There is a certain shock value associated with serving weeds to Sunday lunch guests. But the nutritional benefits of dandelion, a key ingredient in the primo risotto I prepared, are compelling.
Multiple sources cite Taraxacum officinale, as dandelion is formally known, as an excellent source of vitamins. It has a long history of medicinal use for problems of the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts. Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, writes that wild dandelion greens far surpass store-bought spinach in terms of their nutritional benefits: “(They) have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five times more vitamin K and vitamin E.”
That I topped the dandelion dish with wild foraged flowers, including yellow dandelion petals, Australian native violets and nasturtiums, also raised my guests’ eyebrows. Yet they relented when I pointed out that they were eating not just safely and sustainably, but were, with every mouthful, eating their way to better health.
It is common knowledge that diets containing a wide range of plant-based foods are associated with lower rates of chronic illness, including heart disease. Less well understood is that supermarket fruit and vegetables like sweet corn, bananas and carrots have been selectively bred for their sweetness, small size (or absence) of seeds, easy-peel skins, long shelf life and visual appeal, says Robinson.
Ironically, what we’ve gained in taste and good looks, we’ve lost in phytonutrients known to be essential for optimum health. Phytonutrients are chemical compounds such as resveratrol, carotenoids and lycopene, which help protect plants from insects, disease, fungi and other threats. When we consume these plants, they confer some of their benefits onto us.
Wild plants, as compared to cultivated varieties, are packed with phytonutrients. Sure, supermarket carrots contain beta-carotene, yet purslane, another edible weed, which grows in my garden, has seven times the amount of beta-carotene that carrots do. “The universal health advice to ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ is woefully out of date,” says Robinson. “We need good advice on which fruits and vegetables to eat.”
In Australia, the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park is believed to have the oldest continuous foraging tradition on earth. The landscape here seems harsh, but Aboriginal Australians hunted and gathered an abundance of wild food, including witchetty grubs, long-necked turtles, wild yams, bush tomatoes, Kakadu plums, palm hearts, freshwater mussels and candlenuts.
Research efforts are underway to unearth the nutritional benefits of an estimated several thousand edible species, says Tim Low, author of Wild Food Plants of Australia. Past studies have found that candlenuts (similar to macadamia nuts) yield more than double the thiamine of wheat germ, while the hairy yam (a type of sweet potato) proved to be a rich source of vitamin C.
The further discovery that Kakadu plums (also known as billygoat plums contained 100 times more vitamin C than oranges sparked a media storm and intense interest from both cosmetic and health food companies. The Kakadu plum is also a powerhouse of phytochemicals such as gallic and ellagic acids, known for their anti-inflammatory and gastro-protective properties.
THE GLOBAL FORAGER
Dandelions haven’t always been on our household menu. I fell in love with foraging only recently, when I visited the outskirts of Helsinki on an organised tour. As we entered Nuuksio National Park, a tall, thin Finn walked out, his basket brimming with chanterelles. These fleshy golden mushrooms made good picking that time of year, along with antioxidant-packed wild blueberries, blackberries and lingonberries. Later that evening, I dined at Ora, where chef and owner Sasu Laukkonen showcases ingredients plucked from Finnish forests, lakes and streams, with freshwater fish, porcini mushrooms, nettles and meadowsweet regularly culled.
As I researched more, I learned that foraging tours and terroir restaurants like Denmark’s groundbreaking Noma (that are embedded in the local landscape and culture) are growing in popularity. Perhaps this is in response to ethical issues surrounding modern global food production — including monoculture, worker exploitation, resource wastage, food miles, plastic packaging, and extended cold storage. In sharp contrast to bland standard supermarket fare, there is nothing quite like the taste of a raspberry plucked from the bush seconds earlier, or of munching on just-picked edible greens which remain full of prana (life force energy).
Another reason for this food trend could be that foraging and dining in foreign landscapes connects people with their surroundings on a deep, sensory level. Such dining enhances travellers’ appreciation of local food, and provides a fresh understanding of a destination. Sweet Root, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, captures this philosophy perfectly with its seasonally inspired, locavore menu. There I lost count of the number of courses I consumed, as I savoured a degustation menu which included pike topped with (my beloved) purslane leaves, fennel, eggs and dandelion buds, and other dishes sprinkled with water mint and oregano flowers.
As much as foraging can be seen as a subversive act, it is also firmly rooted in tradition. It puts us in touch with our evolutionary past. Up until the emergence of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans always hunted and gathered our own sustenance. Continuing to do so, even with a supermarket or other secure food close by, satisfies us on a deep, instinctual level, says John Rensten of Forage London. “It’s the way that we’ve behaved for the vast majority of our time on this planet,” he says. “Foraging connects people with a part of themselves that is present but not utilised.”
Foraging also helps you develop intimate knowledge of a place like few other activities can, say Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, authors of Milkwood: “A map grows in your head of your local park, gully, headland or railway easement, with points of reference that are different from how you would usually see the local environment.” Research has identified that harvesting nature’s bounty can result in people developing stronger place attachments. One study found that the locals who gather shellfish, or pick mushrooms, on the Puget Sound in Washington in the US, describe the activities as inextricably linked to identity. “Carrying on these traditions brings together family heritage, personal experiences and social connections,” the authors conclude.
Another intangible benefit is a sense of deep trust. Over time, as foragers learn that samphire and other types of seaweed can be found at a certain rocky cove, that mushrooms sprout beside a forest track and that dandelions bloom, well, everywhere, it’s easier to shift from a mindset of scarcity to abundance. No matter the changing of the seasons and the impermanence of living things, the earth nurtures and continues to provide, you just need to know where to look.
Tips for a tasty foraging experience
1. Not exactly sure what you’re picking and eating? Don’t cross your fingers and hope for the best. Authors of The Weed Forager’s Handbook, Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland, recommend new foragers identify plants “beyond a shadow of a doubt” before putting them to their lips.
2. Even though they’re edible, don’t gorge on wild plants that are eaten raw, advises Peter Blush of Puck’s Plenty foraging tours in Canada. “Our bodies are used to processed foods and with certain wild edibles it can be a bit of a shock to our system depending on the individual,” he says.
3. Remain aware of the surrounding environment, no matter where you are. Sean Arnold’s Animal Tracks leads foraging tours through the Northern Territory’s Kakadu region. He identified a handful of local hazards to be mindful of, including water buffalo, crocodiles near waterways, and “insects and plants that sting, spike or make you itchy”.
4. Pick young, tender leaves, selected from plants that look healthy and are growing in good, moist soil, say Grubb and Raser-Rowland. Picking greens before the plant flowers is also recommended, as most become tougher and bitter after flowering.
5. Consider whether pollutants such as traffic fumes, industrial chemicals, pesticides or dog poo might impact the area in which you’re foraging. Milkwood authors Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar say you might need to take educated chances on eating what you find. “You soon get to know what kind of areas are likely to be clean.”
6. Follow the thread of your own curiosity. Rensten reckons that foraging is a passion, which dovetails with many others, including herbal medicine, cookery, horticulture and more. (It led me to an interest in botanical drawing.) “Embrace the fact that you’ll never be an expert,” Rensten says. “There’s always something new to seduce you.”