By Juliette Bryant, nutritional consultant and healer.
Many of the plants we think of as weeds have been used for thousands of years as both food and medicine. It is not necessary to go too far back in history to a time before online shopping, supermarkets or even the village store when knowing what could be eaten from the local environment was simply a matter of survival.
Farming is estimated to have first emerged in Britain around 6,000 years ago. Long before that, people hunted and gathered their food. Although all too often the few people in the world who still maintain this kind of lifestyle are considered primitive, the question is, are they really? Not only are they generally members of sophisticated cultures, but they often only need to work as little as three hours a day to satisfy their physical needs.
On Mother’s Day this year, I was given a wonderful book by Ray Mears called ‘Wild Food’. Through his television programmes and courses, Ray has done much to demonstrate the value of natural resources, honour the indigenous groups that keep them alive and generally help reconnect people to the earth.
After asking the question ‘what plants did our hunter gathering ancestors eat?” he brought in leading archeo-botanist, Professor Gordon Hillman, to answer. They spent time with the aboriginal people of Australia in order to learn the old ways that are still practiced today. What they discovered was a highly-developed awareness of the local environment – something that we in the West have lost largely.
While it may seen very convenient to have other people provide for all our food needs, in doing so we miss out on valuable medicinal food sources that can be found in our locale. There is even an argument that local food is best for us, not just due to food miles and freshness issues, but because the plants that grow near us may be most suited to our constitution and heal us in the most effective way.
The mystical series of books ‘Anastasia’, which is set in Siberia, considers the inherent power of wild foods – they have developed naturally over millions of years and are so tough they can survive almost anything humans throw at them, always returning to colonise the land no matter what.
Food for free
But it was the publication of Richard Mabey’s iconic book ‘Food For Free’ in 1972 that initially started a resurgence in eating wild foods. Now there are foraging courses all across the UK, including some good local ones in East Anglia. Such knowledge is not only beneficial for our health. It is also good for our pocket too as we can use foraged food to supplement the paid-for goods in our larder.
Unsurprisingly lots of businesses are likewise getting in on the act by selling foraged seaweed such as samphire as well as local mushrooms. The small Suffolk town of Sudbury even has a pop-up restaurant called Shillingford’s, which is located at The Quay performing arts theatre and specialises in wild food.
While there is something primal about collecting your own food, there are also massive potential health benefits from a medicinal point of view in eating a wider range of foods. Archeologists believe that pre-agricultural humans may have eaten between 200–1,000 different plants species over the course of a year. But today, a huge 90% of cultivated foods come from just 20 plants.
Having a more diverse diet though means we consume a wider range of tiny phyto-nutritients, the healing qualities of which are being discovered more and more each day.
While out foraging, however, it is important to bear a few things in mind:
- It is against the law to uproot a wild plant, however common, without the landowner’s permission;
- Only pick specimens that are abundant and never strip a plant completely of its leaves, fruit or berries, or take more than you need;
- Beware of eating anything that may have been contaminated;
- Never eat something if you are not completely sure of what it is, or how to cook it if it cannot be eaten raw, as some wild plants can be deadly.
Here is a quick and easy recipe that can be made from some of the wild foods growing all around us:
Wild garlic & chickweed hummus
1 tin chickpeas
2 tbs tahini
juice of 1 lemon
4 tbs olive oil
1 tsp good salt
small handful of chickweed
small handful of wild garlic leaves
3 tbs water
½ tsp paprika
Blend together well in a food processor, adding a dash more water if required. Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika. This is delicious served with baked potatoes and salad.
Juliette Bryant is an author, nutritional consultant, superfood chef and presenter who runs courses, talks, workshops and retreats around the world. Her passion is helping people to thrive by showing them how to make delicious and healthy food. Juliette runs a busy practice providing nutritional consultations to individuals and businesses worldwide.