[permaculture] [Fwd: [SANET-MG] ARTICLE--Foraging: Food for Free Revival]

Lawrence F. London, Jr. lfl at intrex.net
Tue Sep 5 21:53:33 EDT 2006

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 	[SANET-MG] ARTICLE--Foraging: Food for Free Revival
Date: 	Tue, 5 Sep 2006 13:35:46 -0400
From: 	Michelle Frain Muldoon <mfrain at OICI.ORG>

Where the wildings are

Henry Thoreau was its great 19th-century champion, in wartime it was
seen as patriotic and it enjoyed a revival during the hippy era - now,
in our age of ecological awareness, gathering wild food is fashionable
again. Richard Mabey, author of the 1970s cult book Food for Free,
explores the literary and social roots of foraging

Saturday September 2, 2006

The Guardian

The omens are promising. Drought-baked earth, stressed roots, torrents
of rain, an early whiff of autumn - the same conditions that brought
about that annus mirabilis of wild fungi in 1976. It was a fruiting that
permanently dented our ancient suspicion about eating the things, to the
extent that, in our town, entrepreneurial schoolkids were hawking bags
of horse mushrooms door to door. Thirty years on the foragers will be
out again this autumn, and not just for fungi. If you want a field-guide
to their curious and atavistic behaviour, read Gary Alan Fine's Morel
Tales (1998), an anthropological study of "the culture of mushrooming"
in the United States.

The tales are edgy, almost surreal at times, but their combination of
urban sophistication and backwoods yearning are instantly recognisable
in our own foraging culture. There is the trace of gung-ho
competitiveness (whose stinkhorn is biggest?). There is the ecstasy of
discovery: "Suddenly it is there in the shadows. A single, exquisite
morel ... stands by itself, boldly etched against the edge of the
orchard. Awestruck at first, I am afraid to remove it. Perhaps it is the
last morel in the world". An insightful Minnesota man talks about the
quality of "gatheredness" that makes wild foods taste different from
shop-bought ones. And a forager mistakes a child's plastic ball for a
puffball, and is still chuffed by his hunter-gatherer's sharpness: "it
looked exactly like the real thing."

Foraging in Britain has a touch more sophistication, and it's going
through one of its periodic hey-days. At least two television series are
in preparation. Local authorities are laying on guided forays in their
country parks. Star restaurants are offering customers the chance to go
feral with bonnes bouches like nettle froth and rowan sorbet. And this
summer, supplies of citric acid (kept under the counter in most
chemists) ran dry because of a national craze for making elderflower
cordial, in which it's a crucial ingredient.

Most telling maybe has been the change in the fortunes of that
delectable seashore succulent, marsh samphire. In the sixties it was an
arcane, liminal food, a "poor man's asparagus". In 1981 it was served at
Charles and Diana's wedding breakfast, gathered fresh from the Crown's
own marshes at Sandringham. Now (imported from Brittany) it's a
widespread garnish for restaurant fish, an indigenous seaside holiday
souvenir, sold by the bag to those who don't want to get their own legs
mud-plastered, and along the north Norfolk coast, an occasional bar
snack, lightly vinegared in bowls next to the crisps and pickled onions.

All of which raises the question, why? Why should 21st-century
eaters-out, with easy access to most of the taste sensations on the
planet, choose to browse about like Palaeolithics, or primates? They're
opting for the most part for inconvenience food, for bramble-scrabbling,
mud-larking, tree-climbing. For the uncomfortable business of peeling
horseradish and de-husking chestnuts. For the sour, the insect-ridden,
and for the historic duty of eating the frankly rank ground elder, just
because it was brought here as "a pot herb" two millennia ago. A far cry
from the duty that Edward Hyams, doyen of the domestication of plants,
spelt out - "to leave the fruits of the earth fine than he found them."
(Strawberry Cultivation, 1943)

When I made my own contribution to the literature of foraging with Food
for Free (1972), I was rather earnest, not to say pious, in my
justifications. I lamented our remoteness from the origins of our food,
our conservatism with ingredients, our wastefulness. I talked about a
vanishing local knowledge of wildings, the root source of all our
cultivated vegetables. And I talked excitedly about a lost world of
exotic scent and flavour, about how the hunt sharpened your senses, your
connection with the natural world ("search inside hazel bushes for the
nuts, as well as working round them, and scan them with the sun behind
you from the inside, so you can glimpse the nuts against the light".)

