Courtney Tyler of Hips and Haws Wildcrafts shares her enthusiasm for all aspects of one of our most recognisable mushrooms, the fly agaric.
As a forager, like you perhaps, my interest in mushrooms lies most in those that are edible, deadible, and medicinal. And certainly those of entheogenic properties pique my interests. And of course, the Fly Agaric is all of these things.
Kidney beans, olives, coffee beans, chocolate, cashew nuts, puffer fish, raw chicken, raw pork, acorns, yew arils—there are so many foods that we have become accustomed to preparing in a special way to make them edible. Many edible mushrooms are avoided, as we are often not presented with information on which steps of soaking, salting, high heat or drying can render something toxic, unpalatable or indigestible into something edible and delicious. I particularly enjoy Geoff Dann’s Edible Mushrooms of UK and Ireland book as he finally presents one with the preparation methods to render many often avoided species edible.
The spectrum of edibility is something I really enjoy discussing with people on my mushroom walks. The newbies most pressing question: “what is this and is it edible?” can irk a bit as it’s oft repeated thousands of times on any foray or mushroom ID Facebook group. As you know, the answer is often much more complex than a simple yes or no. The species, the age, the condition, the growth of secondary moulds, the person’s constitution/ personal intolerances/ tolerances, allergies, the cooking or preparation methods: salting, boiling, application of high heat, quantity consumed, alcohol consumption etc. all can play a role in determining a delicious dinner from one that has you in the grips of gastrointestinal distress or worse.
Having said all this it is indisputable that fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) does contain toxins. However muscarine and ibutenic acid are not deadly in the quantity that AM contains and can easily be removed.
On the other side, there’s simplicity here too: does a substance contain toxins that are generally dangerous or toxic or indigestible to humans? The death cap is an example something that no matter your preparation methods contains toxins that cannot be neutralized. In contrast the fly agaric in which the toxins can easily be detoxified and the mushroom consumed (and enjoyed).
In February 2020 at the AoF Annual Meet Up I was excited to talk with Fergus Drennan about his experience and experimentation with this very fly agaric. Our conversation grew from words into an event celebrating this mushroom. We explore folklore, mythology and traditional use of fly agaric around the world and separate the facts from fiction. We learn about the herbal medicine uses of its tincture. Of course while considering fly agaric as food we also taste it. Some dishes served up at our last event included: fly agaric and sea buckthorn vegan ice cream, sweet fly agaric sushi rolls with coconut, pumpkin hummus with fly agaric, candied fly agaric crisps, and we also pickled and fermented fly agaric as a group.
A brief note on this year's gathering of foragers, written by AoF member Daniel Butler.
Since at least 2019 it has been traditional to end our meetings with a road kill haggis. Normally this vaguely coincides with Burns Night, but this year we were almost half a year out. With meetings limited by pandemic legislation our annual meet up was also restricted in number. While we successfully held our Annual General Meeting online for official business, we were delighted to be able to gather for an abridged Annual Meet Up. It is wonderful spend time with old friends, but it is possibly even better to forge new friendships and the newcomers are all – without question – great additions to the Association.
This year our events team—Mark, Leanne, Lucy, Lucia, and Amy—arranged three days in early June at AoF members Ben and Deb’s wild camping rewilding site near Kendal in the Southern Lakes. With members from across Britain and Ireland and a growing number of international members our Annual Meet Ups take place in a different location each year. Previously we have got together on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset where seaweed was a star of the agenda, a castle in Scotland, and a farm in Wales.
At Oak Howe we were totally off-grid. A river running through the site provided bathing facilities. Its chilly water made an extremely effective booze fridge—an essential since our members bring equal knowledge and creativity to drinks as we do to food.
Pizzas topped with wild produce was our first meal of the meeting, and a natural introduction to our host Ben’s workshop on cob pizza oven construction. Chicken of the woods and samphire were turned into a vegetarian version of Thai Green Curry by Lisa, whose mushroom expertise is not just taxonomy but also how to use them in the kitchen. Midsummer being less ideal for road kill haggis than January’s cool days and natural refrigeration the bulk of its ingredients were shop-bought. Yet it was still presented with authentic ceremony by Mark and his excellent rendition of ‘Address to a Haggis’.
Eating and drinking foraged ingredients were interspersed with workshops. Monica, a herbalist who runs a Lyme Disease clinic, gave a talk on ticks and Lyme’s Disease. Craig provided a detailed overview on acorns, making the work of leaching their tannins a reasonable trade for their edible merits. Deb led a tour around the site where wild species are supplemented with lightly gardened areas containing useful species that have been introduced to expand the site’s natural medicinal and kitchen cabinet.
Details for the 2022 Annual Meet Up will be circulated to members by November 2021.
After exploring the natural world in ‘Wild Ruins’, ‘ The Self-Sufficientish Bible’, and now foraging in ‘Where the Wild Things Grow’ we talked with Association of Foragers (AoF) member Dave Hamilton to understand the thread that connects his books.
Why divide ‘Where the Wild Things Grow’ into four main sections: man-made, rural, woodland, and water?
“Ordering things by where they grow helps with identification, and planning days out. Places direct how people forage and how they look for things. I’ve always done urban foraging so including that (within man-made) was important to me. ”
When and why did you join the AoF?
“I only became aware of the AoF recently. With this book, like the wild ruins books, I really wanted to travel, and to meet people foraging and feed that into the book. Then the pandemic happened so this become became more personal memoir than about other people and their foraging.”
How did you navigate the different audiences, experts and beginners, interested in reading foraging books?
“Kirty Topiwala, my editor, was really good at deciding what should go in and suggesting ways avenues to take. She wasn’t a forager and helped to construct the book as accessible for someone without the lexicon of foraging. Kirty also encouraged ethnobotanical details in the book. For example Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) grows here in farm and wasteland. It also grew in Russian gulags, where for prisoners it was a valuable addition to their impoverished diet as it was overlooked by prison guards as a weed. Through plants like this we see bits of humanity even in horrible places like the gulag. So fat hen was a secret plant, though growing in plain sight, that people ate. While nerdy details are in the book it is also pragmatic— things like a section on plants that grow in walls. While it might seem obvious to people who know those plants it isn’t obvious if you are getting to these plants and their habits. And while extolling pine needle tea, it is also handy to point out that they are often out of reach, unless you time visiting your local pines for the aftermath of high winds that break branches, which fall to the ground bringing fresh pine needles within reach. There are jokes and ideas in the book that are possibly more obvious to people who are foraging and plant literate. For example Elaegnus x submacrophylla doesn’t have a well known common name, so I’ve given it one that reflects its fruits that foragers are interested in: jelly bean bush.”
