In the summer of 2011, I spent four days in a log cabin in central Finland without electricity or piped water, harassed by clouds of mosquitos that could bite through gloves. We brought with us potatoes and tomatoes, but that was all. Every day we caught perch and vendace in the lake, and foraged in the forest, where sea buckthorn grows and the floor is carpeted with blueberries, lingonberries and great patches of chanterelles.
There is a primordial thrill about finding free, wild food.
That said, it was hard work; from sunrise we chopped wood, gathered the fishing nets, gutted and filleted the catch, rummaged through the forest floor, fired up the wood stove, and then, towards evening, set out once more to drop the fishing nets.
There was no time to write a novel.
We dined simply; you’d be hard put to improve on fillets of fresh vendace barbecued over the coals. More organised Finns commonly have a dedicated barbecue hut (called a kota) with the fire and chimney in the middle of a central table.
For the Finns, hunting and gathering is par for the course; almost everyone has a cabin somewhere in the countryside. But most people in the world live in cities and forage for dinner among the shelves of their local supermarket.
It was after Nordic chef René Red-zepi’s Noma in Copenhagen became “the number one restaurant in the world” in 2010 that the food media started to pick up (and to some extent create) a new trend to forage. What made Noma special was Redzepi’s predilection for using wild ingredients.
Foraging became fashionable: finding mushrooms in city parks; hardy edible weeds growing alongside railroad tracks; duwweltjie leaves on pavements; and, in the United States, abandoned fruit trees in the gardens of foreclosed homes after the subprime mortgage crisis.
Foraging has inspired books (one of this year’s favourites is Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong), guided tours through urban forests such as New York’s Central Park and a daring new cuisine cult among some of the world’s top chefs.
Wild radish may be the new rocket for the jaded gourmet palate, yet we are also trying to reconnect to a planet in greater ecological peril than ever before. Foraging dovetails neatly with the organic, locavore and slow food movements. On a small scale, foraging has joined the rebellion against industrial agriculture.
Revolutionary zeal aside, foraging is undeniably about our desire for new and tastier experiences. Chefs have to some extent always foraged, especially in Europe (think of truffle hunts and seasonal berry picking), but Redzepi took it to a whole new level of sophistication and opened people’s eyes to edibles previously overlooked.
Soon foraging was picked up by Martha Stewart and others such as Eddy Leroux at Daniel in New York and Alice Waters at California’s Chez Panisse.
On the home front, several Cape chefs have also turned their talents to foraging.
Eric Bulpitt of the Roundhouse in Camps Bay said it is a “long and very time-consuming” process to find the right taste combinations using untried ingredients.
“There are so many edible herbs out there and a lot of them are not recorded,” said Bulpitt of the pioneering effort involved in creating delicious new dishes that don’t give one’s guests stomach cramps — or worse. Redzepi, for instance, forages with an iPhone and sends images to experts when he isn’t sure of something. At the New Yorker Festival in October, Redzepi told the audience: “I’ve choked, and I’ve had on-the-spot violent diarrhoea.”
Although many chefs love to forage for themselves, a new industry of professional foragers has emerged. Miles Irving, for instance, the author of The Forager Handbook (2009), started a company to supply British chefs with wild ingredients. Today he has a catalogue of more than 120 edible ingredients.
Bulpitt has used Kalahari truffles in the past and is currently verifying and experimenting with a great variety of plants, among them wild ginger and rooiwortel, and herbs such as dead nettle, sow thistle, Cape wormwood and four varieties of wood sorrel. He is still working out how exactly to use them.
Chef Peter Tempelhoff of The Greenhouse at the Cellars-Hohenort (awarded restaurant of the year at last year’s Eat Out DStv Food Network restaurant awards) loves the red berry-like fruit of Carissa bispinosa, known as num-nums. You’ll find locals on the roadside in KwaZulu-Natal selling this fruit in late summer.
In another dish Tempelhoff matches tuna with smoked snoek broth, tofu and daikon with bokbaai-vygie. He forages for cep mushrooms on Table Mountain, samphire from the Keurbooms River estuary and picks sea lettuce off the rocks at the Marine in Hermanus.
Chef Shaun Schoeman at Fyndraai near Paarl serves katballetjies, the tiny bulbs of an indigenous, liquorice-flavoured plant, uses salvia in a mayonnaise emulsion and flavours crème brûlée with the fragrant fynbos shrub buchu. On the Solms-Delta wine estate he has acres of fynbos at his disposal.
“We are making the most of our wild plants and herbs, which we grow in our culinary Dik Delta garden,” said Schoeman. He uses herbs “on a daily basis in almost every dish we prepare at our restaurant … plants such as citrus buchu, wild rosemary, wild garlic and pelargonium”.
West Coast chef Kobus van der Merwe said: “Collecting food from the wild is very much part of our heritage in Africa. I grew up with my grandparents collecting karkoere and !N’abbas [Kalahari truffles] in the Northern Cape or picking seaweed for making jelly and harvesting mussels when we were at the coast.”
Nutty, mushroom-tasting !N’abbas are delicious peeled and gently fried in a little butter.
As an example of what can be accomplished by foraging, Van der Merwe cites his current signature dish: “I call it ‘Mosselbank at low tide’, which is where and when I collect these specific edibles — ice plant, soutslaai, dune spinach, wild parsley and sea lettuce. I pair these with poached pear and homemade maasbanker bokkom [a type of dried fish], raw celery, ginger and almonds.”
“Winter is the best time … sow thistle can be cooked like spinach. Wild radish and wild mustard seed pods are delicious in salads and stir-fries. Depending on the condition of the specific plant, the young leaves can also be eaten like rocket. Oxalis leaves, stalks and flowers are invaluable when making traditional waterblommetjie- or veldkoolbredie”.
Foraging might have been plucked from recent obscurity, but it has a pedigreed literary history of fine dining.
The poet C Louis Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery (unpublished when he died in 1947) has a whole veldkos section. It includes such tantalising comestibles as blue-white iris corms, wild sorrel (gathered by sailors to ward off scurvy since before Van Riebeeck’s day), wild fennel, wild anise, wild almond tree seed, and water hawthorn.
But before you look twice at that mushroom you used to dig out of your lawn with annoyance, consider the three Ps of foraging: permission, pollution and poison.
In Finland everyone, including visitors, is allowed to forage in the forests for free. In the United Kingdom, the landowner may chase you away but, as long as what you’ve taken is for personal use, he may not confiscate your pickings. In New York expect a $250 fine if you’re caught raiding the lawns of Central Park for minty ground ivy without permission.
In South Africa, make sure you are not pillaging a protected area. One hears about the poaching of Kalahari succulents and the wholesale plunder of wild garlic in the Cape’s Tygerberg reserve. You should always forage with a view to sustainable harvesting. Never pick every last mushroom or pull up a plant by its roots.
Many plants are poisonous, especially mushrooms, and thanks to nature’s disguises it can be devilishly difficult to identify the edible from the deadly. Urban areas are also highly polluted. The peppery nasturtium you just picked by the roadside might have been used minutes before as a signpost by a dog.
For recipes visit Kobus van der Merwe’s excellent blog.
Seasonal expeditions for mushrooms, Kalahari truffles and waterblommetjies are arranged by slowfoodmothercity.co.za
This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian 30 November 2012.