But a snapshot from the 70s reveals another agenda. I'm sitting
cross-legged on the lawn in a kaftan, and cradling, with something of a
snigger, an immense puffball. This wasn't tapping into some ancient
rural heritage. This was counter-culture stuff, hedge-wise, cheeky, a
poke in the eye for domesticity as much as domestication. It was also a
literary pose, the framing of an imaginative quest as much as a bit of
folk-lore revivalism. I went about it like a scavenger, raking through
the diarist John Evelyn's waspish vegetarian tract, Acetaria, A
Discourse of Sallets (1699), through learned papers on the stomach
contents of mummified neolithic corpses, through Eric Linklater's novel
Poet's Pub, for an improbable medieval recipe for a roast crab-apple and
beer winter cup.

The New Foraging had always had literary roots. One of the first
accounts of local edibles, from a writer who'd tried them himself, came
from Norfolk. Lilly's Wigg's Esculent Plants, (c 1790) is a handwritten
manuscript in the British Museum. The author was from Great Yarmouth,
and worked, in turn, as a shoemaker, schoolmaster and bank clerk, and he
set out early the urban, artisan middle-class profile of the forager.
Much of the wild food writing of the 19th century was in this
enthusiastically participant, folk-lore collector's mould. The fungus
foray was pioneered by the Woolhope Field Club in Herefordshire, a band
of leisure-rich amateurs who were on the cutting edge of Victorian
natural history. Their Proceedings for the autumn of 1869 describes a
fungus-gathering expedition by 35 of their members (nine of them
vicars). They ranged around the local landscape by carriage, stopping
off at likely hunting grounds, measuring fairy-rings, and gathering an
extraordinary hoard of wild mushrooms: milk-caps, ceps, chanterelles,
witch's butter, hedeghog fungi. The day ended in the Green Dragon in
Hereford, with the exhibits strewn out on the pub tables, and a late
lunch of the day's best trophies: shaggy parasol on toast, fried giant
puffballs, and fairy-ring champignons in white sauce. The puffballs
especially were voted a great success, as was the day itself.

In the 1930s, a ruralist, romantic note entered wild food writing.
Florence White (founder of the English Folk Cookery Association)
described her collection of recipes as an "intriguing" literary hobby,
that "proved full of unexpected interests. It brought the country into
the town house or flat." In her Flowers as Food (1934) she encouraged
her readers to experiment by making "small quantities of flower syrups,
vinegars, herb-teas, wines, confectionery etc".

Dorothy Hartley, a redoubtable Daily Mail journalist, toured the
countryside by bike, sleeping in ditches and collecting traditional
recipes. Her quirky masterpiece, Food in England, wasn't published till
1954, but is stuffed with wild snippets: the Kentish hop-pickers way of
cooking hop-trimmings; an ethereal blackberry junket made simply by
leaving the strained juice in a warm, dark room; and, anticipating that
breathless American paean to morels, a eulogy to chanterelles,
"sometimes clustered so close that they look like a torn golden shawl
dropped down among the dead leaves".

The patriotic tone of these books found its moment during the privations
of the second world war, when they were joined by Vicomte de Mauduit's
splendidly titled broadside, They Can't Ration These, (1940) and by the
Ministry of Food's own pamphlet, Hedgerow Harvest (1943), which moved
the Home Front out into the wild, with recipes for the obligatory
rose-hip syrup, and sloe and marrow jam: "if possible crack some of the
stones and add to the preserve before boiling to give a nutty flavour".
An epicurean touch, but prefaced by the first strictures about picking
etiquette: "None of this harvest should be wasted, but be exceedingly
careful how you gather it in ... don't injure the bushes or trees. When
you pick mushrooms, cut the stalks neatly with a knife, leaving the
roots in the ground."