You include a whole chapter on ‘Edgeland’, what do these kinds of places mean to you?
“Edgelands are marginal places that aren’t quite countryside or city—canal side, meadow with a flyover— places where the wild crept in and reclaimed spaces. Within in them you can see signs of human life like graffiti and concrete, but also there might be otters (Lutra lutra) or Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) coming up. In edgelands councils often don’t bother attempting to control Japanese knotweed with herbicides, so they can be a good place for harvesting it free of contamination. Edgelands are definitely more accessible for a lot more people than rural areas. During wandering on their doorstep, prompted by lockdown, people have been finding new places they enjoy. In the chapter on edgelands I introduce what people might be able to forage there. If you forage land you’re connected to it, and if you’re connected to it you want to protect it. It could be the same for bird watchers and butterfly hunters, foraging is another strand to feeling connected to wild places. While we see human influence on edgelands they are still a place for wildlife.”
By definition most people think about trees when they consider woodlands, for you woodlands seem quite mushroomy?
“Yes! Woodland edges are great for foraging, and their interiors are places for mushrooms. Particularly in autumn when everything seems over it is a pleasure to see the forms and shapes of mushrooms coming up feeding on the decay. I built up confidence with mushrooms starting with those that are quite distinctive like chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).”
How does ‘Where the Wild Things Grow’ fit in with your previous books?
“Foraging was an aspect of what I was doing at the time of writing ‘The Self-Sufficientish Bible’. Ostensibly ‘Grow Your Food for Free’ is about gardening, but within that you want to know your weedy species. ‘Wild Ruins’ followed by ‘Wild Ruins BC’ came out of foraging; I had been out foraging and kept seeing ruins. Writing about ruins was a different sort of writing, not just practical direction but also describing landscapes. In ‘Where the Wild Things Grow’ foraging is situated within landscapes.”
What was your first foraging experience?
“Making nettle soup with nettles from my parents’ garden in the 80s. I have an earlier memory from the late 70s when I was 5 or 6 of picking blackberries and dad falling into the blackberry bush it was funny (N.B. he was ok even if a bit scratched). There was a whole ritual about getting tubs to put blackberries in, finding the thickets, then picking them. I know there are now houses on the place where those blackberries grew. “
How has your foraging evolved?
“In my 20s it was quite obsessive—wanting to know what every plant was. Then going on bike journeys and foraging on the way. Now, that amount of time I had seems luxurious. With kids seeing their enthusiasm (at times) is part of it. Life is a bit busier and foraging is more en route where I can fit it in. Much more casual foraging, for example picking a handful of berries and microwaving them with sugar for a quick jam. Or a handful of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) picked in the morning that will go in salad at lunch. Those big trips where I set out intending to go and forage have become rarer, and are more often if I am working teaching foraging, which I appreciate as a luxury of the job. “
How do you see foraging having changed in wider society?
“In the 1990s to early 2000s there was not much information around. There wasn’t much on the Internet and apart from Richard Mabey's ‘Food for Free’ and Roger Phillips ‘Wild Food’ there weren’t books on foraging. I remember going into a bookshop and asking for a foraging book. The reply was ‘Do you mean scrabbling round in bushes looking for food?’ and I was directed to John Seymour’s ‘The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’ that had just a few pages on foraging in it. I would identify plants in wildflower guides and then look them up on PFAF to see if they were edible, but there wouldn’t be recipes I could find. Now you can look at Instagram and instantly find 50 different recipes for one species. People are doing fantastic things teaming up with chefs. Foragers used to be a bit more territorial about where they foraged, and now it seems that information is not quite so guarded. Being a peer group for foragers the AoF has helped to open that up.”
What is the role for foraging books now that information is easier to find online?
“Scrolling online is different to taking information in by reading a book, you don’t get the same level of immersion and escape. A book will take you somewhere much more than being online. It is also too easy to get distracted and jump from one thing to another online. Certainly the Internet has its strengths. Identification videos where they show you all around a mushroom or plant in three dimensions are really helpful learning tools. Both Internet and books are good resources. But, we do spend too much time online. Sitting down and reading quietly is so much nicer with a book than online.”
What are your future plans?
“I enjoy teaching foraging and want to carry on doing that. Working with chefs on the creative frontier of wild foods is something I would like to do. More books are in the pipeline too. “
Where the Wild Things Grow is available at local bookshops, Amazon , and Bookshop.org
Get inspired to harvest the feral by joining in with Wild and Feral Food Week, Association of Foragers member Philip Stark.
The seventh annual global Wild/Feral Food Week will take place May 21--29, 2021.
Wild/Feral Food Week takes place worldwide. For the last two years, we have had participants on every continent except Antarctica, cooperating to get "weeds on plates" (and in cups) around the world.
Wild/Feral Food Week has a number of goals:
• To introduce chefs, bartenders, eaters, and drinkers to new ingredients and "re-normalize" traditional foods that have fallen out of fashion due to industrialized agriculture.
• To establish a supply chain for wild and feral foods, including "harvesting between the rows" on farms.
• To promote foraging and foragers.
• To promote biodiversity on farms and sustainable/regenerative farming practices, including the use of edible cover crops and treating weeds as a resource rather than an enemy.
• To promote biodiversity of our diets--one of the strongest predictors of individual health.
• To remind us of who we are: hunter-gatherers intimately tied to the natural world and its complex abundance.
We would love to promote any public activities or offerings you have planned during that week.
This year, AoF is getting involved officially.
• You do whatever you were already planning to do, or add a special event.
• Submit your event(s) using this form as soon as you can, and we will do what we can to shine a light on it through social media, etc.
Whatever else happens, we will at least build community and document the international interest in wild and feral foods.
Participants must agree to follow the AoF Principles and these tenets.
