Engaging with wild food sources is reconnecting with the old stories of our ancestors and finding a sustainable way to interact with and learn from your surroundings.
Foraging, or at least the idea of harvesting wild food from the land, is now in the mainstream. In the face of the interconnected challenges we’re confronting, we want to empower ourselves with the knowledge and skills that bring self-reliance and equip us to care for our families and communities. We now feel the urgency, and have the opportunity, to create new narratives and move towards coexistence based on shared values of compassion and understanding for all species.
Agriculture may have existed for more than 10,000 years, but we have only fully adopted a reliance on cultivated produce in the past 100 years, with the advent of industrial agriculture and subsequent monopolisation of distribution.
Three generations ago it was still common practice all over the world to collect wild food as part of our regular intake of nutrients; knowledge of what, where and when to forage was a necessary part of daily life. At the very least, we had some lived experience of harvesting wild food with our own hands.
Two generations ago, wild food harvesting started to decline, coinciding with the advent of supermarket culture, monocultural systems of food production and escalating urbanisation.
One generation ago, the knowledge associated with foraging had mostly been lost. It was no longer put into practice – and that meant that it went to sleep, remaining virtually forgotten. Today, we want the knowledge back.
From The Backyard
Dandelion is a low-growing herb, with long, toothed leaves radiating from a central crown at the base. It is an annual or biennial, growing to suit conditions, up to half a metre tall and wide, and is naturalised in Australia. Lots of plants with a yellow flower and a clock of seeds are confused with dandelions, including sow thistle and flatweed. Both of these have several flowers per stalk, while a dandelion will only have one.
The serrated leaves grow wide and flat in lawns, and upright in high grass when the plant is competing for light. The leaves are dark green, with a light-coloured and hollow midrib. Sometimes the midrib has a red tinge, due to environmental stress or age. The edges of the leaves are deeply toothed, giving the plant its name: ‘dandelion’ is derived from the French phrase dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth. Several tall, hollow, flowering stems arise from the plant’s base.
The flower heads are made up of dozens of yellow, overlapping petals. Each flower head unfurls facing the sun and remains open for one or two days before it closes to form the seed head. A ball of fluffy mini-parachutes then appears at the top of the stem, ready to be dispersed by the wind.
You can eat the whole plant: flowers, leaves, stem and root. It can be bitter, particularly older plants, so it’s better to eat it with less intensely flavoured greens.
Eat the leaves raw or cooked. As a child, we’d collect the young leaves of early spring, mix them with other greens, add boiled eggs and season with a simple dressing. My siblings and I came to love the bitter taste.
Dandelion root can be cooked like parsnip in soups, baked like a potato, or slowly roasted and then ground for a healthy, coffee-like drink, while the flowers can be eaten fresh, cooked in fritters and frittatas, or fermented into a wine. The flower buds can be pickled, similar to capers.
In herbal medicine, dandelion is regarded as the king of detox because of its properties as a mild diuretic and laxative. Dandelion infusions are regularly prescribed in cleansing programs and are extremely beneficial as liver and kidney tonics.
Dandelion is respected as a good source of antioxidants. It also reduces cholesterol, regulates blood sugar, reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, assists in weight loss, reduces the risk of cancer, boosts the immune system, aids digestion and keeps your skin healthy. In simple terms, dandelion is a superior medicinal plant and it grows just outside your door.
From The Sea
Golden kelp is a large brown or golden-brown seaweed that grows up to 1.5 metres long, with frilled fronds branching out from a flat, wide midrib. At the base of the stem is the holdfast, which looks like the roots of a tree but is actually an anchoring structure that holds the seaweed in place.
The midrib starts from the holdfast as a round stalk between 10–20 millimetres thick, which flattens out to 5–15 millimetres thick and 30–100 millimetres wide, thinning at the top. Several frilled and wavy fronds branch out from the midrib. These irregularly shaped fronds are only a few millimetres thick, between 30–80 millimetres wide and between 50–200 millimetres long, and often encrusted with microalgae.
Golden kelp in pickles is simple, delicious and the recipe on the next page is suitable for a number of seaweeds. The result is never the same: the seaweed species change, and the amount of vinegar used is sometimes more, sometimes less. At times I also put a teaspoon of sugar in with it. But remember, this is just a guide – feel free to make this recipe your own.