When the foraging habit resurfaced in the 1970s, it was among a very
mixed constituency of hippies, supermarket refugees, organic foodies and
nostalgic countryphiles, and quite soon two separate, though far from
exclusive, factions emerged: those whose interest in wild food was
principally about the food, and those who were enthralled by the wild.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's books and TV programmes, such as A Cook on
the Wild Side (1997), have made him the guru of the food faction (though
his enthusiasm for fried human placenta might have bracketed him on the
other side). But the absorption of wild food by conventional - and
commercial - food cultures was already under way. Elderflower gathering
- and eventually growing the bushes in "elder orchards" - became big
business in the Cotswolds. So did the garnering of Argyllshire heather
tops for the honey-scented ale sold as "leann fraoch" from Bruce
Williams's Glasgow brewery. And in tune with the increasing coachloads
of French mushroomers scouring the Sussex woods, the United Kingdom
became a net exporter of wild fungi.

But ominously, an attempt in the 1980s to start an all-wild-food
restaurant in Covent Garden foundered from the difficulty of sourcing
sufficient raw material. Instead, smart restaurants have begun to copy
France's cuisine sauvage by adding little accents of wild things to
their miniaturised dishes. The menu at Simon Rogan's L'Enclume in
Cumbria reads like a collection of food haiku, spiked with Cumbria's
indigenous sproutings: "Poached brill, English mace, wild tree spinach,
pickle from then mixed with a bit of now ... Bottled aromas, sweet
cicely, passion pipette."

But the poetry - and honest accomplishments - of vernacular weeds have
flowered in the humblest of spots. In the small Suffolk village of
Milden, named after that neolithic staple vegetable fat-hen (melde in
Old English), the council has put up a cast-iron statue commemorating
their name plant, in seeming derision of the local farmers, who are
forever trying to eradicate it from their sugar-beet fields. In the
United States, meanwhile, it was the wild tendency that flourished, with
practical but lyrical guides like Euell Gibbons's Stalking the Wild
Asparagus (1962), and Alix Kates Shulman's feminist forager's memoir,
Drinking the Rain (1995), in which she drops out to a shack on the Maine
coast, and comes to terms with middle-age by feeding herself from the

For myself, I dithered between the two schools. The nutritional tendency
began to seem too dull and correct, and I was terminally alienated by a
meeting with a distinguished portrait photographer, about 10 years after
Food for Free was published. "Ah yes", he pronounced, eyeing me as if I
were an exotic species of turnip, "you're the man that eats weeds. What
an interestingly earthy face." But I hadn't the temperament to be a
full-blooded back-to-nature survivalist either. Instead I flitted about
the hedgerows in my native Chilterns, a curiously down-to-earth
aesthete, searching for wilding apples. Hunting for these happenstance
fruits, sprung from thrown-away cores and bird droppings, seemed to
catch, numinously, all that was exhilarating about foraging: a sharpness
of taste, and of spirit, an echo of the vast lost genetic diversity of
cultivated edibles, a sense of possibility, of things that happened
beyond our ken. I can still recall the trees along my apple elysian way,
a stretch of ancient green-lane: a tree sniffed out from 50 yards away,
lemon-yellow fruit, scent like quince, too acid and hard to eat raw, but
spectacular with roast meat; another with the bitter-sweet effervescence
of sherbet; a third with long-pear shaped apples, and a warm smoky
flavour behind the sharpness, as if they had already been baked.

Henry Thoreau loved his wildings, and in his essay "Wild Apples" (1859),
he writes a wonderful litany of cod botanical sub-species and datelined

varieties: "the apple that grows in dells in the woods (Malus

sylvestivallis) ... the Partridge Apple; the Truants's Apple (Malus
cessatoris), which no boy will ever go by without knocking off some ...
the December eating; the Frozen-thawed (Malus gelato-soluta), good only
in that state ... the Hedge Apple; the Slug Apple; the Railroad Apple
..." Thoreau understood that quality of "gatheredness", that the
circumstances of finding and picking wild food somehow infuses its whole

Foraging came of age in this country in 2004 when the Oxford Food Symposium

(_www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk_ <outbind://69/www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk>)
- that annual gathering of erudite foodies - chose "Wild Food" as its
theme. And it was a chance for the wild and the food factions to hear
each others' points of view. There were papers on "Wild Food in the
Talmud" and "Fake leg of Venison: Recipes for Ersatz game", a tasting of
"The Feral Oils of Australia".