• Many wild and feral foods are delicious, with flavors and textures that are different from cultivated foods. They provide a special culinary opportunity, specific to season and locale.
• Foraging should be conducted responsibly, in a way that promotes biodiversity, sustainability, and resilience of the food system and of our individual diets. Foraging practices must consider time and place. We endorse and follow the principles of the Association of Foragers.
• Wild and feral foods on farms can provide biodiversity, resilience, delicious nutrition, and income. We encourage farmers to embrace wild and feral foods as economic cover crops, to "harvest between the rows," and to bring wild and feral foods to market.
• By expanding food choices and raising public awareness, we seek to promote a just, inclusive, sustainable, resilient, biodiverse, restorative, nutritious food system that supports public health and reduces the negative consequences of industrial systems of food production.
• We advocate public policies that allow and encourage responsible foraging on public land. In addition to its health and educational benefits, foraging, especially of non-native invasive species, can play an important role in "pest" control.
• Foraging is healthful not only because of the nutrients it puts on the table: the activity itself is good for our bodies and our brains. It promotes healthy ecosystems by encouraging stewardship of natural resources and personal responsibility for our habitat—be it wild, rural, suburban, or urban. It feeds and sustains social, cultural, and economic relationships and ancestral knowledge.
• Food culture is world heritage. Everyone should learn to recognize common edible plants. Knowledge of wild and feral food should be available to all. For this reason, we do not claim any proprietary rights to information about wild and feral foods, and we share all our work using permissive licenses, such as CC-BY.
Many members of AoF have participated in previous years, as have other foragers, wildcrafters, farms and farming cooperatives, noteworthy chefs, thought-leading restaurants, and progressive, ecologically minded businesses including (among others):
Foragers and Wildcrafters
• Galloway Wild Foods (Mark Williams)
• Forage London (John Rensten, Peter Studzinski)
• Forage Frolics (Richard Mawby)
• Edible Leeds (Craig Worrall)
• Forage Fine Foods (Liz Knight)
• Elijah Holland
• "Wildman" Steve Brill
• Life by Lisen (Lisen Sundgren)
• Haandplukk (Kristin Nielsen)
• Savage Kitchen (Sunny Savage)
• Veld and Sea (Roushanna Gray)
• First Hand Experiences (Patricia Nunes)
• Fishing and Foraging Wales (Matt Powell)
• Thalli Foods
• Go Foraging (Martin Bailey)
• Four Season Foraging (Maria Wesserle)
• Mushroom Table (Matthew Rooney)
• Food Evolutions
• No Taste Like Home (Alan Muskat)
• Morcella Wild Foods (Bryan Jessop)
• Aura Cilento (Luca Cella)
• Strong Arm Farm (Heidi Hermann)
• Shared Cultures (Eleana Hsu)
• The Backyard Forager (Ellen Zachos)
• Leeds Indie Food /
• Feral Kevin and more!
Restaurants / Chefs / Caterers
• Chez Panisse
• Restaurante Manu
• The Buck and Birch
• Inver Restaurant
• The Gannett
• Dirt Candy
• Ned Ludd
• Pinoy Heritage
• Hoggorm Pizza
• Shiso Studio at Mrs Phink's House
• Gjelina / Gjusta
• Mission Heirloom
• Mission Chinese
• Orchard Kitchen
• Backyard Forestville
• Fradis Minoris
• The Tasting Kitchen
• The Rare Breed Chef
• Sanchez Cantina
• The Temple Club
• Farmacia dei Sani
• Solare Ristorante
• Sobremesa Culinary Tours and many more!
• Capay Vally Farms
• F.E.E.D. Sonoma
• Five Springs Farm
• Green String Farm
• Holistic Ag
• Honeycutt Farm
• The Living Wild Project
• Ron Finley's "Gangsta Garden"
• Strong Arm Farm
• Top Leaf Farms / Farm the Roof
• Veritable Vegetable
• Feral Heart Farm
• Kiss the Ground Garden
• Live Oak Farm
• Marin Roots Farm
• Resilient Farm
• Sonoma County Herb Exchange
• Seaquoia Wild Seaweeds
• SingleThread Farm and many more!
Distilleries, Breweries, Bars, and Food Makers/Purveyors
• The Botanist / Bruichladdich Distillery
• Oakland Spirits Company
• Native Bar
• Manly Spirits
• Scratch Brewing
• Endorfin Foods
• Volcano Kimchi
• DTU Skylab/FoodLab
• Nordic Food Lab
• Faenza Art District
Łukasz Łuczaj shares a Polish perspective on water caltrop (Trapa natans) , an edible aquatic plant.
Water Caltrop Trapa natans L. Folk names: orzech wodny, kotwiczka, żydowskie orzechy
An annual water plant. Very rare in its wild state, it can be found only in the south, mainly in the valleys of the Wisła, San and Odra. It occurs mainly in oxbow lakes. In spring the nuts germinate and shoots rise from the bottom of the water body to the surface. In June the water chestnut creates floating leaves, and in the summer small, white flowers. The prickly nuts left over may be collected at the end of August and in September. Then the whole plant dies. Its range in the last few centuries has shrunk dramatically, partly due to climate changes, partly due to the regulation of rivers, the destruction of old rivers and the introduction of plant-eating fish (e.g. grass carp Ctenopharyngodon idella) (Piórecki 2008).
Water caltrops were formerly collected for food in a few places in Poland. In Siołkowice in the Opole province, nuts were still collected in the twentieth century. They were blanched before use, which made it easier to open the nut (Szromba-Rysowa 1966). Kolberg mentions the eating of water caltrops in the Chełm area in the nineteenth century (Kolberg 1890b). The fruits of the water caltrop were mainly eaten by children, also in Pysznica near Nisko (Podkarpacie) and the Kozienice area (PEA2). In the Sandomierz area Jews ate the nuts, buying them from peasants, hence they were called ‘Jewish nuts’ (Hryniewiecki 1952).
