherever they went, both to use as a food but also to keep warm. The stinging (urtication) brought a warm sensation, and has been used to treat rheumatism (although evidence for efficacy is lacking).
  6. There is a rule among foragers of taking no more than 1/4 of what is available. This ensures that there is enough for the next forager and enough for the resource to be sustainable.
  7. Flowers are best eaten during hot weather when there will be more nectar.

All of these tidbits are just the pieces that I can remember from the 45 minute amble around a field, but what it goes to show is that there is more to the environment than just simply looking at it. There is growing evidence that participating in nature (e.g. through farming; Iancu et al. 2015) rather than passive observation can yield greater benefits in terms of well being, and foraging provides a very simple and educational form of participation.

It is a shame that more is not taught about natural history in schools, where science curricula tend to focus on technology and science in a dry sense rather than contextualising scientific principles using the pupils’ immediate surroundings. However, there are schemes now (such as Forest Schools) which seek to change that. The forest or woodland becomes not just a physical place of learning, but a pedagogical context within which learning occurs. Yet more opportunities lie in the development of schools grounds (which have been decimated in the latter part of the 20th century) through schemes such as Leap Frog Schools, a scheme run by the amphibian charity FrogLife to improve school green space and integrate that space into the curriculum. Yet more community schemes include the Leeds Edible Campus, designed to link Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds through an “edible corridor” and Incredible Edible Todmorden, which seeks to engage local people in producing local food on community land (among many other things!).

There are some great examples of sustainable, educational, and healthy ways of understanding and using the land around us, and all of the examples I have listed above have the potential to be rolled-out more widely. I have no doubt that we’ll be foraging a lot more in the future!

References

Iancu, S.C., Hoogendoorn, A.W., Zweekhorst, M.B.M., Veltman, D.J., Bunders, J.F.G., van Balkom, A.J.L.M. (2015) Farm-based interventions for people with mental disorders: a systematic review of literature, Disability and Rehabilitation 2015 37:5 , 379-388

Roschek, B, Fink, R.C., McMichael, M.D., Li, D., Alberte, R.S. (2009) Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro, Phytochemistry, 70, 1255-1261.

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