Wild food foraging

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Foraging is defined as the act of looking or searching for food or provisions. The term is usually used these days in relation to going out harvesting food from the wilds, which in England usually (and sadly) means hedgerows, woods and other areas that have seen minimal human cultivation, interference and management.

Anyone can go out and forage. There is wild food everywhere, much more than you would imagine in cities, as long as you know where to go and what to look for. Rocket and Jack-by-the-hedge, growing through the cracks between the wall and the footpath, both disappointed about not being picked; sumac in your local park waiting to be made into ‘lemonade’; and dandelions crying out to be put into salads. However, I would strongly recommend learning it by adventuring out with someone very experienced for a period first, unless you are planning to harvest only commonly recognised species such as the stinging nettle, ramsons (wild garlic) and blackberries. Richard Mabey’s book Food for Free is a now a classic text, but hands-on experience (and lots of it) is required before you will gain enough proficiency at it to go eating some of the more obscure plants. Plants that are toxic to humans often look very similar to ones that aren’t, and only going out with a very experienced forager will give you the confidence you need to eat well from the wilds. Until you become fairly competent at foraging, start making full use of those plants you do recognise but have never got around to utilising.

Fergus Drennan, broadcaster, professional forager and wild food foraging teacher(156)

On 1st January 2013 I’ll be beginning my third attempt to live on entirely wild/foraged food for a year. When I tell people that the diet will be predominantly plant based this usually elicits one of two questions: ‘How will you get enough carbs?’ and, ‘What about protein?’ Carbohydrate is relatively easy to come by; obtaining sufficient protein on the other hand can be more of a challenge. One answer to the challenge lies in the wild food adventure that is leaf curd production – the extraction of protein direct from multiple leaf varieties. Actually, in 15-20 years time I wouldn’t be surprised to see leaf curd complimenting meat as a common and nutritious source of protein. Before then, forward thinking mechanical engineers, enthusiastic experimenters, determined vegans, and those committed to alternative and more sustainable food production must devise equipment that can extract the protein more efficiently than that which is currently available. Still, in the meantime, and on a small scale, leaf curd can significantly contribute to a healthy and more sustainable diet with very minimal investment in equipment.

Leaf curd – what exactly is it?
Leaf curd or leaf concentrate isn’t just protein, although a well made curd will consist of up to 70% protein; it also includes vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A (as beta-carotene), iron, calcium and essential micronutrients. Not only that, the resulting dry fibrous residue need not be construed as waste but rather can be composted or, better still, made into card or paper – edible paper in fact.

Given that the curd is so nutritious, it has been produced on a small scale in countries where malnutrition is endemic. Given, also, that over half the population in this country is seriously overweight; I reckon that counts as bad or malnutrition. So let’s get to work!

At present I have successfully utilised wild garlic (Allium ursinum), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), charlock (Sinapis arvensis), ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), lime (Tilia species) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The flavour of the first three is intense. Consequently the finished curd from these combines well with the milder tasting nettle, charlock or lime curd in a ratio of 1:6.

The leaves of many plants can be used, and although fresh grass cuttings are a good source of bulk leaf material and can be used, generally speaking it is safest to use plants with a well established use as human food. Note: fungi and seaweeds are unavailable for home protein extraction due to their small cell size.

Selecting your leaf maceration and juice extraction method. Possible techniques:

• Home liquidiser with added water (ideally using a bicycle to run the liquidizer) and manual straining and squeezing through a fine cloth or bag.
• Manual meat grinder (no added water) and manual straining and squeezing through a fine cloth or bag.
• Very good quality general juicer or wheat grass juicer.
• Giant pestle and mortar. Pounding leaves in a large water butt or other suitable container with a big wooden stake, followed by manual straining and squeezing through a fine cloth or bag.
• Impact macerator.(157)
• The Super Efficient Ingenious Device (invented by you, my dear reader)!

How to make leaf curd
First, collect young and tender leaves. This is best done in the spring from March-May before leaves have laid down too much cellulose. 12kg of stinging nettles will give about 1 kg of damp crumbly curd; for wild garlic it is slightly less at 12kg to 800g, but the flavour is super intense and a little goes a long way. The aim is to break open as many of the leaf cells as possible to release the protein. This is best achieved if the leaves are washed and used as soon as possible after collecting. The three most convenient small scale methods involve either liquidising the leaves in a blender, passing them through a meat mincer or pounding and grinding using a giant version of a pestle and mortar. The latter two methods will give you a little juice and much wet pulp that then needs to be squeezed in a cloth to extract the juice. I prefer to use the liquidising method, although the pounding method is excellent if you fancy a workout. Place about 250g of washed and roughly chopped leaves into the liquidizer and top up with water – spring water preferably. Blend for a minute or so to produce a fine pulp. Repeat this process until all the leaves have been processed. If using wild garlic, after 2-3 times using fresh water, strain out the solids and use the same liquid to blend the next batch of leaves. Once all the leaves have been pulped, tip the leafy pulp into a pillowcase resting inside a large bowl. Strain out the liquid and squeeze the residue to get out as much liquid as possible. Place this green liquid in a stainless steel pan and bring to the boil for 1 minute. The protein will coagulate into solids. Once it has cooled a little, strain through a fine cloth – I use silk, squeezing until no more water will come out. For large quantities one could use a hydraulic press or apple press perhaps. If using wild garlic leaves the strained liquid can be used as a stock base for soup. It can be bottled for subsequent use (note: with many if not most leaves the liquid is not safe to consume regularly).