In the Lubomirski Ordinance in Charzewice (in the former Sandomierz Forest), still in the nineteenth century serfs paid rent by collecting water caltrop fruits (Gaj-Piotrowski 1975). In the mid-twentieth century in Zbydniów near Rozwadów (south-east Poland) rye bread was made with the addition of flour made of water caltrop. The seeds were ground in mills (Piórecki 2008). In the same area boiled nuts were sold during village fairs, packed in paper bags. So writes Piórecki (2008):
It was necessary for highly valued elegance amongst young men, for them, before giving girls nuts to taste, to cut the woody covering of the nut with a sharp pocket knife and put it straight in the mouth of the chosen girl. This was done through cutting it down the whole height of the lower arm of the nut, i.e. from the neck to the base. After cutting, or more precisely, through pressing, like a tick, the upper arm of the nut in his fingers, then the seed of the nut was thrown as if from a catapult straight into the mouth. Already peeled nut seeds 'like toffees from the fair' were sold at a higher price.
Fresh fruits – the easiest to peel – were collected from the end of July to mid-September, and in the spring the fruits were eaten after wintering in a cool pantry i.e. in water in natural containers or special winter storage places. The fruits were used after half an hour's boiling in salted water (Piórecki 2008).
A significant interest in the consumption of the nut was shown by people of Jewish descent. Jewish buyers before 1939 paid 1 złoty 80 grosz for 25 kg of peeled fruits of water caultrop. In this period a day's work for one worker harvesting crops on the farm was worth 80 grosz. Two strong men in one day, in good weather conditions, could collect from 150-200 kg of fruits from the oxbow lakes in Zbydniów or in Chwałowice (Piórecki 2008).
Find out more about foraging plants that grow in Eastern Europe Łukasz's book 'Foraging in Eastern Europe' Plants cross borders and many of the species he writes about grown in wider areas, for example water caltrop is found across Eurasia and has also been introduced to the USA where in some areas its rapid growth covering lake surfaces is considered problematic. For example here is a species profile of water caltrop in the Great Lakes region.
Led into the realm of mushrooms and having a resident barn owl AoF member Daniel Butler shares how 25 years living in rural Wales shaped his world in The Owl House
Here is an excerpt in which Wales is revealed as a world class mushrooming location.
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It surprises many people to discover that Wales has the perfect conditions for many of the world’s most prized fungi. The climate is mild and damp – which is much better for many mushrooms than the hot dry conditions found in Italy or the Dordogne.
A few years back I heard the Michelin-starred Danish chef, René Redzepi,being interviewed by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. His Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, is ranked number one in the world, and the chef proudly boasted he had dropped caviar from his menu in favour of chicken of the woods, a yellow bracket fungus which grows in summer on deciduous trees such as willow and oak. He described it as a fantastic but extremely rare ingredient which grows in only two places in Denmark and only three people know where these are.
This is probably hype, designed to promote the restaurant’s menu, but even if it is rare in Denmark, it certainly isn’t in Wales. I know of a dozen sites and when it does occur, the outcrops can be significant, weighing several kilos. I have no problems with his claims for its gastronomic excellence, for although to my mind it is nothing like chicken, it has a delicate flavour and a fantastically firm texture which makes it an infinitely superior tofu.
One potentially surprising aspect of this however is the almost total dearth of fungal knowledge in the locality. There are many good amateur naturalists locally, people who know a linnet from a twite and a willow warbler from a whitethroat. Most people also prize the myriad of whimberries that fruit in mid-summer, but virtually no one knows anything more about wild fungi than nostalgic memories of gathering field mushrooms as a child: ‘I remember picking them with my grandfather,’ they’ll sigh. ‘We’d eat them with bacon around the kitchen table for breakfast – delicious!’
Another odd thing about the best mushrooms is where they are found. Most guide books recommend scouring deciduous woods for choice species such as porcini, bay boletes, chanterelles and wood hedgehogs and there is certainly no shortage of oak, birch and hazel coppice. Yet after years of hunting, I find the most fruitful woods are actually mature conifer plantations. These are generally derided by conservationists as ecological deserts, artificial habitats that are so dark thanks to close planting of non-native that little of value can live there.
In fact the reverse is true when it comes to fungi and sometimes the crops can be prodigious. Early on in my mushrooming gathering I entered one wood on a whim and left a few minutes later with around 30kg of porcini which were sliced and dried overnight on top of the wood burner. On another occasion I had taken my children to the Llangorse Climbing Centre. I had no desire to watch them clamber up and down plastic rocks for two hours so went to photograph a local waterfall only to stumble across a bumper crop of chanterelles – I picked 7kg in 20 minutes which were cleaned, flash-fried and frozen for the coming winter.
These are just two of the scores of edible species I began to discover in local woods. I learned piecemeal, adding to my repertoire one species at a time, but with the enthusiasm of a novice, I threw myself into the task and by the end of the first autumn could confidently identify a dozen. By the end of the second year I had found and tasted almost 50. Certainly some were very much better than others and after two decades of collecting I ignore most, and porcini form the backbone of my harvesting.
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Excerpt from The Owl House by Daniel Butler
The Professional Wild Food Community and Covid-19: The use of online platforms in supporting people to access alternative food sources.
By Dr Leanne Townsend, James Hutton Institute (& AoF Member).
This paper reflects on the response of the professional wild food community in the UK to lockdown measures during Covid-19. It explores the rapid adaptation of the community towards providing (mostly free of charge) online support via various social media platforms and using various communication tools. This support is aimed at providing high quality information on how to safely forage for wild foods in rural and urban environments. The paper considers the reasons for increased interest amongst the general public in foraging for wild foods during Covid-19. It reflects on motivations for wild food professionals to provide free online education, and the longer-term impacts on their economic viability once lockdown has been lifted, considering bridging social capital as one positive outcome of these support activities. It frames wild food as an alternative local food system with potential for increasing the resilience of local communities in times of uncertainty.
Foraging; wild food; professional community; online education; local food.
The extent to which foraging and wild food is locally embedded in cultural practices varies globally. In some cultures, wild foods form a staple part of the diet (Luczaj 2020); in others, wild food knowledge and practices have been lost over time. In the UK indigenous knowledge of wild food is limited, yet foraging is an increasingly popular activity, popularised by a drive for outdoor pursuits, an increasingly foodie culture and the practices of fine dining restaurants, celebrity chefs and local food movements (de Jong and Varley 2017). Foraging embodies the values of diverse cultural groups in the UK. It reflects a desire to get closer to nature, and to source more nutritious, gourmet and sustainable food. Foraging is largely considered a sustainable practice which celebrates local produce, promotes wellbeing and creates custodians of natural habitats.
