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Food For Free (Part 2) - A highbrow hobby, Foodie Fads

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A highbrow hobby

To understand these paradoxes, it’s important to remember that ‘foraging’ (as understood today) doesn’t have much connection with subsistence gathering. It has always been hobbyist and slightly highbrow. One of the first accounts was Lilly Wiggs’s Esculent Plants, written in the late 18th century. The author lived in Great Yarmouth and worked in turn as a shoemaker, schoolmaster and bank clerk, marking out the urban, artisan profile of the forager at an early stage.

Description: Food for free

In the 19th century, the fungus foray was pioneered by Herefordshire’s Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Cluc, a band of leisure-rich amateurs (including a high proportion of clergymen) at the cutting edge of the Victorian interest in natural history and ruralism. Their Proceedings for autumn 1869 describe a foray on which 35 of their members ranged around the local countriside by carriage, collected a remarkable hoard of edible mushrooms, and ended the dat ay the Green Dragon inn with a late lunch of the day’s best trophies.

Later, reflecting the nostalgic mood of the 1930s, foraging found a natureral home in the English Folk Cookery Association, and a voice in books such as Florence White’s Flowers as Food, published in 1934.

The foraging revival of the early 1970s, when Food for Free appreared, has as much to do with the beginnings of concerns about ecology and the quality of supermarket food as with the econnomic slump (though students also used my book to eke out their grants). Similarly, when fashionable chefs began using wild ingerdients, its was part of a wider interest in exortic and ‘ethinic’ foods

The most recent resurgence coincides with the economic downturn that began in 2008. But there hasn’t been a mass move to wild garnering as a route to self-sufficiency. Throughout its history, fraging has belonged as much in the head as in the field. It’s part of the romantic dream of going back to the land that sustains us in difficult times.

Foodie Fads

The way in which our foraging habits have always reflected fashion, social aspirations and the political mood is amply demonstrated by the changing status of marsh samphire – my own first (and still favourite) wilding. Traditionally, it was an arcane anf highly local nevelty food, the ‘poor man’s asparagus’. Then in 1981 it was seved at Charles and Diana’s wedding breealfast, picked fresh from the Crown’s own saltmarhes at Sandringham.

Description: this sea vegetable has become a garnish for restaurant fish

this sea vegetable has become a garnish for restaurant fish

In the new millennium, this sea vegetable has become a garnish for restaurant fish, and a favourite seaside holiday souvenir, sold by the bag to those who don’t want to get their own legs mud-plastered. It has been harvested by local people and smaill-scale commercial pickers for generations. But now some coastal landowners are objecting. Marsh samphire is the first species to colonise bare mudflats, and it help to stabilise vulnerable shorelines. Since it’s an annual, and the only way to pick it is to yank out the whole plant (root and all), foraging destroys it.

Yet there is no visible evidence that picking marsh samphire is having ant impact on its abundance. In East anglia at least, the ancient and much-loved tradition of samphire-gathering appears to be pretty much sustainable.

Commercial overpicking ca be an issue – particularly with wild mushrooms in areas such as the New Forest or Sussex oak woods, which ate occasionlly pillaged by coachloads. Buts I’m not persuaded that foraging per se poses any real conservation problems. For a start, it’s still an activity in which a fairly small number of enthusiasts rootle anround among common plants.

Description: wild foods

wild foods

Almost all orthodox wild foods – leaves, nuts, fruits and even mushrooms (since these are merely fruiting bodies, not the fungus ‘root’ itself) – are a renewable resource. They are produced in bounteous excess and naturally replaced. (It’s also important to keep perspective here: the im pact of any kind of foraging on wild the destruction wrought by modern agriculture.)

I suspect our real objection is to cutural appropriation, not ecological despoliation. The wild is an commonwealth, and we’re offened by any kind of privatisation by hedge-strippers, scrub-tramplers and boorish looters who pcik more than they need. Maybe we need a kind of foraging etiquette more than draconian new laws.

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