It was an unusually hot April morning in Colchester, England, and the fields, now in full bloom, were bursting in brilliant yellows, whites and purples. Armed with a wicker basket and David Squire’s book Foraging for Wild Foods, I scanned the Essex countryside for the ingredients to my first-ever foraging taster menu: stinging nettle soup; gnocchi with dandelion leaf pesto; wild garlic and stinging nettle ravioli; and, for dessert, dandelion flower cookies.
As a travel journalist who often writes about lesser-known foods, the part I miss most about travelling is trying some of the world’s most unusual ingredients. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, I enjoyed nothing more than feasting on sizzling stigghiola (chargrilled veal intestines) on a street food tour in Sicily, or learning how to prepare ahuautle, an ancient ingredient once eaten by Aztec emperors, in Mexico City. For a short while, home-cooking tacos al pastor or pasta alla norma satisfied my hunger for international flavours.
But there was something missing, and that was the excitement of going out into the world in search of not just recipes, but a culinary adventure. And that’s when, for the first time since my childhood, I (re)discovered the art of British foraging.
The earliest memory I have of foraging is picking wild blackberries with my grandmother. Our quest for England’s sweetest wild fruit led us to our local park in Banstead, Surrey, a small patch of green which, between August and October, would burst with swollen blackberries. Under strict instructions, I’d carefully manoeuvre my way around the thick, sharp brambles, my eyes scanning for the darkest and shiniest berries of them all. My grandmother had learned from her mother – who, as a young evacuee during World War Two, would forage wild fruits and plants as a supplement to the meagre food rations – that the plumper, darker berries were the sweetest. Those juicy crimson-purple morsels would often be turned into blackberry crumble, the perfect sweet finish to a Sunday roast dinner.
The ritual of summer blackberry picking continued throughout my childhood. But, once I left home to start my adult life in London, foraging for wild foods became nothing more than a nostalgic memory. For the entirety of my university years, most of my ingredients – if not all – came plastic-wrapped from a supermarket in New Cross Gate. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would take a global pandemic – and a yearning to recreate my foodie adventures from around the world – for me to dust off my foraging basket and enjoy the beautiful Essex countryside that I’m lucky enough to have right on my doorstep.
Just a five-minute walk from my house, I spotted what I was after. I approached the fierce-looking weed – its leaves armed with thousands of needle-sharp hairs – with care. My foraging handbook referred to the plant as urtica dioica, but flashbacks of falling into a ditch and emerging with my arms and legs covered in a blistering rash when I was 12 confirmed my suspicions: it was a stinging nettle. I put on my gloves and pinched the base of the stingers, gently detaching the leaves and placing them in the safety of my forager’s basket.
A curious dog-walker, intrigued at the sight of a young woman waist-deep in stinging nettles, asked me what I was doing from a safe distance. When I responded that I was foraging nettles for soup and ravioli, she scrunched her face in disapproval. “I’m not sure that sounds appetising,” she said, and continued on her way.
The dog-walker’s response isn’t uncommon: foraging for wild foods, particularly weeds with a knack for piercing your skin and injecting it with burning chemicals, isn’t widespread in Britain nowadays. But there was a time in the UK when every person’s life depended on it.
According to Ray Mears’ Wild Food, 32 pieces of flint found in Pakefield, Suffolk, suggest that some of the world’s first hunter-gatherers roamed the lands of Britain in search of edible nuts, fruits and leaves as early as 700,000BC. Before the invention of farming and supermarkets, and at a time when virgin forests still covered most of the British Isles, our earliest ancestors used their razor-sharp knowledge of the land to sustain themselves entirely from the hundreds of British wild foods available to them. Chestnuts, crab apples, sloe berries and mushrooms, Mears says, were just some of their favourites.
The introduction of small-scale cultivation around 13,000 years ago, however, was the beginning of the end of foraging in Britain. As more of our hunter-gatherer ancestors turned to the convenience of growing their own crops, foraging became far less crucial to their survival. By the time Britain’s agricultural revolution reached its peak in the mid-18th Century, the ancient art of foraging was all but forgotten.
It would take two centuries and a world war for foraging to return en masse in Britain. As my great-grandmother experienced first-hand during World War Two, the British feared they would become vitamin deficient without imported fruits such as oranges. To combat this, Britain’s Ministry of Health asked its citizens to collect rosehips (the fruit of wild roses) to boost their vitamin C intake. Some savvy Britons also found that acorns and dandelion root made for a decent coffee substitute and provided much-needed minerals such as iron and calcium.
I found my next ingredient – easily recognisable by its sunshine-yellow flower – just metres away from the stinging nettles. Undeterred by the dog-walker’s comment, I filled my wicker basket with dozens of dandelions, a common weed whose leaves, stem, flower and root have been used for their purported nutritional and medicinal value for thousands of years. The nearby wood, blanketed in lilac and cobalt-coloured bluebells, provided a bountiful supply of wild garlic, a delicate white-flowered plant whose fragrant leaf I planned to use to season my stinging nettle ravioli and dandelion pesto.
My basket filled to the brim, I returned home to prepare my foraged feast. First to be served was the stinging nettle soup, a quintessentially English dish that, thanks to the discovery of 3,000 year-old food bowls in the Cambridgeshire fens, as reported by the Guardian, can be dated to Britain’s Bronze Age. The nettle, which loses its sting as soon as it’s cooked, gave the soup a delicious earthy taste similar to cooked spinach, cabbage or kale. Inspired by Jamie Oliver’s recent Instagram post, my other dishes took a fusion approach, combining ancient British ingredients with Italian techniques.
The dandelion leaves were turned into “pesto” by blending them with cherry tomatoes, basil and ricotta, but the result had a bitter, leafy green flavour. However the nettles, which I pan-fried with butter, leeks and nutmeg, infused the ravioli with a rich, nutty taste reminiscent of wild mushrooms. With my bright yellow dandelion flower cookies, sweetened with vanilla extract and honey, to finish, my foraged meal was complete, and, to my surprise, quite delicious.
When I think of our British hunter-gatherer ancestors foraging the land, barefooted and armed with nothing but a rudimentary flint tool, I think of not how far we’ve come but of how much knowledge we’ve lost. There was a time where we’d distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one with a quick glance or a sniff of the air. Now, few people would be able to identify an onion in a crop field.
This phenomenon isn’t just happening in Britain: according to Mears, hunting and gathering will “cease to exist on Earth” within the next generation. But perhaps, just like in 1939, it would take another – albeit entirely different – crisis to once again prompt us to value the natural resources we each have in our backyards.
Author Jessica Vincent foraged her ingredients on her permitted one-hour daily walk. The UK’s Covid-19 safety measures, including the practice of social distancing, were followed at all times. If you forage in your local area, be sure to do so responsibly.
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www.bbc.com 2020-05-08 13:19:04