The increasing interest in foraging and wild food supports a growing community of professional foragers and wild food specialists in the UK and globally. These specialists engage in a range of economic activities which deliver wild food education, products and services. The majority of wild food professionals are engaged in teaching – typically in the form of courses in which clients join a group and explore rural (and sometimes urban) natural habitats, learning how to identify edible wild plants and fungi, as well as learning which plants and fungi to avoid. These courses often also include a small meal at the end which showcases how to prepare wild foods in various dishes, as well as how to preserve one’s harvest in various ways (dehydration, pickling, fermenting, alcohol and so on). Other wild food professionals run themed workshops (for example, making gin with wild botanicals, making ferments with wild plants etc.) as well as dining events such as pop-up supper clubs. A smaller number of wild food professionals produce drinks such as specialist gins and liqueurs, sell preserves, and supply fresh wild plants and fungi (typically to restaurants).
Research to date on foraging and wild food practices is somewhat limited, tending to fall under the general area of “Non-Timber Forest Products” or NTFPs (even though not all wild food comes from forests) which encompasses food, medicine and crafts among others. Much of this work is concerned with ecological implications, both positive and negative (e.g. see Ticktin 2004) and the economics of commercialising wild foods (e.g. see Zhu et al. 2019). Whilst a valuable body of work has arisen in the field of NTFPs, a focus on “product” arguably misses the importance of the more social and psychological aspects of foraging, such as values connected with nature connectedness, wellbeing and sourcing local food.
This paper reflects on the response of the professional foraging community to Covid-19. It explores how members of the community have adapted their practices (largely online), to support people in safely accessing wild food resources. The paper considers what this means for the long-term sustainability of these businesses, bearing in mind that this online support is being offered free of charge in many cases. The paper explores the concept of wild food as an alternative local food system and considers the reasons for its boom in popularity during lockdown measures in Covid-19.
As well as being a social scientist engaged in research around wild food practices and cultures, the author is also a wild food professional. She runs a small business offering foraging courses and workshops, and is involved with several local, regional and national food-based festivals and events. This position gives the author a unique viewpoint (as both researcher and researched) into the world of wild food. She is a member of the Association of Foragers – an organisation representing wild food professionals globally. She is well embedded in local and online wild food networks which communicate via a number of social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The author therefore acknowledges a bias, most notably in the sense that she is embedded in that which she reflects on in the paper – practices which she tends to view in a positive light. On this understanding, she has tried to be as objective as it is possible to be when discussing one’s own practices. As noted by Mason (2002), with careful reflection it is possible to develop methodologically sound practices of “self research”, though in this paper the author focuses more centrally on the practices of others in the wider professional community, even where these might be relevant to her own practices.
Method and ethics
This paper does not reflect on primary research. Instead, it is a commentary paper, which describes responses to Covid-19 amongst a particular community of practice. Despite this, the paper presents insights garnered from the author’s privileged position as a member of these online communities. It can therefore be considered “netnographic” in the sense that it is a form of online ethnographic observation. In order to ensure ethical considerations are met for publishing these reflections, the paper follows the framework developed by Townsend and Wallace (2002). Reflections are based on discussions witnessed on Facebook and Instagram. The paper presents these observations but does not provide quotations (which can lead back to an online profile and compromise anonymity). Nor does the paper cite business or individual names. A research-based publication will follow in the coming months when netnographic research can be carried out in-depth online, when implications of Covid-19 on the professional wild food community are better understood.
The Professional Wild Food Community: Adopting a New Approach
During March 2020, most foraging instructors in the UK had begun to schedule their courses for the year. Some instructors had already begun to run some early spring courses – typically those in the south of the UK, where plants tend to be in season earlier. As Covid-19 impacts began to unravel but before lockdown had been imposed by the Government, wild food professionals were already realising that they would need to cancel or reschedule these courses as a matter of social responsibility. Most instructors then offered their clients a choice: either to be in credit for a place on a future course, or to have a refund. In most cases, clients who had already booked onto (and therefore paid for) courses chose to accept the offer of a place on a future course, rather than requesting a refund. Instructors were then left without the means to take further bookings on courses, and therefore to make money during lockdown measures – without any certainty on when they would be able to take bookings again. The Government soon announced its scheme to support businesses, though this would only be a reassurance to those individuals working more formally as registered businesses. It is important to mention that amongst the professional wild food community, some individuals work full time in wild food, whereas others have additional jobs or careers, and therefore have alternative sources of income.
At this time, wild food professionals were faced with a choice. Take a break in activities, or find new ways to offer their services.
A surge in interest in wild food
At the same time, social media (Instagram feeds, Facebook wild food groups) saw a surge in interest in wild food – in some cases with individuals without proper training delving into the plants and fungi of their local landscapes. This activity can be witnessed on Instagram (through searching relevant hashtags such as “foraging” and “wildfood”) and Facebook in a large number of wild food-related groups, such as “UK Wild Food Larder” (note, as an ethical measure only public online groups are named, which do not require membership approval to gain access). An increase in activity was also seen on the Facebook group “Poisons Help: Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants”. This group was set up by plant and fungi experts with the goal of helping individuals (as well as medics and vets) to identify plants and fungi that have been consumed by adults, children and animals. The group itself is a great example of a specialist community giving a great deal of their spare time to support others with no financial gain for themselves – the experts running the group span the globe with expertise covering a vast range of plant and fungi species. Since Covid-19 lockdown measures the group has seen a rise in the number of posts of individuals consuming unknown plants and fungi – in some cases with worrying symptoms (though no fatalities have been observed through the group since lockdown measures began).
