The incredible edible landscape

There’s a bounty of delicious food right under your feet–and in the bushes, and over by that fence

Michiel Bussink | July/Aug 2006 issue
They’re etched in my memory: the little sandy roads where I spent many a Sunday morning in August picking blackberries with my parents and little brother. We used a walking stick to draw the thorny branches closer. The summer light was fading; you could just about smell autumn in the air.
When I later took my own children to France during the sweltering summer of 2003, we poked around a hedge in a meadow dotted with white cows. “Hey dad, look! There are blackberries here!” They were tiny things, their growth stunted from the drought, but we didn’t care. We picked containers full, scratching our arms in the process, and nibbled on them later with fromage blanc.
Most people don’t look much beyond blackberries when seeking a snack directly from nature. I knew the French ate something called pissenlit au lardoons, dandelion salad with bacon bits. And if the French consider it a normal thing to eat, it must be good. Dandelions are everywhere. So I tried it and indeed, it was delicious…
It was then I knew something special had happened. Back home in the Netherlands I remembered one of my mother’s recipes: elderflower lemonade. I tried that too, and was immediately hooked. Now throughout the month of May, my nose is hopelessly drawn to those curtains of creamy white elderberry flowers; I soak up the sweet, fresh nutmeg-like aroma before picking from the wild abundance. Then all summer long, I quench my thirst with elderflower lemonade.
After that it was no-holds-barred. Ground elder—which gardeners do their best to eradicate—appeared to be quite palatable. As was yarrow. And hop shoots. And wild arugula. Not to mention dead nettles, rowan berries, sorrel, daisies, shaggy ink cap mushrooms, giant puffballs, Judas’ ears… What an edible feast, and free to pick in meadows and woods, parks and along hedges and waterways, in municipal shrubbery, between paving stones and along roadsides. Even a densely populated urban area had become one big culinary paradise.
Why on earth am I so attracted to eating directly from nature? I think this is because it adds appeal to a walk in the woods or a bike ride through fields. As soon as you discover the pleasure of picking blackberries you’ll pay closer attention to all that surrounds you. One day you suddenly notice blackberry season has come to an end; the leaves turning a lovely red colour. You know the following spring they will suddenly grow like weeds, with their thorny branches forming great arcs and their white flowers blooming again. Then comes the moment the first blackberries appear, initially sour and nasty before ripening. And then, before you know it, a week has gone by and you’re back for another taste: congratulations, you’ve become part of a tradition tens of thousands of years old—a tradition that has nearly, but not quite, disappeared.
Perhaps blackberry picking is in our blood. After all, for most of our history we humans did little other than pick berries. Elderberries. Rose hips. And hazelnuts, dandelion leaves and thousands of other types of edible plants and mushrooms that grew—and still grow—in the wild.
A few pioneers started planting crops some 10,000 years ago—which is relatively recent when you consider the total timeline of human history. Prior to that, we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves. Often, enough was available in the wild to meet our needs. This only took about four hours a day, so we had a lot of free time to hang around, delouse each other, worship a god or make cave paintings.
Even when humans began cultivating crops and tending cattle, we continued to gather food. This was particularly important during the “hunger gap,” the period during spring when the winter supplies were exhausted and the newly planted crops were not yet ready to harvest. As short a time as 100 years ago, there were lots of herb seekers in the Netherlands. They would set off in the early spring to harvest fresh dandelion leaves, ground elder, sorrel and nettle tops, selling them door to door and on the street to vitamin-starved villagers and city dwellers.
Nowadays, in many places picking wildflowers and berries has been reduced to the margins of modern life. This is not the case everywhere. In France, people still collect dandelions, wild asparagus, wild garlic, chestnuts, linden blossoms (for tea) and Boletales mushrooms to sell at local markets; there’s even a special word for collecting these delectable wild things: la cueillette—“the gathering.”
One day while I was picking rose hips, it suddenly occurred to me that I was doing something radical. Think about it: What on earth was I up to? I was next to a meadow picking something off bushes that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t paying for it and I hadn’t even asked permission. Apparently I’m someone who doesn’t care much about property rights and rules devised by civil servants and strict environmental organizations that say we shouldn’t pick anything in the woods.
More to the point, by picking I was snubbing the supermarket executives who would rather see me shop at their stores. I was suddenly proof that you don’t have to depend on their fruit, which is often unripe and sprayed with chemicals. Ha ha, I’m going to pick my own food for free and there’s nothing you can do about it!
This encouraged me to look for even more tasty wild things so I could further avoid the huge supermarkets. And what do you know? The range of wild delights just kept growing. Cuckoo flowers, violets, rowan berries, crow garlic, arugula. Bitter, acidic, sweet, dark, fresh. And yummy! Once I began to taste nature, I couldn’t stop. A whole world of new flavours opened up. The taste of fresh hop shoots, leaves of the motherwort, the aroma of the elderflower, the subtle earthy texture of St. George’s mushrooms: You can’t buy these anywhere, anytime. Such culinary abundance was right there for the picking in woods, bushes, meadows and parks.
What do we really know about that bag of chips we buy at the store? Who knows whether the contents were made from real potatoes and if so, where those potatoes came from, which resources were used and when and by whom they were cultivated? Come to think of it, what does a potato plant actually look like? We usually don’t have a clue; we are strangers to food production.
Those of us who eat wild plants no longer feel the distance most have people have grown to accept as normal in our relationship to food. We see the plant we pick; we’ve discovered it ourselves. We see its colour, its size, the shape of its stem; we feel the leaves, we see the structure and we smell the aroma of its flowers. We know its name. We know where it grew—next to a field, forest or bush—and where it apparently feels at home (otherwise it wouldn’t grow there).
And when we eat this gift of nature, it is no exaggeration to say we have a very basic, fundamental and intimate connection with it. Eating wild plants connects us to nature. It makes us a part of it.
Michiel Bussink is a journalist with the Dutch environmental magazine Milieudefensie Magazine, for which he also writes a food column.
 