Caroline Conran gave a key address on her work on south-west French
tradition of la ceuillette, the seasonal gathering of wild mushrooms,
berries and greens. This is still a useful bounty for the well-off, but
no one would pretend it's any longer essential for survival, or
commercially important. Rather, Conran suggested in an argument that has
resonance with foraging over here, la ceuillette is a ritual rehearsal
of ancient rights, a snub to the idea of nature as private property or
domesticated pet, a celebration of belonging to one's pays. Many
speakers, if sometimes uneasily, echoed the ritual value of foraging. It
puts you in touch with your roots, with the very notion of food as a
product of natural processes. It sharpens your sense of the seasons,
your reading of the landscape. Thoreau, again, was much quoted: "The
bitter-sweet of a white-oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November
walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported

Thoreau's unfinished manuscript Wild Fruits, from which this sentence
comes, wasn't published until 2000, but has become the seminal text for
New Foragers. It's a flamboyant celebration of tanginess, of the buffers
that agriculture and commerce put between human eaters and the sources
of life. In the description of "Going a'Graping" he relishes the
difficulties of harvesting wild grapes, the scrambling and crawling and
nosing-out: "What is a whole binful that have been plucked to that
solitary cluster left dangling inaccessible from some birch far away
over the stream in the September air, with all its bloom and freshness."
The otherness of the wild. This is the paradox which is inherent in
Thoreau's view of nature, and one which all foragers have to ride: is it
possible for a civilised human to absorb the wild by searching it out,
grasping it, eating it? Or does it in those very acts become
domesticated, consumed?

Having a mite of responsibility for the revival of foraging, I said my
piece at Oxford too, rather hesitantly, because I've reservations about
the whole business now. Such whole-hearted, Thoreau-like relishing of
armfuls of the wild might have been acceptable in wildernesses of 19th-
century America, and even now in the empty expanses of south-west
France. But could a built-up, over-farmed and over-populated country
like Britain really sustain foraging as more than a minority habit?
Don't we need a kind of foraging ethic, which regulates our leisure
whims in keeping with the needs of other organisms in the eco-system?
And, just as foraging is a metaphor for a larger connected relationship
with nature, mightn't such an ethic have the rough shape for a model of
responsible consumption?

As it happens, I've become more of a wayside nibbler than a forager
these days, probably out of laziness as much as ecological worthiness. I
like serendipitous findings, small wayside gourmet treats. Making do.
Lately I've been pleased by having to use fennel flowers in a sauce,
from a plant whose green leaves had been shrivelled in the heat; by
finding a bough from a roadside damson bush that had been flailed while
it was still in fruit - and experiencing the improbable taste of
sun-dried English raisins. And still in my rucksack, waiting for a
moment of courage, are a handful of thistle galls, wasp-grub-induced
swellings on the stem, like miniature kohlrabi. Can I go down this path?
Can food?

I've found a phrase to catch that feeling in the fruit aesthete Edward
Bunyard's book, The Anatomy of Dessert (1933). Talking of evening
meanders through his gooseberry patch, he described the pleasures of
"ambulant consumption". "The freedom of the bush should be given to all
visitors". The freedom of the bush. What a liberty!

But then, a quite different way at looking at self-discipline, at an
etiquette for consumption. Down the lane to our common, there's been a
vegetable road-kill. Windthrown cherry-plums, yellow and scarlet, like a
painted doll's cheeks, are scattered all over the road. They're rare
fruiters here, and almost without thinking, I'm crouched on the tarmac
amidst the puddles and trash, stuffing them into my pocket. And suddenly
it occurs to me that this is how many of the planet's citizens, of all
species, find their food. Opportunistically. Scavenging the surplus.
Making do. Somewhere between this variant on the old idea of gleaning
and ambulant consumption - between working the margins and working the
imagination - might lie the outline of a code for planetary foragers. So
just a side serving, please.

Michelle Frain Muldoon

Director, Agriculture Programs/FarmServe Africa
OIC International, US-Headquarters
Tel.+1-215-842-0220 x 118 or +1-215-842-0860
Fax. +1-215-849-7033 or +1-215-842-3740
Email: mfrain at oici.org <mailto:mfrain at oici.org>
Website:  www.oicinternational.org <http://www.oicinternational.org/>
For more information or to apply to the FarmServe Africa program, call
us, or email us at farmserve at oici.org <mailto:farmserve at oici.org>.

   /"If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who
   drive us crazy, can be our teacher./ /"/--Pema Chodron

   /"Si vous avez un travail où il n'y a pas de complications, vous
   n'avez pas de travail."/ --Malcolm Forbes

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