How to store and use the curd
Fresh curd should be used as soon as possible although it will keep in a sealed airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Dividing into cubes and freezing or mixing in 200g of salt per kg and then refrigerating also works well. Drying is possible in a low oven; above (but not in contact with) a radiator; or in a food dehydrator. Nevertheless, it should be manually crumbled up half way through the drying process; this avoids the formation of apparently dry lumps that remain moist inside. I tend to mix it with salt and use small pieces as stock cubes or freeze and thaw to use as fresh.

So, after all this effort how can it be used!? Well, it’s surprisingly versatile. I have used it in all of the following ways: in spicy Indian sauces, risotto, vegan burgers, vegetable smoothies, salsa, savoury seaweed mousse, pesto, bread, pasta and noodles, pastry, pancake mix, soup, stews, as a salty spread, pâté, stock cubes, in seitan
(i.e. combined with wheat gluten flour and cooked) and even to make green fried eggs! Perhaps the most intriguing experiments have been my attempts, partly successful, to make green cheese. This has involved adding salt, coconut oil and acidic whey (extracted from milk, yoghurt or, as a purely vegan alternative, separating the liquid from sour dough starters), then wrapping in cloth and increasingly compressing over the course of several weeks (in cool conditions).

Wild food and roadkill
Of course, let us not forget that there are many other fun and efficient ways to obtain high protein foods from the wild. Perhaps the best and most easily obtained plant based source is the delectable walnut. Particularly in the south of England, feral, abandoned trees, or simply those in public places, can be readily found. There are over 40 such trees within a short cycling distance of my home. Last year I gathered 50kg nuts. These can be used whole or have the oil extracted, the resulting meal being a wonderful and protein rich food source. Then of course there is the whole coastal larder of fish and shell fish, the inland larder of snails and insects and, dare I say it, yes I do, accidental meat, a.k.a. roadkill. Given the tragic fact that every year in the UK,(158) 3 million pheasants, 800,000 rabbits, 50,000 deer, squirrel and badgers, as well as 25,000 foxes are killed on our roads, (and extrapolating from these appalling statistics, whilst taking into account the differing size of the various animals and, for arguments sake, assuming that 50% of such animals are serviceable as food – i.e. avoiding the tabloid cliché that anyone who eats road kill ‘scrapes it off the tarmac’) then (when accounting for the differing number of servings from each animal) we’re looking at least 8,900,000 potential meals for the practical, discriminating and opportunist forager. Bon appétit!

For an extensive and detailed account of leaf curd production techniques, preservation and storage methods and recipe suggestions, see the excellent free online document: Leaf Concentrate: A Field Guide for Small Scale Programmes by David Kennedy.

The classification of wild food, as separate from food cultivated by humans, raises some interesting questions here; questions which highlight the extent to which we have perceived ourselves to be separate from the rest of Nature.

First, what exactly is ‘the Wild’? Second, why are humans commonly not considered to be wild, or a part of the Wild? If a human plants a seed, and it germinates and spreads itself across a landscape over a short period of time, are these new plants wild or cultivated? Most people would suggest the latter, though with little confidence or clarity. Yet if a so-called wild animal eats some fruit before, very kindly, dropping the seed bomb composed mainly of its own – ahem – potting mix, and that seed then germinates into another fruit producing plant, most people would consider that to be the work of ‘the wild’. Is the planting of a seed only a domestication issue if it is done consciously by humans? Gary Snyder, author of The Practice of the Wild, suggests that a plant is wild if it is “self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities”.(159) But who is to say that plants haven’t evolved in the ways they have to manipulate us into planting them everywhere – they’ve evolved with the wind to do this, so why not with the human also?

We believe that we are in control, that we are the manipulators, but maybe it is the plants that are manipulating us. If you think that is completely barmy, consider the fact that unless we continue to spread seed (on their behalf) every single year now, we will die. Who is really in control here – us or the plants?

Humanity is no less or greater a part of Nature than a fox or a deer. We may currently be a more destructive force that anything else that exists, but we are still Nature. And within us still resides a piece of The Wild.