Monday, 23 November 2009

In Defence of Foraging

Waitrose is the UK's 'posh' supermarket.  I don't often shop there - largely because my nearest one is about half an hour's drive from home, and not on my daily commuting route - but I really enjoy popping in when I find myself in the vicinity of a store.  Although some of the products in Waitrose verge on the scurrilously expensive, it does have an excitingly wide range of stock that you simply don't find in Tescos.  There also seems to be a strong sense of ethics behind the running of the chain, of which I thoroughly approve.

Last week I found myself in Waitrose in Berkhamsted and bought a few little excitements, not least being a copy of the excellent 'Waitrose Food Illustrated' magazine which, as ever, is full of mouth-watering recipes and interesting articles.  (Incidentally, all the recipes from the magazine can be found online here, which is a fantastic resource for cooks looking for inspiration).

One article in this month's magazine really caught my eye.  Written by Tim Hayward and entitled 'Fruits of the Forage?' it is a scathing attack on what he sees as the modern middle class obsession of foraging for food. 

Foraging appeals to the middle classes at a visceral level he begins.  It must be the sense of woolly, green wellbeing, plus the knowledge that they're distinguished from the masses.

He goes on to attack the Yummy Mummy (how I detest that phrase!) he recently spotted picking nettles along the Regent's Canal towpath in a posh area of London, and then the Boden-clad locusts... stripping our endangered hedgerows in the countryside.  (Note to Waitrose: way to go, attacking your core consumer base of Boden-clad yummy mummies..!) 

Now whilst I tend to agree that anyone foraging in a city close to the bars and restaurants of a busy high street possibly deserves all they get (Hayward informed the hapless woman that the previous night he had witnessed a group of drunken city-boys pissing in the very nettles she was lovingly picking for soup) I found the tone of the article pretty patronising... not to mention wrong!

I enjoy foraging because I think that it is a way of getting back to more traditional ways of eating.  Our 21st century norm of plastic-encased, imported food means we have moved away from the idea of seasonality in our diets, and I love the idea of eating what is in season. 

I can't deny that I also like the idea of getting food for free - but I am under no illusion that I am saving a great deal of money...  after all, you may spend a happy half hour foraging for nettles for your soup, but when you consider that you will have paid for the other ingredients - potato, stock, milk, seasoning, cream - it's hardly a 'free meal'. (OK, it's a cheap meal, but then most soups are). 

But you are saving some money.  Buying enough fruit for jam is expensive, so using things like foraged cherries, blackberries and apples make jam and chutney-making a pretty economical option, never mind the fact that it's nice to know exactly what you're eating because, well, you made it yourself. And why on earth, when you live close to the countryside as I do, would you BUY a punnet of blackberries in the supermarket when the hedgerows are full of them?!

It's also a great way of eating things that you would never normally get to eat as they're rarely available to buy.  Hayward quotes chef Rowley Leigh saying: The idea of going out, picking wild leaves and saying they're delicious when in reality they have a nasty, feral taste is nonsense.  Yes, that would be nonsense, but who could argue that Wild Garlic has a 'nasty, feral taste'??  That's something that can only be foraged.  Elderflowers, rosehips, elderberries and crab apples also come in this category, and I'd hate to be without them in my kitchen. 

Hayward's story of author Nicholas Evans serving foraged mushrooms (thinking they were chanterelles) to his dinner guests who then all ended up on kidney dialysis for 2 weeks is a salutary tale, but not one that need label all foraging as 'daftness'.  Personally I'll leave the fungus-gathering to the experts - I'm happy to just photograph them - but if I made the effort to identify them I'd certainly give it a try.

 Yes, there are things that I probably won't bother with again - hawthorn berries, green walnuts (although I have yet to sample either the toxic-looking liqueur or the equally frightening looking pickled walnuts, so maybe I shouldn't judge too hastily...) - but isn't life dull if you don't try new things every now and again?  And surely the chance of creating something utterly delicious from foraged treasures is worth the occasional less-than-stellar result.

So I will continue foraging unashamedly, and encouraging others to do so too. It's just so much fun - and often extremely tasty!