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Wild at heart

By Jennifer Stern

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Wild at heart

By Jennifer Stern

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There is a new foodie trend sweeping across five-star hotels, award-winning restaurants and granite-topped kitchens in leafy suburbs. Actually, maybe ‘new’ is not quite the right word. The trend is foraging, and – let’s be honest – it’s hardly new.

Find food or die

Most of us have been foraging since we were kids. I used to munch my way through surings, frietangs, wild grasses and sour figs at a huge rate as a child. They grew wild on the side of the road. And we all shared the fish and shellfish my older brother dived out. It just happened. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and we didn’t think about it. But Charles Standing – the Urban Hunter Gatherer – did think about it, and when he realised what he was sort-of doing without thinking about it, he – well – thought about it. And when he thought about it, he realised that this is a lifestyle worth perfecting.

That’s why, when he isn’t climbing or surfing, Charles is scouring the streets of Cape Town, the mountain, the beaches and the intertidal zone for something delicious and nutritious. And it wasn’t long before he realised that this skill was one he should share. So he started a blog, and even teamed up with a chef at a five-star hotel to offer guests a foraging stroll followed by a cook-up and scrumptious three-course meal. It’s obviously been discontinued for now, but it was really popular, which is not at all surprising. There is something about foraging that makes you want to get stuck in.

It’s primal, it harks back to a time when – as humans – we found food or we died.

We are alienated from food

And we haven’t lost that urge. Even in a supermarket, we are inevitably drawn to the bright red of a ripe tomato, or the sumptuous velvety texture and smell of a ripe plum – these were unmistakeable signs to our hunter-gatherer ancestors that these foods were both non-poisonous and nutritious. It’s no mistake that most food packaging uses red, orange or yellow.

These are deeply ingrained instincts. We are sensual creatures (and by sensual I mean responding to what we perceive with our senses). But it’s no surprise that the term is used today to refer mostly to food and sex. Because, when we were evolving, it was these two things that got us to the next generation. So all our senses are tied in with finding edible and nutritious food and a fertile mate. And we are at our happiest – and our most human – when we combine them. Who hasn’t used food as a seduction technique?

We often use – at least – the sense of sight to choose food but, as most of our food is packaged, we don’t get to smell it or feel it. And we certainly don’t use our senses to find food. And that’s a sad thing because it means that – in evolutionary terms – we are no longer earning our dinner. We externalise that. We work on a computer, in a hospital or on a building site to earn the money to pay someone else to grow, find, farm, catch and/or kill – and even cook – our food. And the resulting disconnection and dissonance is one of the causes of our plethora of lifestyle diseases.

Reconnect with food

We need to reconnect with our food. And we know that, which is why so many (non-economically constrained) people are growing their own food, or choosing to buy food direct from the producers at farmers’ markets. Well, foraging takes that one step further. We may not know it consciously, but when we forage, we are recreating the processes that make us human. The simple act of picking a ripe berry from a bush and popping it in your mouth is infinitely more pleasurable – and, yes, sensual – than taking a box of berries off the supermarket shelf, or even buying it direct from the grower.

Bountiful earth

But, really, how practical is it? Well, the chances are, if you look around, you’ll find a surprising number of edible plants growing right on the estate. If you’re in the Cape, you’ve probably got oxalis, sour figs, wild rosemary, sage and mint, and a host of edible greens. Even if you’re up north, there’s probably a lot more than you realise. A surprising number of the plants we consider to be weeds are actually highly nutritious plants that are now being recognised by the food industry, grown, packaged and even exported. And the chances are they’re growing wild on the verge outside your house – at least until they are savagely weeded out.

As home owners, and homeowners associations, take the trouble to find out what the edible wild plants are on your estate. You can consult with an ethnobotanist, or – probably – you can just ask your gardener, who may already be diverting a selection of ‘weeds’ from the compost heap and taking them home to cook. Not out of desperation – but out of the knowledge that these plants are superior in taste and nutritional value to the perfectly pretty greens available in the supermarket.

Spread the love

As well as foraging, Charles has started seed bombing the very urban streets of Woodstock (where he lives) with mostly indigenous plants. This way, he says, in five years’ time he (and his neighbours) can just step outside the door to harvest a range of edible greens, some fruits and even perhaps mushrooms. I’m not sure whether he realises that – by doing this – he is recreating the process that started our metamorphosis from hunter-gatherer to farmer. I’m sure the irony would not be lost on him. Charles gets irony.

And, as more and more estates are starting to realise the value of vegetable gardens, vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards, let’s look at what we can grow in the open spaces. Certainly, a huge selection of wild greens – morogo or imifino – and spekboom could be grown along the jogging paths and MTB trails, and watercress is a great addition to water features. And, in the Cape, waterblommetjies. Indigenous fruit trees and shrubs like stamvrug, mangosteen, Kei apple and num-num can all be grown in the communal areas. It’s all about attitude, really. Are our gardens and communal spaces just something to look at, or are they an integral part of our environment – and of our food chain?

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