What role could wild food play in feeding our nation? (Feedback from ORFC)

This was the discussion that took place during the Oxford Real Farming Conference when a panel, consisting of myself, Mo Wilde and Lynn Cassells, responded to questions posed by Dan Saladino, After an hour, we had barely begun to scratch the surface and a further half hour of questions from the attendees highlighted some other issues. Mo Wilde posseted that perhaps we should adjourn to the pub for the rest of the day, but other sessions beckoned, so this blog aims to summarise key points and provide a forum for further discussion.

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Nutritional Benefits

Wild food provides excellent nutrition, variety in our diet, and therefore a more diverse gut biome to the extent it could free us of many major diseases. Consider how many diseases are already cured by plants. In the middle ages those with an understanding of herbal remedies were often accused of witchcraft, yet animals instinctively search out the plants that do them good. Just watch them go mad for hay cut from species rich meadow.  If we are what we eat, equally what the animals we eat have consumed affects our health. So, the question became “Do animals reared on wild food become wild food”?  There are certainly varying degrees of wildness, and I believe a diet of wild forage should be part of the definition, but legally this is not the case.  For example, whether deer are classified as wild or farmed depends only on whether they are shot only within their prescribed season, so the buyer needs to be aware of how it has lived and what feed has been available.  Of course, with a truly wild deer it is impossible to know for certain what it ate, but see more below.

How does hunting and gathering fit with regenerative farming?

Panellist Lynn Cassells is the owner of Lynbeck Croft in the Highlands Scotland, where much of the land is unsuited to cultivation and so she combines farming with harvesting from the wild.

Wild is an integral part of regenerative farming. The dread phrase “rewilding” should not mean creating some sort of wildlife park, nor leaving land to revert to scrub. All farmers are being asked to integrate nature with farming. As stewards of the land, harvesting from it, providing done in a sustainable manner, should be considered a legitimate source of food. 

If Hunting and Gathering is considered our most successful lifestyle to date, why is it not more prominent in UK Food Culture?

Hunting & Gathering, although enjoying some fashionable status at present, is  undeniably of lower priority in our food culture compared with most other countries.  Yet we showed during World War II that we could forage for wild food, such as rosehips for syrup to provide vitamin C.  Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, and so our disconnect with the land goes back perhaps a generation further than other countries, but many are following a similar pattern.  We should not feel discouraged by our comparative disregard for hunting and gathering because there is no reason why we could not rediscover our wartime spirit.

When wild food is sold, it is mostly found in markets, small independent stores or wholesalers for the restaurant sector.  It is not suited to the supermarket distribution model that dominates our retail food market and to which our National Food Strategy remains wedded.  For example, whilst deer numbers are growing throughout Europe, they are kept under control by regular harvesting. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the percentage harvested annually is as high as 50%. I have written about the problem of our growing deer population for over a decade but it is only since Lockdowns removed the restaurant market, causing numbers to escalate even more sharply, that the government has begun to take the problem seriously and launched a consultation into the issue.

Although there is a growing market for venison in this country, around 50% is bought via supermarkets, and they will only buy farmed venison, which does nothing to help control wild deer numbers. In addition, as we (rightly in my opinion) don’t generally farm venison, most of what is sold in supermarkets is imported from New Zealand. However, our lack of knowledge about cooking wild food means that supermarkets want a consistent product, not the variability that comes from 6 different varieties of wild deer. Red deer are the variety most able to adapt to being farmed and they will be culled at the same size at around 15 months of age. Parkland deer contain the widest variations in degree of wildness, and the breeds most often found in a parkland setting are red and fallow. If the parkland is very large it will probably contain a mix of woodland and pasture, providing the deer with a similar diet to that which they would eat in the wild. At the other extreme, whilst complying with the requirement to kill only in the prescribed seasons, these deer may be housed in winter and given supplementary feed, which might just be crops but could be pellets including soya, not exactly what most people have in mind when they buy wild! Our native roe deer, considered by many to make the finest eating, are never farmed, being totally unsuited to that level of confinement, nor too are the non-native escapees – muntjac, Chinese water deer and sika ever deliberately bred. If you are eating one of these breeds you can rest assured that they are truly wild and, particularly with the non-natives, you are helping to control a problem.

