The art of foraging, going into the woods, fields and moors to gather berries, herbs, mushrooms, lichens and roots has evolved from being an ancient means of survival to an authentic fine dining trend. And yet, according to the experts, there is still a lot to be learned on foraging.
"The art of foraging has fallen by the wayside and the supermarket aisles have taken over” says Rob Connoley, author of Acorns&Cattails. A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm and Field, former owner of the Curious Kumquat in Silver City (New Mexico) and today fully occupied with running the Squatters Café in St. Louis.
"Even in countries where this culture is deeply rooted, few people know how to gather and cook wild edibles – he explains. However, unlike the past, today we can count on the fantastic support of information”. So long as you respect a few golden foraging rules, which are important for your own safety and the wellbeing of the environment.
So here are the most important 10 ethical foraging guidelines Rob Connely recounted to Fine Dining Lovers.
1 - Collect information before venturing into the “wild world” of nature
Safety first and foremost: even though I consider myself an expert forager, I never fail to seek advice from those who have more experience. Especially if the area or environment is less familiar: apart from mycological associations, it is useful to contact local herbalists or plant nurseries to find out what grows in the area and which species are edible.
Photos © Jay Hemphill
2 - Plan your outings and get properly equipped
This is a matter of safety: always tell someone beforehand where you are going and when you expect to return. Before venturing into a forest or an uninhabited area, tell your family, colleagues or friends: if you get hurt or lost, at least someone will know where to start looking for you. Then, dress properly for the job, using protective sun creams and insect repellents, and carry the necessary tools such as a pocket knife and a small first aid kit.
3 - The 4 Rs: roadways, right of ways, railroads, residences
Some advise foragers to avoid busy roads, right of ways, railroads and built-up areas: in these environments, wild edibles may be contaminated by particulates, fertilizers, herbicides… On the contrary, others believe that it depends on what you gather: generally speaking, plants assimilate whatever is in the environment through their leaves and roots while fruits (so long as they are at a distance from the ground) are safe and fit to eat. Whether fruits, leaves, roots, mushrooms or flowers, whoever gathers wild edibles should use their common sense: if something arouses our suspicions or seems to be contaminated, let’s not eat it!
4 - Protected species are off limits. What to do in this case.
These lists change all the time. To avoid harming the environment or having to pay costly fines, ask the local experts about protected species before going foraging. However, it is also true that if a species is protected this is because it is rare and therefore almost impossible to find. Moral of the story: it is quite unlikely for a forager, whether a novice or an expert, to be able to find significant quantities of any protected species in risk of extinction.
5 Pick the right time: important but not crucial.
For many wild edibles, the right time to harvest them is early in the morning when they are particularly fresh and tender. Besides, the morning light, like that of dusk, helps us to spot the products more easily between the leaves in the undergrowth. Then, it is important to understand the seasonal aspects of a product: in fact many of them will only be available for a few days in the year. In brief, sensible foraging has to follow an intelligent harvesting calendar.
Photos © Jay Hemphill
6 - Only gather as much as you really need and remember that you are in the presence of an ecosystem
Ethical foraging implies respect and a keen spirit of observation: if you notice that a species tends to be thin on the ground in a certain area, limit your harvesting activities. Do not forget that in many cases you are about to put in your basket a part of what the local fauna needs to survive. Also, spare a thought for the foragers who come after you and leave something for them!
7 - When you enter a forest or field, you need to respect and care for nature
Avoid taking pointless shortcuts: harvesting should be combined with the pleasure of being in close contact with nature. Above all, take care not to break branches or tread on bushes for the sole purpose of rapidly reaching the object of your desires. Instead, seek an alternative path. Moreover, when harvesting, collect your produce in tea towels or paper rather than plastic bags.
8 - Do not manipulate the eco-system. Apart from...
My own thoughts are that human intervention should be kept to a minimum. What about the exceptions? Mushrooms: when you pick them, it is a good practice to shake off any soil from the stem on the spot, in order to scatter the spores. Harvesting alone is sufficient to reinforce the plant, in the same way as pruning: if it is done well, next year the plant will be stronger and produce a greater yield. In this case, foragers will be guided by their experience.
9 - If you think you are unable to find what you seek, look around you, seek information and, if need be, look for some alternatives
When I closed my first restaurant, the Curious Kumquat in Silver City, and left the sunny south west of New Mexico for St. Louis in Midwest Missouri, I thought I would find no more yucca. On the contrary, I discovered that this plant is particularly widespread in America because the old pioneers used to delimit the boundaries of their lands with it. This is the beauty of foraging: getting to know what grows locally before using it in your recipes.
10 - Foraging and fine dining: a great combination within everyone’s reach
Until just a few years ago, recipe books went no further than misticanza (mixed salad leaves) or stews and presented nothing but rather anonymous dishes. My objective is to ensure that wild edibles make the difference in refined dishes, which may be home-made or enjoyed at the restaurant. Each dish must be visually appealing, intriguing because it presents ingredients that are truly unique and, last but not least, it must regale a new sensory experience.