Food foraged from the Forest
Years went by, I moved to cities, travelled the world and then finally returned to my village. Now with a deeper understanding of nature and a broader view of approaches to everyday life around the world, I wanted to contribute to the conservation of our Alpine landscape. I did a Master’s degree in Protected Area Management and worked on a few research projects in that field. Technical work like this is one way to conserve our natural heritage. Enabling nature experience is my present approach.
Food foraged from the forest is a beautiful and powerful means to directly relate to our surroundings. Yet most of us lack time, and an increasing number of people lack knowledge about what we find in the forest and how to use these treasures. Guided walks are the best way to learn - being outdoors increases your health, creates a pleasant learning environment and enables you to see plants in their natural habitat.
If you are a rookie in wild plants, these tips can bring you up to speed:
- Join guided walks and trainings with specialised guides who can best introduce you to plants and their characteristics.
- Get a good book on plant identification (plant illustrations preferable to photos).
- Have a look at plant families in addition to the identification of individual species (a couple of plant families cover quite a range of plants that you will encounter in the wild).
- Spend time outdoors walking the same paths and observing changes over the vegetation period (a short walk every two weeks is extremely beneficial).
- Use recognised books and online resources on the use of your identified plant species (like Plants for A Future with a database of more than 7,000 plants).
- Get informed about land ownership and regulatory framework for foraging in your area.
- If you are confident with plant identification, explore the use of the plants yourself – eat them on your walks, bring them home to cook, to dry, to preserve in any appropriate form.
- Take notes of your observations and experiences.
Seasons come and go and herbal teas and jams of wild berries pile up on your shelves. You feel well connected to the cycles of nature and confident in your plant identification skills. If you are a guide this might be the time to let this knowledge flow into your guided walks. Whatever field of plant interest you might have – it will be an add-on experience for your guests. In my neighbourhood, foraging seems to be on the rise again. Maybe this indicates an increasing desire for the natural as a counterbalance to the digital world. Or maybe, because we have lost trace of the origin of our food - growing your own or foraging for food has become trendy.
As with any other forest walk, your tour needs good preparation. In fact, foraging with a group needs extra care. Here are a few things to consider in order to make it a thrilling experience:
- Find appropiate and unspoiled foraging grounds
- Get the consent of the landowner on where to go and what to take (it will hardly be more than a few handful of edible plants)
- Understand the regulatory framework (e.g. conservation laws for plants, mushrooms, habitats or animal species) and interests of other groups (e.g. hunters, forestry...)
- Scout the area 1-2 weeks prior to the walk in order to identify plants and how you will use them on your walk
- Make sure that you only take what you can safely identify and find in abundance
- Do not introduce plants that can be confused with toxic species (e.g. leave aside Parsley (Apiaceae) and Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) families)
- Staying with plants people might already know but showing new uses might be an even bigger surprise than an introduction to new species
- Take only as much as you will use during your walk
- Keep it simple
For me, walking the forest and finding food is a very fulfilling and empowering activity. Plants complement my diet with lots of minerals, vitamins, colours, smells, tastes and textures. It opens up a new culinary universe and enables me to see the wealth and cycles of nature. It is a means to connect. It makes me feel deeply connected. And as a guide, what more could you want to enable?
My walks are short in distance (hardly longer than 4 kilometers) but abundant in species. Perfect routes pass by different habitats – for example, along meadows and into forests, next to springs or little streams, sunny and shady places, nutrient-poor and rich sites. I provide an introduction to basic plant morphology before we explore individual species by having a closer look at them (best with a magnifying glass) and by feeling, smelling and tasting. As a precautionary measure, I ask people to show me every plant before they eat it. We only take fresh and unspoiled parts. If we collect along the way for a “wild food picnic“ or for a cooking session, we keep the plants separated by species in paper bags or baskets. Before we start cooking I make a final quality and plant identification check. Wild food should complement cultivated food. I only take small quantities on my walks and workshops in order to let the people’s sense of taste and digestion adapt to it.
Eating or drinking the treasures on the spot has proven to amplify the foraging experience. The plants mentioned below can be found in the European Alpine low-land areas, but quite some of them have a much wider distribution. Study the plants, their edibility and potential hazards thoroughly before integrating them in your walks.
Here are a few simple ideas what you can do out in the forest:
It only takes some good quality oil and a little bit of salt. If available, nuts are a great addition. Grind all together in a mortar and use it as a bread spread.
Suitable plants – spicy in taste:
Species of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) like Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), Large Bittercress (Cardamine amara), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)... If this is too hot, add some mild plants like the ones mentioned for a salad.
Chop herbs and mix into curd or hummus.
Suitable plants – rich in essential oils:
Species of the mint family (Lamiaceae) like Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Wild Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)...
Young shoot tips (needles) of the pine family (Pinaceae), e.g. Norway Spruce (Picea abies), Silver fur (Abies alba)...
Combine a few mild shoots, leaves and flowers with some aromatic herbs. Add a gentle dressing. Eat only in small quantities, even better to combine it with some salad from your garden.
Suitable plants – mild in taste:
Species of the mallows family (Malvaceae) like Large Leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), Small Leaved Lime (Tilia cordata), Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)...
Seedlings or young leaves of the maple family (Aceraceae) like Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) or Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)...
Other species like Ground Elder (Aeagopodium podagraria), White Dead Nettle (Lamium album), Common Plantain (Plantago major), Narrowleaf Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Daisy (Bellis perennis), Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)...
From bush to mouth or into a yogurt.
Suitable plants – sweet in taste:
Fruits of Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), Raspberry (Rubus idaeus), Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)...
If you are willing to carry some more weight in your backpack then take a camping stove with you. This increases your opportunities, for example to pan-fry some mushrooms or to prepare some tea.
Suitable plants – good for a tea:
Leaves, flowers and fruits of berries mentioned above, flowers of Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), leaves of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), needles of pine trees (see Herbal Spread above)...
We are what we eat – why not be a little bit wilder?