What do we lose by ignoring wild food?

When we lose our connection with nature, we risk losing the gene bank of species that may be critical to our future, especially one threatened by climate change. Wild foods tend to be adaptable to change provided that it doesn’t happen too rapidly. In addition to the loss of diversity, we lose traditional knowledge, the skills to hunt, prepare and cook those foods. This loss of knowledge often precedes the demise of a food and highlights the perceived anomaly that in order to protect foods we need to ensure there is a market for them.  A viable market results in people being prepared to invest in preserving habitats, so eating endangered foods can help to secure their survival.

Why do those who monetise wild food tend to charge so much?

This question, in varying disguise, was raised a few times.  The charge of “elitism” is a familiar one, and the angle from which sprang most of the derision of the leaked government plans to help build a market for wild venison.  To answer the question of “fair price” one needs to understand the costs involved.  The most widely sold wild food type is fish, which does tend to be expensive, although the prices paid in Europe tend to be 10-15% higher than here, hence most of our best fish is sold abroad.  The cost of owning and maintaining a boat is considerable, and when you add the risk to life and the knowledge required, most people would consider the prices charged “fair”.  People tend to underestimate the time and knowledge required in most forms of hunting and gathering.  In my experience, many people lose interest once they realise there is no shortcut in learning to identify edible from poisonous mushrooms.

This is not to say that some people do not make a lot from selling wild foods.  Wild fungi are an example often criticised because the high prices that restaurants will pay can encourage unsustainable harvesting.  I’m interested that even in countries where picking wild mushrooms is relatively common amongst the general population, e.g. Italy and France, when they are sold the price is similar to here. 

We sell some of our surplus fruit and vegetables to a greengrocer in Bristol who frequently asks whether we could also provide wild food.  There appears to be an insatiable demand for wild garlic, yet despite the fact that we do have plenty growing on our land, I cannot bring myself to sell it.  It seems to run completely contrary to the principles of foraging – there is very little skill involved in identifying wild garlic and it grows so aggressively it threatens our native bluebells, so being too lazy to pick your own seems degenerate behaviour.  Is selling wild garlic an example of profiteering?  You could argue that if it was, people wouldn’t pay for it, and anyone who thinks it costs too much could just pick their own. I would generally advise that if you think a price is too high, just don’t buy something and if enough people agree, economics will dictate that the price will come down.  However, I want to caution against what I see as the biggest threat that comes from “elitism” arguments.  When people begin to argue that unless everyone can afford something then no-one should be able to buy it, we are at the start of something that almost always results in the destruction of the food in question.  Wild salmon is a case in point, and whilst the environmental damage caused by salmon farming may not be the only reason for wild salmon’s decline, the fact that the rate of decline is much worse wherever salmon farming is practised leaves me in little doubt that it is a significant factor.  Similarly farmed pacific oysters have overwhelmed and endanger our native oysters.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.”

Said by no-one at the conference, but this proverb is one of my favourites because it underscores my approach to hunting and gathering.  I am happy to freely share my skills, and even some of my precious foraging sites, with people who are genuinely interested.  Mo Wilde also spoke of how when she leads foraging sessions, she hopes to impart her passion for foraging rather than expecting people to specifically remember names and varieties.

I chair an orchard group whose aims are to teach people about growing and using orchard fruit and we are fortunate to have a community orchard to help us achieve this goal.  We have also planted an edible hedgerow from which people (as well as birds) can pick. Foraging really is the ultimate example of free food!

There wouldn’t be enough wild food for everyone to forage

This is something Mo said she usually counters with “I don’t think we are in danger of running out of nettles”!  With an estimated wild deer population of over 2 million and a potential sustainable harvest of 50%, you get some idea of the potential.  The contribution to our diets that wild foods could make really is huge, and even bigger in nutritional terms than in calories. 

