Sabi Buehler, a stalwart of both Local Food Connect and Nillumbik U3A, discusses food foraging, both past and present.
Recently I visited my sister in Tasmania and, despite the steady rain and icy winds, we set out to do some foraging along a dis-used railway track. The elderberries and blackberries were already long gone and the mushrooms we found were too waterlogged to be worth picking. However, we managed to get some plump rose hips which would eventually be made into a tasty jam. The highlight, though, was finding a small apple tree heavily laden with perfect rosy and gold fruit. Birds had already sampled some of the apples and the ones that had fallen on the ground provided a feast for worms and other creatures. But there was plenty for everyone and my sister and I picked a couple of bags full and returned home happy, albeit with thoroughly sodden clothing.
Amongst my strongest childhood memories are the many happy hours spent food-gathering with my mother and sister when we live in the Black Forest in Germany. Forest, field, roadside verges and hedgerows all yielded an abundance of edible and medicinal treasures – mushrooms, berries, leaves, flowers and roots – which, under Mama’s guidance, we gathered to supplement our otherwise meagre meals. What we didn’t eat immediately was dried, bottled, made into jam and cordials and kept for the icy winters when we were often snowed in and no fresh food was available.
In those days, just after the war, people were starving and food-gathering was a matter of necessity not merely a pleasurable past-time. Of course, nowadays getting our food is much more convenient and timesaving. We can eat at any number of cafes market stalls and restaurants and most of us can head off to the local supermarket, which offer a huge array of processed and packaged food and a selection of fruit and vegetables of perfectly uniform shape and colour. But give me any time the exquisite taste of a freshly-picked apple, even though it may be slightly bruised or discoloured or have a couple of wormholes.
What we don’t know is where our food actually comes from, how it is grown and under what conditions it is harvested and processed. It is encouraging that some schools are establishing vegetable gardens so children can be actively involved and learn about growing food. And we are also fortunate that farmers’ markets are becoming more and more popular and allow us to buy fresh, local food and get to know the growers. But the art of identifying and using ‘wild foods’ seems to be largely lost.
Some years ago, I took part in a tour led by an elderly Aboriginal man. As we rambled through the bush, our guide pointed out numerous plants which were/are not only traditional bush-tucker, but some also had healing properties. This brought back memories of our foraging expeditions with Mama.
Unfortunately, accessible places where wild food can be found are becoming fewer and fewer as the urban sprawl rolls on. Furthermore, roadside plants are often contaminated with poisons from traffic emissions and council spraying sprees so foraging must be approached with caution. Also, for most of us, there is no need to go food-gathering as we have access to an abundance of readily available food.
But perhaps a time will come when we once again need to rely on the knowledge of the elders – be they Aboriginal, migrant or country folk – who grew up with an understanding of the role of ‘wild food’. Now there’s a thought!