Why the increased interest in wild food? It’s important to bear in mind that the professional wild food community have a strong online presence – like others working in the food industry, they are keen to create a strong profile for themselves, and a positive image for foraging and foragers. Self-promotion through social media platforms is a crucial aspect of building a wild food business – bookings for courses, workshops and other events come largely through one’s social media followers. So foraging and wild food was already visible to the many people who follow wild food accounts online. Further, a number of chefs and bartenders, given more time during lockdown to spend in their gardens and nearby natural spaces, and less access to other gourmet ingredients, have taken to incorporating more wild foods into dishes and drinks. These creations are made at home, rather than in their place of work, but nonetheless are a means of promoting both their own profile and that of the restaurant, bar or hotel in which they work. These chefs and bartenders often have large followings online too, hence raising the profile of wild food and foraging further.
People have also taken the opportunity to access nature during their allotted daily exercise sessions. For some, this means a local park or woodland, with others straying no further than their back gardens. Given the lack of personal freedoms in other respects, the chance to spend time outdoors engaging in meaningful activity is positive in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing (something that the wild food community have been keen to stress for many years). For those individuals who were unable to work from home, and therefore furloughed, wild food and foraging has provided an interesting and enjoyable way to spend time.
It’s also important to note that for some, lockdown during Covid-19 has been a time of uncertainty and stress. Financial difficulties are a reality for the many households who did not qualify for the Government support schemes. For these people, the chance to access free food which is high in nutrition is an opportunity to protect their food security during this period. Although foraged foods are rarely substantial enough to form the mainstay of one’s diet, many are higher in nutrients than cultivated foods, and can therefore boost a nutrient-poor diet. Finally, there are those who have taken pains to minimise or even avoid their visits to supermarkets and smaller stores. Given the difficulty in obtaining slots for online delivery, these people have also been keen to find alternative means of accessing food.
Wild food professionals adapting to become online educators
Given the surge in interest in wild food including people without the correct knowledge taking risks around toxicity, wild food professionals quickly adapted their role to that of online educators. Although many of these professionals were already very prolific online, many became much more active in terms of the amount of educational content they were posting on social media platforms. This period has seen wild food professionals embracing all manner of online communication tools to get good quality educational information out to a large number of people. These tools have included videos (videos on Facebook, and videos in “Stories” and on “Instagram TV” or IGTV on Instagram), and even live videos on Instagram where viewers are able to type in questions which are answered in real time. Zoom (an online meeting place similar to Skype) has been used to provide online training to people in place of face-to-face foraging courses. A new group has been started on Facebook to encourage children (along with caregivers) to engage with wild food, with membership growing extremely rapidly, and with wild food professionals taking time to create engaging activities for children to enjoy and boost their learning about plants and wild food. Foraging instructors in some cases have started a wild food mentorship scheme, with a pay as you are able structure. Furthermore, a subgroup of the Association of Foragers quickly developed a paper-based magazine to help people to learn how to safely forage in their own neighbourhoods. One interesting adaptation is that two gin producers (both of whom use largely wild botanicals in their products) have switched to producing alcohol-based handwash during Covid-19.
Given the crossover between herbalism and wild food foraging, there has also been a small movement towards providing medicinal advice around wild herbs and their potential to protect against Covid-19. Wild food professionals have typically approached this with some caution however, as it is widely understood that irresponsible (or unqualified) medical advice around natural herbs can lead to undesired health outcomes.
This rapid adaptation echoes a similar trend seen amongst local food producers, restaurants and so on, which have rapidly switched into online order/home delivery mode for some of their products and services. Further, these food businesses are in some cases collaborating with foragers to adapt their services. This is just one example of how wild food practices can contribute to alternative local food systems, and build resilience in local communities in uncertain times.
Outcomes for wild food professionals.
It’s important to note than for the most part, these activities have been offered at no cost to online audiences, or wild food “learners” – although in some cases, more comprehensive online courses and tutoring have been offered for a fee. It therefore begs the question what is the motivation for wild food professionals to offer up these services, which are time consuming to develop and deliver? As far as the Association of Foragers is concerned, members share a common vision to encourage more people to connect with nature through the means of wild food – the tagline for the Association is “Restoring Vital Connection”. Certainly, most foragers share this value, and their work is often motivated by it. Bringing more people to wild food may therefore be reward enough for many wild food professionals.
Although these activities for the most part do not lead to income for the wild food professionals, increased social media activity (particularly where this proves useful for audiences) inevitably leads to a bigger following (more likes on posts and videos, more followers overall) – which in turn leads to a stronger profile and a more well-known name. This itself can bring about other opportunities (for example, invitations to contribute writing to press, opportunities to do television and radio interviews, proposals to collaborate with others), essentially building bridging social capital (the strength of building weak online ties is powerful for small-scale businesses, as discussed in Townsend et al. 2016). It is this potential of online networks for wild food professionals which has also potentially motivated these educational activities. Wild food professionals will need to hit the ground running when all of this is over – the greater the interest in their work with wild food, the more opportunities for them to return to economic activity once Covid-19 lockdown measures are lifted.
Acknowledgement and declaration:
This paper and associated observational research was carried out in the author’s own time, and is not associated with any funding source. The author will not receive any financial benefit from the publishing of this work.
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by AoF member Susanne Masters
Dive down past swirling green ribbons to rocks where kelp strikes its hold.
Denizens of cooler seas, kelps are a group of seaweeds better appreciated by swimmers than rock poolers, as their beauty unfurls in deeper water. Cuvie (Laminaria hyperborea) is the kelp that skirts Britain and Ireland along their rocky shores. Growing in water from 1m to 47m deep, cuvie is only visible to land lubbers at low tides when its rigid stipes emerge upright from the water while its fronds are crumpled in the shallows.
Trees have roots, trunks and leaves; kelps have holdfasts, stipes and blades. Holdfasts are tentacle like domes that grip on to rocks and resist being torn away by currents. Brittle stars and worms can be found living inside the shelter of holdfasts. Cuvie’s stipe has a rough surface that makes it easy for red seaweeds like dulse (Palmaria palmata) to attach and grow on it. Animals such as sea squirts, bryozoans, hydroids and sponges also settle on the stipes. While plant life slumbers on land, cuvie starts to grow new blades from its stipe in November. It sheds its old blades in early summer. Fish graze and hide amongst the underwater canopy of blades. Providing three tier accommodation in the holdfasts, on the stipes and amongst the blades, cuvie forests are packed with a range of wildlife making them the temperate equivalent of a tropical coral reef.
