A Feast Hiding in Plain Sight
This year I decided to dip my toe into the TED experience. My husband and I signed up for TED Global, taking place in Edinburgh. Applications accepted. Bags packed. Off to Scotland we went.
Before the conference began in earnest, the organizers offered a day of experiences. Much to my delight, Wild Food Foraging with professional forager Robin Harford was among the selections. Of course, I pounced.
As the caretaker of a mini-farm in Silicon Valley, I’m keenly aware of the crops grown in our area and throughout the places I travel. But I confess to having a massive blind spot to the food that’s all around us—not the food we cultivate but the food that finds its own footing.
The TED-sters who signed up to forage met and were shuttled away. I assumed we’d be jetting off to the wilderness, so imagine my surprise when 15 minutes later we pulled into a nearby neighborhood and took a tree-lined path between two unpretentious houses. Then it hit me: Foraging isn’t necessarily about backpacking into the wilderness and living Robinson Crusoe-style. It can be about finding food that’s simply hiding in plain sight … which was exactly the intent of our day.
As we entered the park we were met by Robin, who after a stint in the white-collar-world has turned back to his roots in the foraging playground. So in love is this man with hunting for edible treasure that he swoons with every discovery. Robin was also accompanied by Chef Paul Wedgewood of Wedgewood the Restaurant, twice named Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year.
Before rambling into the woods, we were given a brief introduction by Robin. He demonstrated his philosophy for getting to know plants: seeing, touching, crunching, swirling and smelling. A bit of a secret handshake that he claimed would tell you just about everything you need to know about a plant. He encouraged us to “turn up the volume of our senses” and suggested our noses in particular would “keep us alive” by discerning the difference between, say, the very tasty cow parsley and the very deadly hemlock. (I wasn’t keen to test my readiness on that front just yet.)
We ventured down the trail and, as we did, Robin and Chef Paul collected edibles out of the “doggy danger zone”—in other words, steps away from the area most likely to be, well, fertilized by furry friends. For an hour or more we foraged and studied plants and ate bits of chickweed, ground elder, hogweed, false nettle, Canadian comfrey and on and on. Better still, we listened to the legend and lore surrounding these plants and the role they played in ancient times. Later we feasted on a lunch made so scrumptious, so colorful and so remarkably fresh by the treasures we had gathered that very morning.
What I learned that day in Edinburgh was humbling. I think because I grow the majority of the food my husband and I eat that I have somehow “gone back to nature.” Quite the contrary. While I spend many of my days trying to get plants that originated from who-knows-where to perform in our Northern California climate, I now wonder about the feast that’s been here all along. Long before the apple orchards. Long before the grape growers. Long before my farm.
Now, as I hike the hills of Northern California, I’m trying not just to see the beauty but also the bounty. To turn up the volume of my senses. To crunch and swirl. To smell and taste. To find the treasures all around me that surely await.
Wild Food Plants of the UK
Robin Harford leads a variety of wild food foraging courses throughout the UK. For more information and for a listing of Robin’s upcoming courses, visit his website at ForagingCourses.com.
Green Alkanet. In the Middle Ages, festivals were held throughout the year with everyone dressed in colorful finery. At these gatherings, tables would be filled with bowls of exquisite flower salads that, no doubt, included this member of the borage family. (Borage also thrives in the Bay Area.)
Fireweed. Long ago, it was popular to eat fireweed stems while they were very young and tender. “Nice little shoots,” as Robin says. Boil them first but be sure to throw out the water as, according to legend, it has a stupefying effect.
Goosegrass (aka cleavers, stickywilly). In ancient times, families subsisted on very little over winter. Come spring, craving nutrition, they foraged fresh shoots of goosegrass. Rolled in their hands, it made a natural drink—much like a shot of wheat grass with, according to Robin, twice the nutritional value.
Herb Robert. Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” There was a time when people of Europe added bits of this plant to their diets not so much for flavor but to boost heart health and the immune system.
Hawthorne. When this tree produces foliage, new leaves form in little green trumpets. These edible nibbles can be gathered by the handful and sprinkled on salad. The flowers of the tree are also edible but not exciting. The berries are hit or miss.
Pine. Historically considered by some, including Native Americans, to possess a testosterone mimic, pine pollen is gathered and eaten to enhance endurance. Eaten raw it provides little taste but cooked into risotto it transforms into a citrusy tang.
Sweet Cicely (aka cows parsley). The seeds, pods, greens and roots of this lacy member of the carrot family can all be prepared for a feast. Some times used by herbalists to cure everything from coughs to flatulence, be warned as it looks very much like hemlock.
Wych elm. This beautiful elm offers edible seeds that can be eaten straight from the tree. Additionally, its wood was preferred among medieval Welsh archers. And, its healing properties are considered many.