Solution News Source

The incredible edible landscape

There’s a bounty of delicious food right under your feet–and in the bushes, and over by that fence

Michiel Bussink | July/Aug 2006 issue
They’re etched in my memory: the little sandy roads where I spent many a Sunday morning in August picking blackberries with my parents and little brother. We used a walking stick to draw the thorny branches closer. The summer light was fading; you could just about smell autumn in the air.
When I later took my own children to France during the sweltering summer of 2003, we poked around a hedge in a meadow dotted with white cows. “Hey dad, look! There are blackberries here!” They were tiny things, their growth stunted from the drought, but we didn’t care. We picked containers full, scratching our arms in the process, and nibbled on them later with fromage blanc.
Most people don’t look much beyond blackberries when seeking a snack directly from nature. I knew the French ate something called pissenlit au lardoons, dandelion salad with bacon bits. And if the French consider it a normal thing to eat, it must be good. Dandelions are everywhere. So I tried it and indeed, it was delicious…
It was then I knew something special had happened. Back home in the Netherlands I remembered one of my mother’s recipes: elderflower lemonade. I tried that too, and was immediately hooked. Now throughout the month of May, my nose is hopelessly drawn to those curtains of creamy white elderberry flowers; I soak up the sweet, fresh nutmeg-like aroma before picking from the wild abundance. Then all summer long, I quench my thirst with elderflower lemonade.
After that it was no-holds-barred. Ground elder—which gardeners do their best to eradicate—appeared to be quite palatable. As was yarrow. And hop shoots. And wild arugula. Not to mention dead nettles, rowan berries, sorrel, daisies, shaggy ink cap mushrooms, giant puffballs, Judas’ ears… What an edible feast, and free to pick in meadows and woods, parks and along hedges and waterways, in municipal shrubbery, between paving stones and along roadsides. Even a densely populated urban area had become one big culinary paradise.
Why on earth am I so attracted to eating directly from nature? I think this is because it adds appeal to a walk in the woods or a bike ride through fields. As soon as you discover the pleasure of picking blackberries you’ll pay closer attention to all that surrounds you. One day you suddenly notice blackberry season has come to an end; the leaves turning a lovely red colour. You know the following spring they will suddenly grow like weeds, with their thorny branches forming great arcs and their white flowers blooming again. Then comes the moment the first blackberries appear, initially sour and nasty before ripening. And then, before you know it, a week has gone by and you’re back for another taste: congratulations, you’ve become part of a tradition tens of thousands of years old—a tradition that has nearly, but not quite, disappeared.
Perhaps blackberry picking is in our blood. After all, for most of our history we humans did little other than pick berries. Elderberries. Rose hips. And hazelnuts, dandelion leaves and thousands of other types of edible plants and mushrooms that grew—and still grow—in the wild.
A few pioneers started planting crops some 10,000 years ago—which is relatively recent when you consider the total timeline of human history. Prior to that, we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves. Often, enough was available in the wild to meet our needs. This only took about four hours a day, so we had a lot of free time to hang around, delouse each other, worship a god or make cave paintings.