Linked to this question is the view that you have to live in the countryside to forage.  Mo finds the “between -areas” the most prolific and whilst hunter-gatherers have always had to move around to follow foods in their season (the very reason they began turning to farming) there is always something to eat wherever you are.  I have yet to pick a morel in the countryside, but they keep being found in people’s gardens or supermarket car parks!

I look forward to hearing your views and in the meantime suggest a couple of foods you could forage for right now:

Hairy Bittercress

Wherever you are you should be able to find this weed practically on your doorstep – it grows everywhere and is recognisable by its rosette formation (accompanying photo on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie).  The flavour is similar to the cress you might buy growing in punnets, but stronger.  You use it in exactly the same way, snipped, washed and dried; it provides a simple accompaniment to cheese on toast or mixed with boiled eggs and mayonnaise in a sandwich.

Sheeps’ Sorrel (Rumex Acetosella)

There are three varieties of the Rumex family, but it is the wild versions that you will find now, proving the point that wild food is more adapted to its environment than the cultivated varieties.All taste lemony and are very acidic.  The Latin name for the sorrel family is Rumex meaning “I suck”, as Roman soldiers apparently used to suck the leaves to relieve thirst, as did, at least in some works of literature, field workers.  The name sorrel comes from the French “surelle” meaning “sour”, which accurately describes the taste, in fact sorrel is so acidic that its juice can be used instead of rennet to curdle milk.

Rumex Acetosella grows wild on heaths and in fields, particularly pastureland grazed by sheep – its common name is Sheep’s sorrel. This is the version you are most likely to find now and you will be relieved that it is only required in small quantities!  It is shaped like an elongated shield.

Rumex Acetosa is the most commonly cultivated of the three, but may also be found growing wild, it is known as Broad Leafed Sorrel, Common Sorrel or Garden Sorrel.  Rumex Scutatus is more popular in France hence one of its names is French Sorrel, however, confusingly this name is also sometimes given to Rumex Acetosa.  The more common name for it in England is Buckler Leaf Sorrel.  It has much smaller leaves and a milder flavour making it more suitable for eating raw – a lovely addition to salads.   

Wood Sorrel, which has pretty white flowers and heart shaped leaves, is actually a member of the Oxalis family, its Latin name being Oxalis Acetosella.

All the sorrels contain high levels of oxalic acid, which in large doses is poisonous, causing severe kidney damage.  It should not be eaten by those who suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or gastric hyperacidity.  The positive effects of small quantities of sorrel are the cleansing and improving effects on blood.  It works in a similar way to spinach by improving the haemoglobin content of the blood.

Sorrel quickly turns from a fresh green to a sludgy khaki colour when cooked so it is best added at the end and heated only briefly.   In the classic French sorrel omelette sliced strips of sorrel leaves should be added just before the eggs set.  Other classic uses include sorrel sauce to serve with oily fish, and sorrel soup.  Historically, Sorrel was used as a substitute for lemon in many dishes including sweet ones such as apple fritters.  My favourite use is in risotto, or a British version, using pearled barley, which is given below:

Orzotto with Sorrel

This recipe is adapted from a risotto with sorrel that used to be served by Gennaro Contaldo at his restaurant Passione.

Serves 2

1 litre (1½ pints) chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsps olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

225g (8 oz) pearled barley

50g (2 oz) sorrel

50 g (2 oz) butter

25g (1 oz) parmesan cheese, freshly grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the stock in a saucepan with a level teaspoon of salt and bring to a gentle simmer, leave over a low heat.

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy based saucepan.  Add the finely chopped onion and celery and sweat until soft.  Add the pearl barley and stir until each grain is coated with oil.  Add a couple of ladles of stock and cook, stirring all the time, until the stock has been absorbed.  Continue adding ladles of stock until the barley is tender, i.e. soft on the outside but al dente inside, this will take about 30 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the sorrel, butter and parmesan.  Mix well with a wooden spoon to obtain a creamy consistency, taste and adjust the seasoning. 



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