WILD AND FREE

For­ag­ing in Scot­land is free, tasty and good for you, says Louise Gray. But how do we make sure every­one gets a bite with­out strip­ping the coun­try­side bare?

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

Louise Gray in­ves­ti­gates the fash­ion for for­aged food

For­ag­ing in the coun­try­side used to be about sus­te­nance, sur­vival and even magic. Fruits like black­ber­ries were a wel­come source of vi­ta­min C be­fore su­per­mar­kets pro­vided any choice, wild roots were dug up in times of famine and flow­ers were used to heal. Now for­ag­ing is about fash­ion. Celebrity chefs in­clude wild foods in their in­gre­di­ents, restau­rants scat­ter for­aged flow­ers in sal­ads and any hip­ster worth their salt spends the week­end romp­ing through the woods with a wicker bas­ket. In Scot­land one in five of us for­aged wild foods in the last year, ac­cord­ing to the Forestry Com­mis­sion. At the height of bram­bling sea­son, I joined Ally Hur­cikova and So­raya Bishop for an af­ter­noon for­ag­ing black­ber­ries along the Union Canal in Ed­in­burgh. The pair set up Grass Roots Reme­dies in Ed­in­burgh to teach oth­ers how to for­age re­spon­si­bly and make herbal medicines, as well as food. They also run a herbal medicine clinic in Wester Hailes Healthy Liv­ing Cen­tre, the first in Scot­land to of­fer al­ter­na­tive heal­ing along­side the NHS. Pa­tients and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity are en­cour­aged to join for­ag­ing ex­pe­di­tions to make the teas and tinc­tures they will later use. So­raya, 30, says for­ag­ing can con­nect a com­mu­nity with their land­scape. Not only by get­ting peo­ple out­side but em­pow­er­ing them to feed them­selves and heal them­selves. ‘Food and medicine can­not be sep­a­rated,’ she says. In less than an hour we find hawthorn ber­ries for cur­ing colds, net­tle seeds for pro­tein, dan­de­lion leaves for low­er­ing blood pres­sure and meadow sweet for a sore tummy. For Ally it is about learn­ing tra­di­tional skills that may have been for­got­ten in the dig­i­tal age. ‘It is about learn­ing to use your hands and knowl­edge of the coun­try­side,’ she says. She points out that wild plants con­tain more pro­tein and vi­ta­mins than cul­ti­vated fruits and veg­eta­bles. ‘If this was in the su­per­mar­ket they would call it a su­per­food,’ she says, pop­ping a black­berry in her mouth. For ex­am­ple, ground el­der is full of pro­tein, rose­bay wil­low herb is packed with vi­ta­min C and dead net­tles have more vi­ta­min A than or­di­nary cab­bage. Dr Wendy Rus­sell, a se­nior re­search fel­low at The Rowett In­sti­tute in Aberdeen, says the lat­est sci­ence backs for­ag­ing folk­lore up. A re­cent study by a the in­sti­tute found the 20 most for­aged foods in Scot­land are full of an­tiox­i­dants that may help in low­er­ing

“The 20 most for­aged foods in Scot­land are full of an­tiox­i­dants

our blood sugar lev­els. For ex­am­ple blae­ber­ries (aka bil­ber­ries or whortle­ber­ries), that grow wild in Scot­land, are ‘mag­ni­tudes higher’ in an­tiox­i­dants com­pared to con­ven­tional blue­ber­ries which are bred to be big and juicy and eas­ily har­vested. Dr Rus­sell has re­cently car­ried out a study look­ing at wild ver­sus her­itage ver­sus F1 hy­brid cul­ti­vated veg­eta­bles. The study used five sites around Scot­land in or­der to prove it was not just the en­vi­ron­ment that was in­flu­enc­ing growth. On each site the wild crops were shown to have higher lev­els of the ‘phy­to­chem­i­cals’ in plants that may help fight non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases like heart dis­ease and can­cer. Dr Rus­sell’s the­ory is that the chem­i­cal com­pounds in wild plants that pro­tect them against in­sects, her­bi­vores and even wind also gen­er­ate pro­tec­tive pat­terns in the hu­man body. The trou­ble is that we have bred out many of these chem­i­cals be­cause they also make the plant taste bit­ter or make it more dif­fi­cult to har­vest. Dr Rus­sell wants the pub­lic to start eat­ing these wild foods again, but she is re­al­is­tic about how we might get for­aged foods into our di­ets. It is sim­ply not pos­si­ble for every­one to source their daily greens from the wild. In­stead Dr Rus­sell would like to see wild prop­er­ties bred back into plants and the con­sumer ed­u­cated to ap­pre­ci­ate those ‘bit­ter’ tastes once again. She would also like to see farm­ers grow­ing more ‘weeds’ on un­pro­duc­tive land and even iso­lat­ing some of the pro­tein and other ben­e­fi­cial chem­i­cals in wild plants so they can be added to pro­cessed foods. Frozen vegetable lasagne laced with dan­de­lion leaves any­one? ‘We will never be able to go back,’ she says. ‘For­ag­ing is a lovely idea for a very small num­ber of peo­ple. We re­ally need to change food, par­tic­u­larly our fruits and veg­eta­bles and we need to change them so they con­tain the nu­tri­ents our foods con­tained long ago.’ For Ally and So­raya for­ag­ing should be about un­der­stand­ing as well as us­ing the coun­try­side – in­clud­ing the rules. The Scot­tish Out­door Code for­bids for­ag­ing for com­mer­cial gain and there are other mat­ters of eti­quette such as leav­ing enough el­der­ber­ries and other im­por­tant win­ter foods for the wildlife. Only ever pick what you recog­nise, as mush­rooms in par­tic­u­lar can be dan­ger­ous if you eat the wrong one. Only take a small amount from each plant and al­ways clean up af­ter your­self. ‘It is just as im­por­tant to not pick as to pick,’ says Ally. She be­lieves that as long as peo­ple for­age re­spon­si­bly, there is enough of the com­mon plants such as el­der­flower, gar­lic mus­tard, sea buck­thorn and of course black­ber­ries to go round. ‘The more peo­ple get into for­ag­ing the more peo­ple feel con­nected and want to pro­tect and con­serve the land,’ she adds. For Ally there is still magic in for­ag­ing and wait­ing for your favourite nut, seed or berry to come into sea­son. ‘One of the best things about it is you al­ways have some­thing to look for­ward to,’ she laughs.

Above: Louise picks hawthorn ber­ries in Wester Hailes.

Left: The Wil­low Gar­den­ing Group from The Health Agency in Wester Hailes pick­ing black­ber­ries.

Below: Dr Wendy Rus­sell. Bot­tom: Au­tumn bounty of dan­de­lion leaves, hawthorn and black­ber­ries.

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