Even when humans began cultivating crops and tending cattle, we continued to gather food. This was particularly important during the “hunger gap,” the period during spring when the winter supplies were exhausted and the newly planted crops were not yet ready to harvest. As short a time as 100 years ago, there were lots of herb seekers in the Netherlands. They would set off in the early spring to harvest fresh dandelion leaves, ground elder, sorrel and nettle tops, selling them door to door and on the street to vitamin-starved villagers and city dwellers.
Nowadays, in many places picking wildflowers and berries has been reduced to the margins of modern life. This is not the case everywhere. In France, people still collect dandelions, wild asparagus, wild garlic, chestnuts, linden blossoms (for tea) and Boletales mushrooms to sell at local markets; there’s even a special word for collecting these delectable wild things: la cueillette—“the gathering.”
One day while I was picking rose hips, it suddenly occurred to me that I was doing something radical. Think about it: What on earth was I up to? I was next to a meadow picking something off bushes that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t paying for it and I hadn’t even asked permission. Apparently I’m someone who doesn’t care much about property rights and rules devised by civil servants and strict environmental organizations that say we shouldn’t pick anything in the woods.
More to the point, by picking I was snubbing the supermarket executives who would rather see me shop at their stores. I was suddenly proof that you don’t have to depend on their fruit, which is often unripe and sprayed with chemicals. Ha ha, I’m going to pick my own food for free and there’s nothing you can do about it!
This encouraged me to look for even more tasty wild things so I could further avoid the huge supermarkets. And what do you know? The range of wild delights just kept growing. Cuckoo flowers, violets, rowan berries, crow garlic, arugula. Bitter, acidic, sweet, dark, fresh. And yummy! Once I began to taste nature, I couldn’t stop. A whole world of new flavours opened up. The taste of fresh hop shoots, leaves of the motherwort, the aroma of the elderflower, the subtle earthy texture of St. George’s mushrooms: You can’t buy these anywhere, anytime. Such culinary abundance was right there for the picking in woods, bushes, meadows and parks.
What do we really know about that bag of chips we buy at the store? Who knows whether the contents were made from real potatoes and if so, where those potatoes came from, which resources were used and when and by whom they were cultivated? Come to think of it, what does a potato plant actually look like? We usually don’t have a clue; we are strangers to food production.
Those of us who eat wild plants no longer feel the distance most have people have grown to accept as normal in our relationship to food. We see the plant we pick; we’ve discovered it ourselves. We see its colour, its size, the shape of its stem; we feel the leaves, we see the structure and we smell the aroma of its flowers. We know its name. We know where it grew—next to a field, forest or bush—and where it apparently feels at home (otherwise it wouldn’t grow there).
And when we eat this gift of nature, it is no exaggeration to say we have a very basic, fundamental and intimate connection with it. Eating wild plants connects us to nature. It makes us a part of it.
Michiel Bussink is a journalist with the Dutch environmental magazine Milieudefensie Magazine, for which he also writes a food column.
 

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