Cuvie forests lit by shafts of light shifting as water moves its blades are a living cathedral deserving of reverence. They shelter shores from rough weather by absorbing wave energy, and for hundreds of years the cast off blades that washed up on beaches were essential for farmers using them as fertiliser for their crops on land. Cuvie was burnt to produce an ash that was essential for glass and soap manufacture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cuvie and other kelps are now harvested for the extraction of alginates that are used in food, pharmaceutical, and other industries. Hand harvesting kelp allows the stipes to regenerate – individual cuvie can live for 15 years. Mechanical harvesting via dredging rips up the holdfast and stipe as well as the blades. It takes years for kelp forests to regrow after large-scale mechanical harvesting. Even 4 years after mechanical harvesting the kelp is smaller and there are less animals and other seaweeds living amongst it than in a mature kelp forest.
I have objected to a few mechanical harvesting applications. Singular mechanical harvesting events that extract a resource and profit from it are not good sources of local employment and economic benefit for small communities: which is precisely why I recommended a local hand-harvester for supplying Harris Distillery for sugar kelp for the gin.
If more people walked amongst our underwater forests they would be better cherished. I am an ethnobotanist who is regularly immersed in seaweed and phycology - reading publications and reports at my desk, product sampling, and literally swimming through their fronds. I would not countenance clearcut felling a whole forest for a crop of timber, equally mechanical harvesting of seaweed is a destructive way to make use of our natural resources. In this I am not alone. Certainly on Scotland's land forests horselogging is regaining practice as its gentle harvest maintains intact ecosystems. Our cool waters are a source of wealth as industrial as well as food applications of seaweed increase. It is foolhardy to discard our underwater forests in a sole bounteous harvest of mechanical felling followed by slow and incomplete recovery. Individual cuvie kelp (Laminaria hyperborea) can live up to 15 years, this allows a host of other organisms - epiphytic seaweeds and sedentary animals - to grow on them. Hand harvesting has lower yields and the harvest is more diffuse, allowing kelp and species depending on it to remain as an intact ecological community. But hand harvesting's more sustainable approach leads to greater yields over time, whereas mechanical harvesting can only maintain yields by clearing increasing areas of the seabed.
When considering harvesting of wild ingredients it is imperative to scan the horizon and consider not only immediate conditions but what approaches. Already warming sea temperatures are exerting an influence on our cool water bounty of seaweeds. In the south of England warmer temperatures seem to be shifting kelp forests to Golden kelp (Laminaria ochroleuca) dominated communities - which support less biodiversity. Scotland is a stronghold for Sugar (Saccharina latissima) and Cuvie kelp forests. Mechanical harvesting is likely to speed up the shift in composition of kelp forests.
Hundreds and thousands of years ago the British Isles was denuded of its land forests as pastoral and agricultural practices yielded crops of our demands. Slowly and with much effort some progress is being made in restoring Caledonian forest. With the benefit of hindsight on what happened with our land forests why destroy the Caledonian underwater forests? Mechanical harvesting of seaweeds is a bitter harvest of fleeting profit followed by enduring loss not only of seaweed but the life that lives amongst it. It is also foolish to disregard the role that kelp forests have in absorbing wave energy and buffering our shorelines from storm damage. The annual natural discard of blades (seaweed equivalent of leaves) is a means by which nutrients are given to the land by the sea. As we have to consider our dependence on petrochemicals, seaweed fertiliser washing up as an annual bounty from kelp forests discarding their blades is another useful product. One of the world's rarest habitats - machair - was formed by the interaction between farming on land and nutrients returned from the sea as seaweed.
The richness of seaweed around Harris, biodiversity that dwells in it and the longstanding cultural importance of seaweed are why I selected a seaweed for Harris gin - so that people might connect with a part of the island that is less visible but particularly important to local culture. I specifically identified a local hand harvester as a means of reaching the sugar kelp that would furnish Harris gin with its flavour for as long as the stills are running. Hand harvesting offers a sustainable way of accessing seaweed for commercial ventures.
In many ways I encourage the harvesting of seaweed as a socioeconomic resource supporting sustainable income when the seaweed is either cultivated or hand harvested. Mechanical harvesting is catastrophic for seaweed and the marine life that depends on it. Mechanical harvesting removes seaweed beyond its seasonal renewal rate, and this can trigger ecological changes i.e. once harvested mechanically kelp forests may not grow back. Mechanical dredging of maerl beds has caused abundance of maerl to decline.
Perhaps because I am swimming outdoors all year round it is easier for me to appreciate the complexity and vibrancy of kelp forests. It is the kelp that provides a substrate for all kinds of life to inhabit, everything from 1mm long blue-rayed limpets that have an electric blue stripe of a hue rarely seen in nature, to otters- everyone's favourite water clown. Kelp forests offer an economically valuable resource, provide ecosystem services, and are a seat of biodiversity. Mechanical harvesting of kelp operates from a short-term perspective as it damages the resource it uses. Hand harvesting is the best way to utilise kelp as an economic resource while maintaining kelp forests for their biodiversity and ecosystem value, and to ensure that the economic harvest of kelp can continue indefinitely.
SWIM IN A FOREST OF CUVIE
Cuvie grows along rocky shores, where entry and exit points are often limited, so be sure to check tides and currents before swimming.
This is a combination of an article published in Outdoor Swimmer and my input requested on the Scottish Government's consultation on an application for mechanical seaweed harvesting license.
Illustration of a kelp forest reproduced here with permission from Alice Goodridge
In 2015, a group of 23 foragers, who work as teachers or suppliers of foraged foods, met-up and formed the Association of Foragers. Over the last year this rapidly expanded to over 80 members from around the world. The momentum came from several years of informal support between the members and, through the Association’s forum and networking, it facilitates the exchange of ideas and sharing of resources. One of the earliest priorities was to collectively agree a code of Principles and Practice for foraging that all the members have signed up to.
Media headlines often portray foragers as at loggerheads with conservationists. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our experience, foragers are people with an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of their local habitat, who care passionately about conservation and sustainability, especially in the areas that they forage from. This may be seen as partly altruistic – after all if the local ecology is not cared for then there will be no species to harvest in future years – but it goes deeper than that. Connectedness with nature and place inspires a deep passion, respect and understanding that we are just one small part of the jigsaw.
