There were days before the supermarket. Before the travel of foods like cherries and rice and garlic across the country, across the globe – to be made available “fresh” (in some form) 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Before refrigeration and long term storage of fresh produce- where in oxygen free rooms an apple can last for 2 years. In those days, we were always on our own when it came to fresh produce out of season. You want it? You better learn how to preserve it when it’s dripping off the trees and stop it from rotting in the grass. The winters were long- and few if any plants grew. You’d better have your root cellar stocked up and your pickles fermented, your fruits dried and your meats smoked and salted. There were all kinds of ways we worked out how to make use of the feast time, to help us out during the famine. And now, though we are spoiled for choice here in the first world, many of us are looking back to these older methods, realising that there is much to be learned from the past- and that there are many benefits to living according to seasonal availability. Some of these benefits include:
- Nutrition- Some of the older methods of preserving foods actually enhanced their nutritional value. The obvious one here is fermentation- where the lactobacillus organisms used to preserve different foods lend a probiotic effect and improve digestion. Many grains were sprouted and fermented in the storage process, which not only improved their nutritional density (increasing amino acid profiles) but also reduced anti-nutritent chemicals like phytates and lectins.
- Allergies/food intolerance- One plausible contributing factor to the increase in food intolerance is our over consumption of the same food for too long a period without a break. In the feast or famine times, you gorged yourself when it was in season- you tried to save as much as you could for later, and then you’d enjoy sparingly the preserves until the next feast. In the modern supermarket- aside from all the processed rubbish and stuff in boxes- even the whole foods are the same- day in day out, without any variation. Did you know that almost all the wheat we eat today is from the same mutant strain developed in the 1960s? People eat cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and then pasta for dinner… eating this same food- for years on end. This is a particularly sinister example, and the work of Dr. William Davis, in his book “Wheat Belly” goes in to great depth over all the havoc this variety is having on our health. There are actually many different kinds of wheat. In other times we might be eating one of the many varieties like Emmer, Einkorn, Kamut or Spelt- or a combination of them all which is a good way to increase yield. Never did we eat one strain of one food every day for life. Never ever never. And because some foods are more aggravating and inflammatory than others, by over eating them we become sensitive to them and inflamed. It’s the start the vicious cycle which can lead to things like leaky gut, dysbiosis (overgrowth of bad bugs) and therefore most other inflammatory conditions and chronic health issues. In short: VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE.
- Eating seasonally is eating fresh. Foraging for wild herbs and greens, finding a roadside plum tree or planting a veggie patch- you won’t get more vital, nutritious food than that. Picked ripe and in it’s element. Taking advantage of local feast times is like being invited to a party!
- Eating wild or home grown is eating a plant that has to fight to survive. Plants can’t pick up and move when there isn’t enough rain, or if the sun is particularly harsh. They have to develop chemical responses that protect them from the environment and these chemical responses also offer health benefits to those who eat them. Plants grown in the wild or in the wilds of a back yard not tended by industrial practices and technology, have increased amounts of things like antioxidants and other, only just now recognised, phytochemicals that are showing promising anticancer/anti-aging effects. Fruits and vegetables grown to be picture perfect by artificial means lack all personality.
- Wild, foraged and grown plants are tastier (all those chemicals needed to survive make good eating!)
- Connection to place, season and community- The best things in life are free. Like knowing when your neighbours mandarin tree is about to go off- and going round to fill up your buckets- and at the same time standing around chatting about daily affairs, while eating oranges straight off the branches still warm from the sun. That is a priceless moment. In that moment you’re with your neighbour, your time and your place. If you can try to find moments like these as regularly as possible, your mindfulness becomes belonging and purpose. Knowing where the best nettle patch is come September, or getting the kids to the beach to fill buckets of blackberries for pies. These are the things to live for.
Rules for foraging, wildcrafting
- Identification- make sure you do your homework. Get some good books on your area, or get a knowledgeable friend to take you out. Don’t go eating things if you aren’t 100% sure of what they are. Know poisonous or toxic plants in your area so you can avoid them.
- Harvest- Part of knowing what to eat is also knowing when to harvest it. This applies to the time of year, but also, the time of day. This is particularly important if you’re going to be using plants for medicinal purposes.
- Don’t be greedy- An old foragers expression is “Always leave some for God”. Always leave some for the birds, the bugs, other foragers and for the plant itself to reproduce and keep the cycle going. Avoid going to locations where you know other people are foraging. Find your own little secret patch.
- Pollution- Be mindful of harvesting near busy roads, in waste areas used by industry or in areas where chemicals may have been sprayed.
- Always ask- You see that passionfruit vine absolute drooping under it’s own weight? Go knock on the door, say hello, and ask if you might help yourself to some. It’s neighbourly and you won’t find many people who say no.
There are so many reasons to forage, grow and preserve. Even if you’re only picking from the neighbours tree once a year, if you only have enough room to grow pots on your balcony and preserving is putting mango pieces in the freezer- you are contributing to that part of yourself that is providing- directly- to your own nourishment and survival. And this is a satisfaction that even in the smallest dose, is big medicine.