All of the food we eat today derives from a wild food relative. From the cabbage to the rice to the blueberry, it all was once wild and somewhere out there the wild ancestor still exists.
Interest in gathering and eating wild food has increased over the last few years as we look for ways to live healthy, mindful and sustainable lives.
Wild food offers incredible nutritional value – a dandelion leaf salad offers up to 10 times more protein than farmed spinach or kale – as well as amazing tastes and unique flavours. It’s a radical switch from a system of control to one of harmonious cohabitation with the flora and fauna of the world.
When we talk about what it means to be ‘wild’, we often place humans outside the equation – but this is the wrong story for us to tell. We are a part of the wild natural world. Wildness is the absence not of human presence, but of control, coercion and subjugation.
In wild nature, living things influence their surroundings and are themselves influenced; there is a mutual and reciprocal partnership between them and the land. By reconnecting with land, we can reconnect with what it really means to be human.
The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates that of a total of 300,000 known plant species, 100,000 species may be edible, 10,000 have been used for human food since the origin of agriculture, but only 150–200 species have been commercially cultivated.
Just 30 crops provide 95% of the world’s food energy intake and four species – rice, wheat, maize and potatoes – supply 50% of the world’s energy.
This journey of intensifying agriculture has led to catastrophic effects; our global food security is at massive risk and the diversity of our diets – and the nutritional diversity of the crops we do choose to eat – is remarkably low.
We all make choices. As Samuel Thayer, author of The Forager’s Harvest, points out: we are all living off the land now, where else is all our food coming from? The question is whether we could do things differently.
Wild food offers a different approach. It has been gaining momentum in high cuisine over many years, and has even entered the mainstream through cooking competition TV programmes like Master Chef and The Great British Menu, which have featured ingredients such as chickweed, wild garlic, sea buckthorn, meadowsweet and sea beet centre-stage in many dishes. The majority of the wild produce used in both programmes has come from us. So why should we be paying attention to wild plants? Aren’t they just weeds?
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Foraging is older than agriculture, and for that reason some believe that we have evolved out of it – towards something better which makes our lives easier.
But an increasingly popular counter narrative supposes that, contrary to earlier assumptions, hunter gatherers of bygone eras were not the desperate, famished people they were painted to be, and on the contrary in terms of their diet, health and leisure time, they had it pretty good. So good, in fact, that in many historical cases people left agro-societies which put increasing amounts of pressure on their time and resources (sound familiar?) to rejoin the roamers, the wanderers and the foragers in the wild.
The benefits of wild food are that by definition it requires no human input. Many of the plant species we forage for in our home county of Kent are indeed adapted for grazing; for that reason we can harvest from the same spot over the course of many years without causing any damage to the environment. In most cases this action is in fact beneficial for the plant – as in the case with wild cabbage, which comes back with even greater foliage.
Wild food is incredible hardy; imagine how tough you have to be to survive in the margins of fields and cracks of our concrete jungles as some of our wild edibles do. For this reason, unlike the mollycoddled domesticated species, wild plants are bursting with nutrients. As Jo Robinson puts it in her book Eating on the Wild Side:
‘One species of wild tomato, for example, has fifteen times more lycopene than the typical supermarket tomato. Some of the native potatoes that grow in the foothills of the Andes have twenty-eight times more phytonutrients than our russet potatoes. One species of wild apple that grows in Nepal has an amazing one hundred times more bionutrients than our most popular apples; just a few ounces of the fruit provide the same amount of phytonutrients as six large Fujis or Galas’.
As we all strive to eat more healthily whilst at the same time have within our purview the issues of sustainability and providence, wild food needs no human input and grows all around us. It is quite literally a gift from the land.
Through the WildBox we are aiming to inspire people to rewild their kitchens and see where that may lead them. Week by week, as you learn more of the plants that provide sustenance throughout the seasons, you will gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in the land around you. As the French forager Francois Couplan says: ‘We only care for what we love, and we only love what we know’.
By learning how to prepare, cook and preserve wild ingredients, we engage directly with the gifts of the land. Through the sharing of wild food knowledge and engaging with the stories of the land, we can begin to tell a new story about ourselves. Indeed, we can truly say we are wild again.
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