What role could wild food play in feeding our nation?

On a scale of 0-10, how do you rate as a hunter-gatherer? Foraging is enjoying a period of popularity at the moment, but when considering the potential scope that wild food could play within our diets, ask yourself whether in 2022, a mast year for acorns, you ground them to make flour? No – me neither! If you had to survive solely on wild food, how would you cope? One person who did live entirely on wild food for a year is Mo Wilde, who will be joining our panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on 6th January as we debate its role in our diet.

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Acorn flour was certainly part of Mo’s repertoire, but I bet even she wouldn’t score herself as a 10 on the hunter-gather scale.  Although given freely, some of the wild foods were harvested by others, a concept with which we are entirely familiar whenever we buy wild fish.  However, at the same time, if the salmon we buy is farmed, we may well be endangering the few remaining wild Atlantic Salmon, a species that warrants a full chapter in Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction.  Dan will be chairing our session which will apply not only to those who forage themselves, but to everyone who buys and eats food!

Joining myself and Mo, will be chef Mike Robinson, who manages his own private deer park and supplies venison and other wild sustainable ingredients, to restaurants and the public.  Like salmon, there is a burgeoning market for farmed venison, most of which is imported from New Zealand.  However, unlike salmon, the wild population of deer in this country is at its highest level for 1000 years, causing multiple problems including damage to trees.

My interest in this debate began when I chaired the UK Ark of Taste for Slow Food. The Ark of Taste is a register of foods endangered by modern production and distribution methods and the inspiration for Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction.  The level of indigenous knowledge that is lost when foods become extinct is huge; and it is important to recognise that the food itself does not necessarily have to be extinct for this to happen, just the traditional methods of production, as exemplified by farmed versus wild salmon.  As a home cook, I had found it increasingly difficult to source the ingredients that I wanted, so some level of self-sufficiency become imperative.

Closely bound with whether foods are lost or survive is its place in a nation’s food culture.  In a recent radio broadcast entitled Fish Phobia, chef Angela Hartnett compared the UK attitude to fish with that of France and Spain, wondering whether as a largely Protestant country, fish was viewed as Popish.  She noted that we were more open to eating fish when it came from other cultures, citing the popularity of sushi as the example. Even fish and chips, unquestionably deeply embedded in our food culture, are she reminded us, relatively modern and were introduced to the UK via Jewish, French, Belgian and Italian immigrants.

Without getting too deeply into the fishy aspect of our food culture, because I will devote a whole article to that in the near future, I will add a wider observation.  As chair of the UK Ark of Taste I frequently found myself defending the UK’s perceived weak food culture.  Very often the break in our habits can be traced back to the Second World War, and set in this context our supposed weaknesses become easier to understand.  Our whole food system was closely regulated and subjugated to the war effort.  Post-war, rations fell even lower than during the war, and some level of rationing continued until well into the 1950s.  So long was the period of deprivation that it proved impossible to revert to pre-war food production methods and the 1970s saw some of the worst industrial foods imaginable being embraced as part of the backlash to that period. From that low point, we gradually regained some of our artisan foods such as butcher’s sausages and raw milk cheeses.

Wild foods were never rationed and because of this those living in the country could enjoy more variety in their diets.  However, food writer Dorothy Hartley says specifically of venison:

In some localities deer meat is approved, in others despised – almost feared.  In war time I have seen a queue of native country people in an agricultural town go without their Sunday dinner rather than buy the excellent venison in the butcher’s shop, though unrationed, uncontrolled, attractively displayed and cheap.  Whereat the Purveyors of Meat in more expensive shops took over the stock, put the price up fifty per cent, and sold out to the knowledgeable town evacuees by lunch-time; the old country women said “Woolton or not, they were not going to eat wild animals!” They would go home and get their husbands to catch them a rabbit!

Is this relevant to our population today or have we become more knowledgeable and sophisticated diners? To answer that we need only to look at the reaction to the Government Food Strategy for England when it was finally published earlier this year.  The intention to promote game meat, and in particular venison, was leaked just days before publication with The Guardian newspaper leading the criticism under the headline “Worse than half-baked” which appeared above a photograph of a red deer and the caption “the white paper proposes an increase in the use of responsibly sourced wild venison”.  After a weekend of the media deriding the idea as preposterous the final document contained no reference to the plans, although by August Defra had launched a public consultation on its England Deer Management Strategy.  A further example of the lack of knowledge surrounding the attributes of deer meat came when PETA (People for the Ethical treatment of Animals) criticized a health trust for serving venison to their patients, claiming it was unhealthy, being high in saturated fats.  In fact, it is a very healthy meat, low in saturate fat, and incidentally, the hospitals most popular menu choice.  I would say that a lack of knowledge of the characteristics and habits of foods, as well as of how to prepare and cook them, is at least as much of an issue today as it was in wartime, if not more so.

Few wild foods feature in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste because one of the criteria for inclusion is that there must be a commercial market, however small.  The surface anomaly of promoting eating an endangered food is explained by the realisation that only where a market exists is there sufficient incentive to spend time and money on saving a food.  This is equally true for food that is not in imminent danger of extinction, such as wild deer, where the need to control their numbers is partly for their own benefit.

Incorporating wild foods into our diet provides a more diverse gut-biome, the impact of eating only wild food for a year was carefully monitored by Mo, who holds a Master’s degree in herbal medicine.  This is important research because it is very rare to find anyone living solely on wild food nowadays; although Dan Saladino notes that in the Hadza people, rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer are so low that cases are hard to find.

Providing the habitat evolves reasonably slowly, wild foods are very adaptable to change.  They should exist harmoniously within our farmed environment and by harvesting in a sustainable manner we will reduce the pressure on our limited land. 

We look forward to discussing this with you at the conference.



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