Wild Food Foraging - Faffing about for a few Calories?

One man's meat is another man's poison.  For the purpose of this post, I'm excluding animal products, so let's rephrase that: one man's wild harvested porridge is another man's slimy, nauseating equivalent of wallpaper paste.   (For man, read person). 

Humans are remarkably ingenious at turning inedible foods into tasty provender.  We pound, leach, heat and ferment basic foodstuffs.  We gobble clay to bind toxins, add wood ash to maize, and chew on charcoal biscuits to gain relief from indigestion.  

So if we turn to Nature's larder, armed with our trusty trugful of food technologies, we should soon be banqueting in a veritable Garden of Eden.  At first glance things look hopeful.  There are many, many edible plants, even in Britain's glacially depauperated flora. Salads and pot herbs abound - consult either Food for Free by Richard Mabey or Wild Food by Roger Phillips.  It amazes me that some people have never eaten nettles, which must be one of the most versatile wild plants in terms of uses as well as being truly delicious.   

The problem is getting the calories from wild plant foods. Interested as I am in new crop domestication, even I can see that some plants are going to present a few difficulties. 

The noble oak, for example,  produces, in the right season, masses of acorns that make a delicious nutty bread with an unlikely chocolaty colour. I know, I've tried it.  Yes, but to actually produce said bread, those acorns require from the harvesters a level of enthusiasm, or desperation, that most of us don't possess.  Delayed gratification must surely have been  a selected-for-trait amongst the native peoples of California, where acorn eating was prevalent.   According to the sources I have read, the acorns were first shelled, then ground into a fine powder and leached in water for several hours.  This dough was then mixed with red clay and allowed to bake in an earth oven overnight. Slow Food eat your heart out.   

Presumably that's why pannage (vegetarians look away now), the practice of allowing pigs to scoff all the acorns prior to slaughter, was so popular in Europe in the Middle Ages; it  is still carried out in the cork oak forests of Portugal and the New Forest in Hampshire.  For those people with alternatives, eating acorns was just too much like hard work.  It was easier to eat the animals that ate the acorns. Acorns are edible, yes, but not exactly practical. 

Other plants may be tasty, but the yields are so paltry as to render them plantae non gratae.    Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) roots are most certainly edible: they have a pleasant aniseed flavour (yes, I have tried them).   Unfortunately it takes a few years to get reasonable sized roots and if you leave them too long, they get big and tough and fibrous.   Other than decimating wild stands (not recommended),  you'd need to grow a large patch, sown in succession over several years.  Exit spontaneity when it comes to feeling peckish.  Maybe this is where Dunkin Donuts spotted a gap in the market. 

Before leaving things porcine, let's look at the pignut (Conopodium majus). Pignuts  are the tubers of a British  native umbellifer that grows in woodland clearings and meadows.  The small round roots are edible raw, although to me they have a bit of an astringent aftertaste.   Cooked, they are very pleasant, with a sweet and nutty flavour. Getting the damned things out of the ground  can prove a little more challenging.   They seem to have the knack of growing in rocky, compacted soils.  You can forget those nail extensions when harvesting pignuts.  The leaves originate from a slender stalk, which wends its way through crevices, round tree roots and  down worm tunnels. You need to follow it all the way to the root with patience: this is archaeology, not eating.  Careless tugs cost leaves - those stems break very easily and howls of frustration echo through the woods as another tuber retreats into stony anonymity.   

Perhaps, as suggested in Ken Fern's magnum opus Plants for a Future, pignut tubers under cultivation grow larger and benefit from better worked soil.  Given time, money and sufficient space, I'd be happy to explore this. But maybe the very name 'pignut' should ring alarm bells.  It seems to me, I'm afraid,  that  any plant with the prefix 'pig',  or 'horse' can be relied on to require a pig's snout or crowbar to extract and several horsepower to render it edible.   I'm with Carol Deppe, whose excellent book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties should be on your bookshelf.  To wit: "I want vegetables with new delicious flavors, not ones that are merely palatable.  And I am not willing to do a lot of work to get a small edible part.  Or to spend hours preparing anything.  Or boil anything in two changes of water and throw away most of the vitamins and minerals. Or to dry something, pound  it into flour and mix a small amount of that flour with wheat flour to make bread that would have tasted just as good without the addition".  I think we can assume that judged by the above criteria,  pignuts and acorns get "nil point".   But, if you're time rich and calorie poor, then these sorts of famine foods might well have their appeal.   If, through diligent breeding and selection, low tannin acorns can be created, or pignuts can be converted into bignuts, then I salute the authors of such innovations and please can I have some seeds? 


Jeremy said…
Is that you, Owen?
Rhizowen said…
It's a fair cop, guv.
Leigh said…
Hi Owen - I'm enjoying your blog immensely. Actually, on this side of the pond, we do have a low tannin acorn, developed by the late nut breeder/explorer extraordinaire Fred Ashworth http://www.sln.potsdam.ny.us/nuts.html#BurOak . (You gotta have reverence for the patience and diligence of nut breeders)
I have one of his burr oaks, now about 17 years old, a beautiful specimen, which has just started producing acorns. I only know this because I have found the remains of said acorns in odd places in the gardens. They never hit the ground, so I am as yet unable to report upon their palatability.
Rhizowen said…
Hi Leigh

Thanks for your kind comments. I remember reading about Fred Ashworth's work with Quercus macrocarpa some years ago. Unfortunately it doesn't grow very well here. I have the utmost reverence for anyone who can take the long term view with nut breeding. Acorns do taste very nice, once you get rid of the tannins. Definitely worthy of dedicated and diligent selection, maybe for a few hundred years, to create a new crop.