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Foraging for food

Wild edibles are having a moment. A global moment. Foraging has become the signature dish of some of the world’s most famous restaurants. Four times named best restaurant in the world Noma, has built its reputation on it. Reconnecting people with nature and food source is back in fashion. Not before time.

Our connection with the source of our food has been lost, “faded from our consciousness” (Sexton, 1998). Plastic trays, modified atmosphere packaging and storage, the global food chain and our infinite desire to have all food available at all times regardless of season, have all contributed to the disconnection. What better way to reconnect and be mindful of our food than to search the countryside and shorelines for edibles? Just as our ancestors did. Wild food features heavily in folklore. The very name of our country stems from the word Hierne, or (H) Ieirne which linguists have shown to mean ‘fat’ and ‘fruitful’, (Sexton,1998, p.62). In his book, Irish Wild Plants: Myths legends and folklore, Niall Mac Coitir talks about the importance of wild plants in ancient Irish times, their place in poetry, Brehon law and as medicine. He gives an example of how it was believed there were 365 parts to the body and that a different herb existed to cure the ills of each part. The history of herbal medicine in Ireland is interesting and botanical medicine is gathering a modern following in both culture and science.

Ireland is still a land of plenty, abundant in our country, wild garlic, myrtle berries, watercress, bilberries (frochan), meadowsweet, dandelion are just some of them. But how can chefs use them and is there a real and sustainable appetite for them amongst consumers? What of the food safety element and of course the dangers of poor knowledge?

Relishes, chutneys, ferments, soups, syrups, vinegars are all ingredients that can be incorporated in our everyday foods. Perhaps making a salad of wild herbs or the well-known and accepted nettle soup is not all we can hope for from these. Using these condiments can add real interest and a heightened nutrient profile to our often bland western diet. Food as medicine is gaining global interest with some medical institutions including it on the medical curriculum.

Consumers are looking for experiences when they eat out, not just a plate of food. Restaurants and food enterprises can certainly capitalise on these trends and at the same time showcase Irelands indigenous produce, learn new ways to develop flavour and offer a more wholesome experience to the consumer. There is, however, some remaining reticence with consumers about the safety element of such foods. Are they safe? Mushrooms in particular can be problematic, according to the Food Safety Association of Ireland (FSAI) there are fourteen native species that are poisonous, with a further thirteen that are highly dangerous. Their advice is to always consult an expert. For chefs using foraged foods it can get a little trickier. Legislations requires us to only put food that is safe to eat on the menu, so proving your foraged food is safe and compiling a full risk analysis is of great importance both for compliance and for consumer peace of mind. Where you forage can be the cause of unwanted attention, as shown in a legal case in the UK in 2010. The City of London Corporation confiscated foraged mushrooms and successfully prosecuted one picker when they were found foraging mushrooms in Epping forest. On the other hand, a lady was granted a special ‘for life’ licence, when a judge threw out a case brought by the forestry commission in 2006. In the UK it appears it is not a crime to pick a plant on someone else’s land but, it is theft if it is sold (Michail, N. 2017).

There is nothing new about embellishment or even deception on restaurant menus. Foraged foods are open to this, with chefs often declaring ‘foraged; ‘wild’ beside their offerings. Is this misleading to customers? Is it unethical? Laura Reilly, author of “Farm to Fable” thinks so. She says it is about ‘Honesty, Authenticity and Integrity’ and by placing these words beside menu items when in fact the ingredients were not foraged by the restaurant but bought or ‘purchased forage’ is misleading to the customer (Connely, R. 2017). A little harsh perhaps, menu description has a tradition of embellishing the words on menus to give the customer a sense of what is to come, not in the main, to mislead.

I feel foraging will stay a part of food offerings for a long time to come, it has after all survived for millennia and offers real sustainability. It may lose its trend status, but that hardly matters. I for one am enchanted by the possibilities.

Theresa Keane.  FSPA member and proprietor of TK training

References

Connely, R. (2017) Opinion: Inside the ethics of foraging: why restaurants should care about the distinction between foraged ingredients and purchased, Restaurant Hospitality, [ online] available: https://www.restaurant-hospitality.com/food-trends/opinion-inside-ethics-foraging.

Mac Coitir, N. (2006). Irish Wild Plants: Myths legends and folklore, Ireland: Collins press.

Michail, N. (2017) ‘Can sustainable foraging go mainstream? Food Navigator.com [online] available : https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2015/06/25/Can-sustainable-foraging-go-mainstream.

Sexton, R. (1998) A little history of Irish food, Ireland: Gill and Mc Millan.

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