There is no argument that humans need to reconnect with nature. Medical research shows that the ‘green prescription’ as the BBC reported recently, helps to improve both physical and mental health. Ecological research shows that people who care about nature become excellent stewards of their natural surroundings. Child psychology research shows that less digital online time and more outdoor playtime creates happier children - so important when it’s reported that 25% of young people feel depressed. Foraging is a vital part of this reconnection as it taps into an instinct that is hard-wired into us. On a conscious level, it also makes us much more aware of our environment and the food chain, as well as the politics of land use.
It is the latter that, as summer turns to autumn, is in the headlines again. We rarely see media attention drawn to bramble collection, nettle picking or rose hip harvests (although Bristol City Council started a consultation on this earlier in the year) but fungi seem to occupy a particular place of angst in our national psyche. This autumn it has been fuelled by the Forestry Commission implementing a “no-pick” code in the New Forest, reported by the media as a ‘ban’. This is not a legal ban, as there is no byelaw to support it, but an appeal from the Forestry Commission for all members of the public not to pick any fungi either in the ‘old’ New Forest woodlands nor the ‘new’ spruce plantations.
Surprisingly, although the FC is a public body, there has been no public consultation on this. Without research to support it, actual evidence of illegal picking by ‘gangs’ nor proper public consultation with interested stakeholders – which includes local families who forage (both of English and European descent), foraging teachers, commercial pickers, as well as mycology groups and the residents of the New Forest – it has met with a great deal of consternation and has not gained the support of people, whom loving and knowing the forest well, would have helped to design a fairer system that would allow both foraging and conservation interests to coexist together.
Unfortunately, foraging is not a field that has been researched in a lot of depth. There are studies, most notably a Swiss study carried out over two decades and the American ‘ten year chanterelle project’, that show that foraging seems to do little harm. On the other hand there are numerous studies that find air pollution (the cause of acid rain), industrial farming (whose chemicals contaminate the soil) and the widespread clearance of fungi habitat, are the main factors responsible for fungi decline in some areas. Ironically, this includes the Forestry Commission’s commercial conifer plantations as the clear felling that occurs every 40-50 years has a devastating impact on fungi mycelium. Certainly, in areas where over-population occurs, any human activity can have an impact on nature and its ecological systems.
However, just because there is a suspicion that something may occur does not give any organisation the right, without evidence and due process, to change ancient practices enshrined in common law. Those that allow humans to remain part of the natural world, that we have evolved both in and part of, are particularly precious. Consultations may have concluded that some research should be carried out, that record keeping or monitoring should be improved (whether through voluntary cooperation with organisations like the Association of Foragers or through permits), that law-breakers should be stopped… but to punish every member of the public by implementing a blanket ban is not only illogical but unjust.
Personally I wonder why there is such a disproportionate response to the picking of fungi as opposed to other wild foods. There’s no evidence of widespread harm to the fungi themselves. Perhaps the issue has little to do with foraging and more to do with local politics. No one pays much attention to guessing the nationality of bramble pickers but finding 'strangers' in 'your' forest picking mushrooms (picked by far fewer people than blackberries), in some parts of Britain seems to immediately designate an individual, family or a group of friends out for the day as criminals or devouring migrants. Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence that the New Forest is in a particularly conservative area where 57.8% (64,541) of the local population voted for Brexit, where UKIP is making some of the largest gains (New Forest West 16.5% of voters, New Forest East 12.5% of voters) with 2 Hampshire UKIP MEPs, while data from 34 police forces showed that Hampshire had the highest rate of allegations of police racism, with 349 made between 2008 and 2013 – equating to 10.7% of all of its officers. Looking in from the outside, it is easy to suspect that the issue is not about fungi picking per se, but about local feelings on population, demographic change and cultural integration. Perhaps it’s just the thought of other people profiting from a ‘free resource’ that annoys people. Or perhaps it’s just a primal response to competition for food and resources when there is over-population and competition.
We are sometimes told that Britain doesn’t have a history of collecting fungi, as if chanterelles on toast for supper was a recent ‘trend’ fuelled by celebrity chefs. I wonder what M.C. Cooke, author of the 1884 edition of British fungi, would have said to that? Or why the Ministry of Agriculture published six editions of a handbook on ‘Edible and Poisonous Fungi’ between 1910 and 1950? Foraging, even if just for a few blackberries, has always been part of British culture.
The National Curriculum teaches 'fundamental British values' including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different beliefs. Society seems to have mixed feelings about foragers and intolerance seems to be growing. The same newspaper that carries an “Aliens Ate My Fungi” story and criticises foraging as a trend, will also publish articles encouraging you to take the whole family foraging and recipes for making your own hedgerow jam. Part of the remit of the Association of Foragers is to help to dispel myths and prejudices, to educate and promote sustainable and mindful harvesting. Some of our members are responsible harvesters making a living from foraged foods and produce. The majority of members are foraging teachers running courses. These are not merely courses about identifying and eating wild foods, as each instructor conveys their own passion for the woods, hedgerows and coasts that they love, by teaching sustainable collecting, not being selfish, awareness of your local ecology, connectedness to nature and passing that on to future generations.
Foraging has no social boundaries. It is definitely not a middle-class leisure activity - many families depend on foraging to eke out the household budget. Some choose, like our ancestors, to rely on wild plants for nutrition. A humble dandelion leaf has 3 times the vitamin A content than spinach and sea buckthorn berries have an antioxidant profile rivalling acai berries. But they’re not flown in from South America! Foraging is about food chains that are local and truly seasonal, that can be harvested by walking less than a food mile. It’s about highly nutritious foods that all of us can afford. It’s about crops that grow without fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fuel and energy, and produce tasty, nutritious foods without wiping out the bees, the butterflies and other insect life forms, poisoning the water table and our environment with gender-bending, cancer causing chemicals.
Foraging isn’t the issue. Over-population, industrial farming, food deserts, poverty, inequitable access to resources… these are the issues of the day.
To learn more about foraging contact members in your area through www.foragers-association.org/directory
Article by Monica Wilde MSc FLS a member of the Association of Foragers.
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