For pickling I only use the midrib, as it is easier to clean and process, but I have friends who collect the side fronds and use them in udon soups, cooking them with the noodles. Being thinner than the midrib, the side fronds can provide an excellent bitey texture to the soup, adding a salty, umami flavour.
Clockwise from top Not to be confused with thistle or flatweed, dandelion is highly nutritious; Kelp is best collected after high tide; Only harvest when there is an abundance and in small amounts to complement your dishes. The leaves, seeds and shoots of nettles are edible. Photos By Hellene Algie
From The River
Nettle is an erect, branched perennial plant with a yearly cycle. It dies off after seeding to sprout back up with new growth when the conditions are right.
There are three varieties of nettle in Australia: Giant nettle (Urtica dioica), Small nettle (Urtica urens) and Native nettle (Urtica incisa). In all species, the flowers are small (between one and three millimetres across), white to cream in colour, and grow in short clusters that arise where the leaves emerge from the stalk. The flower clusters are between one and three centimetres long in Urtica urens and Urtica dioica, and up to five centimetres long in Urtica incisa. The seeds mature in late summer.
Nettle is a very valuable addition to your diet, a highly nutritious food that is easily digested and high in minerals (especially iron) and vitamins (especially A and C). Cooking the leaves, or thoroughly drying them, neutralises the stinging potential of the hairs and their chemicals, rendering the leaf safe to eat.
Nettle beer is brewed from the young shoots, while nettle seeds are regarded as a super food. An Indigenous friend of mine taught me to place the branches on stones near a fire, where they’ll cook in the heat, neutralise the sting and turn into excellent nettle chips. All you need is nettle, a fire and a pinch of salt.
Nettle is commonly prescribed as a herbal supplement by naturopaths across the globe. A tea made from the leaves has traditionally been used as a tonic and blood purifier. Historically, the fresh plant has been used to treat arthritic pain, with the stinging leaves being rubbed onto the affected areas to activate blood flow. Applying a decoction of nettle to the scalp is also known as an effective way to treat dandruff.
From The Forest
Saffron Milk Caps
You are looking for a bright-orange mushroom, irregular in shape and with distinctive marks on the cap and stalk. Key to the species is the bright orange ‘milk’ (latex) that exudes from any part of the mushroom when it is cut or broken. Saffron milk caps only last a few days in the forest: by the time the mushroom is a week old, it will be either dry and woody, or mushy and discoloured.
Either way, the latex – key to identification – will not be present. This species is symbiotic with pine trees. If you are not under a pine tree, you are not looking at a saffron milk cap.
Saffron milk caps are flavoursome and slightly peppery; generally speaking, they are quite firm, meaty mushrooms. A classic recipe involves frying the sliced mushrooms in a pan with oil and a little garlic, then serving hot with a sprinkle of parsley. They are also delicious in risotto.
Dandelion and macadamia pesto
1/2 cup macadamias
1 1/2 cups fresh weeds including dandelion, wood sorrel and sow thistle
1 1/2 cups fresh basil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3/4 cup shredded parmesan
5 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the nuts, weeds, basil, garlic and parmesan in the bowl of a food processor and blend until finely chopped. With the motor running, gradually add the oil in a thin, steady stream until well combined. Season with salt and pepper and serve. This can be served as a dipping sauce, pasta sauce or condiment. For a thinner pesto, simply add more olive oil.
4 cups water
2 clumps golden kelp
1 cup white vinegar
Cut the frilly bits from your kelp fronds, leaving only the central midribs.
Add three cups of water to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the kelp and blanch for one minute. Once it is cool enough to handle, cut into matchstick – or fettucine-width – pieces and place into your sterilised jars.
Add the vinegar and the last cup of water to a saucepan and bring to the boil.
Add a couple of pinches of salt, and a pinch each of the spices, before pouring the hot pickling liquid into your jars to completely cover the seaweed. Allow the jar to stand for a few minutes – you may need to top it up before sealing.
Seal and label the jars with the contents and the date. To check that your jars are well sealed, turn them upside down for a few minutes while they are still warm.
Pickles will keep for a year stored in a cool, dark place. Once opened, keep the jar in the fridge where it will last for up to a month.