In a time when food security is becoming an increasingly fraught issue, when organic growers are being pushed further into the margins and the onslaught of genetically-modified foods is growing ever more vicious, increasing our individual and national self-sufficiency is vital. The intrinsic unsustainability of so-called conventional farming as well as constant instability in oil prices could soon herald crisis which threatens the ready availability of food in our shops and supermarkets.
As more information has become available about the health dangers caused by artificial pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers, as well as the untold harm caused by GM foods in our diets, the popularity of the movements such as organic and grow-it-yourself has increased greatly in recent years. Allotments and community gardens have once again become staple sights in our urban landscape and new concepts such as guerrilla gardening have helped to brighten up sites left vacant after the collapse of the building industry.
In addition to such initiatives, many have returned to raiding nature’s larder as a means of broadening the variety of foods in their diets, as well as recapturing the simple pleasures of gleaning mushrooms, nuts, roots and wildflowers – long-forgotten past-times to many.
For thousands of years, Irish people have supplemented their diets by taking advantage of the many types of free food that nature provides. Necessity meant that many had to turn to foraging in order to combat the uncertainty of the Irish climate which meant that food could be scarce. Poverty and strife meant that people became increasingly dependent on what they could forage from the wild.
In early times, seaweed was harvested both as a natural fertilizer and as a nutritious food. The spring tide closest to St. Brigid’s day was known as Rabharta na Féile Bríde, and was considered the most favourable tide of the year for collecting seaweed. Dilisc and Carraigín are two examples of Irish seaweeds which historically helped supplement the Irish diet as they are full of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron, protein as well as vitamins A, C, D, E, K and B12. Today, they are exported around the world for use in food and cosmetics, as well as being an excellent natural fertiliser.
Long considered the bane of well-manicured lawns, the dandelion is a tenacious foe to many gardeners and often falls victim to chemical weed-killers. However, few are aware of what beneficial aid it can be to organic gardeners. The deep roots of the dandelion also taps nutrients sourced from deep within the soil and brings them up to the surface. Dandelion tea is a wonderful organic feed which can give plants like tomatoes an extra boost. The leaves of the dandelion can be boiled or simply eaten raw in a salad. They are a natural super-food, filled with essential vitamins and minerals such as beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and protein, among others. As well as being decorative, the flowers can also be eaten raw or cooked.
In Ireland, many people overlook the painful stings which nettles cause because of their healthful properties. When young shoots are picked early in spring, they can be added to water and drunk as a soothing and relaxing tea which helps calm acid indigestion. They can also be boiled in a soup or blanched to remove the sting and used as an alternative to spinach or other cooked greens in many recipes. They are a delicious source of anti-oxidants, as well as vitamins A, C and E, calcium and iron.
Also unjustly ignored as a food source due to their spiny and forbidding appearance is the humble thistle. Young shoots can be eaten in salads, and roots can be chopped and fried. Always wear gloves and take care when harvesting as they can give you a nasty sting.
It goes without saying that one should only forage for food on land which has not been chemically sprayed or is located too close to roads. Be sure that you source wild foods from areas away from toxic dumping or effluent pipes. In order to safely enjoy the healthful benefits of these foods, know what you are picking. Stay away from unfamiliar weeds or mushrooms, and by all means buy a reputable guide to plants and familiarise yourself with the ones that are safe to eat.
I recommend the seminal ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey as a starter primer. It was originally limited to English plants but the new edition features Irish plants as well. From time to time, the Organic Centre in Leitrim runs courses on ‘Foraging for wild herbs and plants’, taught by Joerg Mueller. Keep an eye on their website for this and other interesting courses.