Rumblings: Eat the pavement
Matt Allison joins the visionary foragers who see edibles wherever they go
Foraging is nothing new, though it's through celebrated chefs like Copenhagen-based René Redzepi that it's becoming global news. I had the opportunity to spend time with him and several chefs, farmers and scientists at his inarguablyMAD Food Camp last year, hosted in a circus tent on the island of Refshaleøen, not far from his Noma restaurant.
Over two days we celebrated vegetation. I spent time with Miles Irving, who wrote The Forager Handbook (Ebury Press), a guide to the edible plants of Britain.
As I write this I'm surrounded by the smells of meadowsweet, melilot, hogweed and Alexanders seeds. Their aromas aid me in recounting our discussions and Irving's fervent passion for rediscovering the seemingly lost art of foraging for wild foods. To paraphrase him: "Foraging is not an aspirational lifestyle, but rather a way to rekindle a tangible connection with who we are."
This primal connection with food has resonated with me for two years. Some of you may know my story, how I left the corporate world to take care of my newborn son, growing our own food within the city confines as part of "greening" our lives. We're self-sufficientish - in the height of harvest we grow about 60% of our daily intake and about 40 different vegetables and herbs. Why? I guess we're motivated by the same factor that drives people like Redzepi: a passion for discovery, taste and nourishment.
French ethnobotanist Francois Couplan sombrely shared that we've identified 80000+ edible plants, yet 90% of our Western diet consists of just 20 cultivated crops. Darker still are the stats that show the rate at which we are losing varieties within those 20 crop groups, with over 77% of the world's commercial seed now in the hands of three major corporations.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Tight economic times have incubated a revival of the connection to wild foods and the Grow Your Own movement. Everyday individuals are now prepared to get down and dirty, replacing patches of lawn with edible landscapes. In the UK the trend has grown so much that they've reached a record high of new growers, rivalled only by the Dig for Victory campaign that was launched after the outbreak of World War 2.
Inner-city dwellers are taking to the streets to uncover a treasure trove of wild edibles like dandelion, nettle and plantain. It's hard to miss the wild fennel that grows along the highways here in Cape Town. Artisan ice-cream makers The Creamery use fennel pollen and peach in their summer offerings. And Renata Coetzee, 83, teaches the culinary tradition of the Khoin-Khoin, having identified 200 indigenous food plants and herbs.
The recent winner of Gourmet Traveller's Australian chef of the year, Ben Shewry of Attica restaurant in Melbourne, says: "I'm not a rich man, but I've never felt richer living off the scraps of society."
So as you go into your week, take a moment to observe the world around you and the wild edible bounty it conceals, even in the cracks in the pavement.
Matt Allison is a proponent of greener living through growing one's own food. Visit www.plantingthoughts.com.