Foraging is more than simply gathering free food. It can fulfil an innate urge to collect and is surprisingly rewarding. But it can take a while to get used to the unusual and variable flavours.
I've found that prickles, patience and practice are part of the process when learning how to forage food.
"Collecting wild foods is deeply rooted in our nature," wrote Adam Grubb and Annie Raser Rowland in The Weed Forager’s Handbook. For the vast majority of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers, dependent on our ability to forage. "Reconnecting with the original function of our foraging impulses helps us satiate them before they erupt into a house full of unused kitchen gadgets, shoes, or an LP jazz collection," wrote Adam and Annie.
By fulfilling an impulse to search, identify, collect and prepare, foraging can help us be content with what we have rather than yearn for more.
Foraging isn't without risks and hassles. Thankfully there are loads of resources, both online and in books (My favourite beginner foraging books include this one, this one and this one), which can help you get started (Weedy greens are a great place for beginners to start).
There’s also a long list of rules and tips that will ensure you don’t accidentally eat something that is poisonous, contaminated with herbicides or laden with heavy metals.
Once you make your way though the long list of rules and finally taste your previously forbidden fruit, you may discover you don’t like the taste, because the taste of wild foraged food can take a while to get used to.
"The first time you taste a new food, your tongue is naturally suspicious, especially of bitter flavours. Those of you who remember your first tastes of beer or coffee will know what we mean. It’s often only after you eat a new food, sleep, and wake up alive and well, that your tongue is willing to appreciate its nuances," wrote Adam and Annie.
The taste of wild foods can also vary between plants. Wild foraged food isn’t predictable like the cultivated food you’ll find in the supermarket. As Adam and Annie say: "Be persistent. Don’t be put off by one experience with a weed that’s been too tough, sour or bitter for your taste. It may taste quite different growing in a different spot."
I've experienced this variation when foraging Prickly Pear fruit. I’d read that its flavour is like a cross between all-natural bubblegum and watermelon, or like raspberries and watermelon with kiwifruit. But each time I tasted the fruit, I found it bland and definitely not worth the prickles. However, prickly pear is abundant in my neighbourhood, so I persisted. Then finally, I harvested some delicious fruit without getting a single prickle. My persistence and practice paid off.
I've had a similar experience with prickly pear pads. Known as nopales, prickly pear pads are popular in Mexican cuisine.
The first time I tasted them, I didn't like their sour flavour and slimy, mucilaginous texture. The meal wasn't worth the laborious process of carefully picking and preparing the prickly pads. But again, I persisted and practised and discovered that boiling in water is the key to reducing their slimy texture.
I recently made a classic Mexican meal – nopales con huevos. Or scrambled eggs and prickly pear. It was edible.
I wouldn't say I love prickly pear pads, but I'm going to persist. There’s still a long list of Mexican nopales recipes to try. Tortillas with cactus and cheese is next.
I'm pleased that I'm fulfilling more than my appetite when I serve foraged foods because otherwise I’d likely stick to scrambled eggs sans the prickly pads.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 16th February 2015.