How to forage for fresh, seasonal food
It’s not unusual these days to find menus that are based solely on what was available in the farmers’ market that morning. Cooking to the seasons, and only using what’s fresh and available, has been becoming the norm in Australia. But there’s a growing trend that goes beyond just what’s in the markets each day: food foraging is all about searching for and then eating the “wild” foods that are scattered around our oceans, parks, forests and coastlines.
The ancient art of gathering
Foraging for food is, of course, not new at all. We are, essentially, hunters and gatherers, and part of the current trend is a rediscovery of what our ancestors used to look for and use in their cooking — and an education in indigenous use of native plants. The difference now is that, not only are the ingredients not as accessible as in the past, but we have a very different growing environment to consider. Due to the rise of industrialised farming and commercialisation of food production, most of us wouldn’t know if a weed in our backyard was edible — or what to do with it.
"Foraging is participating in the wealth of food and medicine that is around us and that nature offers us. It was common practice 4-5 generations ago in most cultures; we are alive today because of foraging. And this is a way to reconnect to that tradition again."
Diego Bonetto, who runs food foraging workshops and courses in Sydney, says foraging allows us to reconnect to the land and what is around us. “Foraging is participating in the wealth of food and medicine that’s around us and that nature offers us. It was common practice 4–5 generations ago in most cultures; we are alive today because of foraging. And this is a way to reconnect to that tradition again.
“I’ve seen the interest come in waves over the years, but since Noma [The Copenhagen-based restaurant many consider to be one of the most innovative in the world] had its famous pop-up in Barangaroo here, and used a significant amount of locally foraged and indigenous plants and foods, it has really grown again.”
The key ingredient
At the bottom of the mainland of Australia, Kirby Shearing is a chef who is spending more and more time out of the traditional kitchen and in his local environment. As chef at Soul Project, based in Mt Gambier, he designs a menu peppered with unique local flora, telling me the ingredients he can pick and source from the beautiful south-east coast of SA rival any found in the top capital city restaurants — without the hefty price tag.
“I generally forage for native elements along the coastline and in the scrub. It really varies with the time of year — the native ingredients follow the indigenous Boandik calendar of six seasons within a year, and I really try to follow that. Going into our summer — November and December — there are so many amazing and beautiful things.
“I do it out of necessity,” Shearing continues. “If I was living in the city, a lot of this stuff would be easy for me to get my hands on. But in this part of the world I have to do it out of necessity. For me to go to a company to get it, it won’t be fresh and vibrant, but I can go and get it myself. It keeps costs quite low, which means I can deliver an experience that would rival top restaurants on the east coast for a lot less than they would; it means I can do six courses for $90.”
The passion for these ingredients is deeply connected to a respect for the land and the environment, too, which means always ensuring that what you take out, you also put back.
“I only forage for flora, not for any fauna — no seafood or shooting kangaroo or other animals. The number one thing I really focus on is providence; we only pick what we need. We move around to ensure we don’t deplete a particular area. And when I’m down on the beach, I’ll pick up 5–6 garbage bags of rubbish while I’m there. I think that’s really important: to put back in while you’re taking it out.”
Start small and in your own backyard
While heading out with your basket and clippers may sound romantic, it’s not that simple for most of us. A basic understanding of what’s edible, where to find it and how to use it is needed before we all start collecting our own foods for dinner.
“Foraging is something you do when you know what you are doing,” says Bonetto. “The dangers are many — from legal dangers of trespassing, to physical, like getting stuck in a mulberry bush — which happens! And, of course, poisoning and pollutants.”
So what are some rules of thumb? “First of all, don’t collect on the side of the road for at least a couple of metres. Then you will move away from the decades of heavy metal and leaded petrol that has been collected over the years.
The passion for these ingredients is deeply connected to a respect for the land and the environment, too, which means always ensuring that what you take out, you also put back.a
“Start small; start with three or four species. We’re not talking survival here — there are no zombies to worry about! This is a gift. Respect what you find, process everything you harvest, be respectful of colonies and mindful of eco-sensitive areas. Weeds, for example, are great.”
“I think it is something that people can do themselves,” adds Shearing. “I think the best tip is to look at your local council area and what they are doing — there’s only so much you can learn through Google. This is about getting out and experiencing it yourself. You can even go foraging in cities if you know what to look for. Start in your own backyard.”
Three simple forages to get you started
“Knowledge is the key. With knowledge comes respect” — Diego Bonetto
- Taraxacum officinale Dandelion
Origins: Native to Europe and North America.
Uses: The whole plant is edible: leaves in salads, flowers in fritters and roots as a parsnip substitute. Two-year-old roots are ground to make an excellent caffeine-free coffee.
Medicinal: The dandelion is a commonly used herbal remedy. It’s especially effective and valuable as a diuretic because it contains high levels of potassium salts. The plant is used internally in the treatment of gall bladder and urinary disorders, gallstones, jaundice, cirrhosis, dyspepsia with constipation, oedema associated with high blood pressure and heart weakness, chronic joint and skin complaints, gout, eczema and acne. A tea made from the leaves is has a laxative effect.
- Sonchus oleraceus Sowthistle
Origins: Uncertain, declared non-native in Australia.
Uses: Young leaves, raw or cooked, can be added to salads, cooked like spinach or used in soups etc. Stems are cooked like asparagus or rhubarb. The milky sap has been used as a chewing gum by the Maori of New Zealand.
Medicinal: The plant is an emmenagogue (promotes menstrual flow) and good for the liver. It has been used as an infusion to bring on tardy menstruation and to treat diarrhoea. The latex in the sap is used in the treatment of warts. The gum has been used as a cure for an opium habit. The leaves are applied as a poultice to inflammatory swellings. An infusion of the leaves and roots reduces fever and acts as a tonic.
- Trifolium repens White clover
Origins: Europe and Central Asia.
Uses: The young leaves are harvested before the plant comes into flower and used in salads, soups etc, or as a vegetable, cooked like spinach. Flowers and seed pods are dried, ground into powder and used as a flour or sprinkled on cooked foods such as boiled rice. It’s very wholesome and nutritious. The dried flowering heads can be used as a tea substitute.
Medicinal: It has been used as an infusion in the treatment of coughs, colds, fevers and leucorrhoea. A tincture made from the leaves is applied to treat gout. An infusion of the flowers may be used as an eyewash.