Food For Free

Issue 290
May/June 2015
Becoming Barbarian

Ethical Living

Food For Free
by

issue cover 290

Cover: Arctic Moss (5,500 years old), Elephant Island, Antarctic by Rachel Sussman

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Illustration by James Gibbs www.james-gibbs.co.uk

Illustration by James Gibbs www.james-gibbs.co.uk

Ros Coward questions the fashion for foraged food.

I’m fortunate to have a background where local food was valued. My father, who was not at all wealthy, was nevertheless a great believer in shopping locally. As convenience shops and supermarkets began to take over, he loyally supported the local fishmongers and butchers, seeking out high-quality local produce. I inherited his tastes – and habits – so have never felt alienated from local foods. Even so, my strong commitment to local foods turns out to have been very limited after all. Foraging for local wild food was way off my compass.

It never occurred to me that plants familiar on country walks were anything other than charming weeds. My awareness was only awakened by books like Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. In particular it took articles about thrillingly interesting chefs like René Redzepi from Noma and Simon Rogan from L’Enclume to awaken a real appetite for such food.

So last summer on regular walks in Kent, I began to gather and cook nettles, seakale, wild garlic and Alexanders.

Some dishes were pretty hit and miss. I’d gathered at the wrong moment in the plant’s cycle, for example, so leaves were bitter. But other dishes – Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) treated as asparagus with butter and lemon, for example – were delicious. If I could do this, what would the food be like produced by the chefs at Noma, working on the Danish coast with reindeer moss, hay, yarrow, seaweed, snails, and the berries of the area?

I was given a copy of the Noma cookbook and began to dream of visiting such restaurants to experience food that not only is the ultimate local and seasonal food, but also tastes like – and evokes – the landscape and environment in which it grows.

Sadly, however, these are likely to remain dreams. For the most part, restaurants like these have become the preserve of the wealthy, the new must-have experience; celebrities visit by private jet, and waiting lists are several months long or even longer. As foraged food appears more widely on menus of restaurants promoting a ‘locavore’ ethos, it increasingly features as synonymous with high-end dining experiences and hefty price tags.

This is not to say that fantastically inventive chefs who need knowledge to find, skill to gather and extreme talent to cook creatively should not be rewarded. I’d be happy to pay a high price on a special occasion for such an experience – if only I could get a booking. But the irony of foraged food becoming the food of princes can hardly be lost on environmentalists.

Foraging has been widely embraced by environmentalists, evidenced in foraging walks organised by wildlife trusts and events like Oxfam’s Forage and Feast. This is because foraging on so many levels goes to the heart of environmental beliefs. Foraging, as I found with my amateurish attempts in Kent, makes you relate to seasonality first hand, while being able to identify edible plants is empowering, bringing a greater appreciation of Nature and our dependence on it. Foraged food also requires intimate knowledge of a physical place, of what grows where, and at what times of year food is best gathered and eaten. It evokes a region’s distinctive taste and recalls traditional cultural uses of local plants.

Foraging can put people in touch with wider food politics. It’s not just a reminder that modern food is transported absurd distances when good food is growing locally and untended. It also can remind us of the inequitable access to food, and issues about land ownership. In Western countries and before food production was industrialised, such plants were often a vital addition to the diet of the country poor, even if people were sometimes ashamed of this reliance.

Foraged food is still important in developing countries where traditional practices and rights of access exist. Foraged food has been at the source of conflicts, too, as proprietors have excluded foragers from their lands. Foraging, in short, is an activity that while empowering and delighting cannot fail to remind us of the wider history of food, and issues of poverty, survival and inequality.

That’s why it sticks in the throat to see foraged food become just another fashion for the rich. Foraged food featuring in the world’s most expensive restaurant is almost like having larks’ tongues on the menu – presented as something fabulously difficult to find and limited in its supply. This is not the fault of the chefs. René Redzepi is almost messianic in his promotion of foraged food for all the right reasons. But for many of the consumers it’s just another fad, where the taste buds are titillated not so much by a sense of locality and accessibility as by a feeling of exclusivity

Ros Coward is a freelance journalist. www.roscoward.com

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