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Free Food

When our hunter-gatherer ancestors fed on plants they only had the species that were growing around them. By selecting the more palatable and productive plants our nomadic ancestors were able to settle and start the process which led to the food crops we now grow commercially and in our gardens. The original plants are still out there with many others and it is possible to go foraging for them to produce a tasty meal. Also before the global market for food, there were not so many vegetables around in the spring so foraging for fresh leafy growth helped to fill the gap. The Romans brought Ground Elder with them for this purpose. Because they are not the cultivated variety the edible parts are usually smaller so they require more harvesting time than their domesticated cousins. For example, Sea Beet is the originator of perpetual spinnach and Sea Kale the forerunner of all the Brassicas grown to-day.
This meant that the effort required to obtain the food always had to be considered as spending lots of time and energy to recover small morsels would lead to starvation. Seeds and roots are concentrated packages of energy whereas a greater quantity of leafy growth is needed to provide the same food value. Unfortunately our brains are still 'hard-wired' to consume enough food to support a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and not driving to the local supermarket - hence the current problems with obesity.

The big advantages of picking from the wild is that you know that none of the plants have been subjected to modern cultivation methods using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They have not been genetically engineered or hybridised to make them suitable for storing and transporting long distances. No airmiles are involved in obtaining them so this is good for the climate. Also the exercise in the fresh air while foraging is good for you and the produce is fresh with all of its vitamins intact.

A plentiful supply of plastic bags and a method of sealing them, keeps the produce at its best. Avoid harvesting on road verges due to the noxiuos substances in vehicle exhaust fumes. Also keep away from fields of commercial crops which will probably have been sprayed and there could have been drift onto adjoining areas. In any case always wash everything carefully. Younger leaves usually have the best flavour.

Mushrooms are probably one of the things which come to mind when we think of gathering food from the wild, but identification is very important as some are poisonous. The majority are edible so it is easier to learn about the ones which are not, than to remember the good ones. Some become edible after cooking as the toxins are destroyed in the process, and for a healthy adult most of the posionous ones cause a stomach upset or a bad dream. There are no records of a death by mushrooms on recent history, although there have been some close run encounters, but the recommended way is to go on a foray with an experienced fungi collector to learn which are safe to eat. There are many organised mushrooming outings by local groups.
Of the green plants and roots which are posionous, they are usually not palatable or have a smell which tells us that they should not be eaten, eg. Ragwort. As with mushrooms many can be rendered edible by cooking or following a soaking to remove the toxins or to make the bitter plants more pleasant. However it is most advisable to know the full identity of anything gathered from the wild and to consume only a small quantity of known plants in case you are allergic. Some toxins, though not damaging in small amounts can build up in the body and damage organs such as the liver or kidneys.

There are many field guides available to help with identity, but as for mushrooms an experienced forager is the best identifier. Some of the poisonous plants are quite similar to edible cousins, eg. Hemlock, Conium maculatum is an Umbellifer with Chervil-like leaves.

To start your forage for some free food you need go no further than your own garden. Many of the plants which are treated as weeds can be harvested and eaten raw or cooked. Some, such as Ground-elder have been taken around the world as people migrated, and though originally cultivated as a culinary or medicinal herb, have become naturalised to such an extent that they are now a pest. There is often a clue in the botanical name, many of the plants which have a medicinal or culinary use have the species name officinale or officinalis.

Here are some of the weeds which can become free food.
Borage leaves and flowers in salads,
cook leaves with cabage or soups
Stellaria media
foliage in salads or sautéed in a little oil with a splash of soy sauce  
Gallium aparine
seeds, leaves and stems cook young shoots as a spinach
roast seeds and grind for a coffee
Common Sorrel
Rumex acetosa
leaves in salads not too much as the oxalic acid they contain can be toxic
Taraxacum officinalis
all parts young leaves in salads,
flowers to make wine,
roots dried, roasted and ground for caffine-free 'coffee' or sautéed in oil
Fat Hen
Chenopodium album
leaves and seeds cook leaves as a spinach,
eat seeds as a whole grain or grind into a flour
can be toxic in large amounts, cooking reduces the potency.
Aegopodium podagraria
all parts young leaves in salads or cooked as a spinach,
roots dried and ground into a flour.
Hairy Bittercress
Cardamine hirsuta
leaves have a Rocket-like flavour in salads  
Stinging Nettle
Urtica dioica
young shoots and leaves cook as a spinach,
as soup,
infused as herbal tea
do not eat mature, flowering plants, they can cause kidney damage.
Sheep's Sorrel
Rumex acetosella
leaves have a sharp flavour, become more sour as they mature in salads  
Smooth Sow Thistle
Sonchus oleraceus
leaves are not prickly in salads  
Spear Thistle
Circium vulgare
flowerheads strip out base of flowerhead and steam lightly or eat raw  
Thale Cress
Arabidopsis thaliana
leaves have a mustard flavour in salads  
Wild Garlic (Ramsons)
Allium usinum
all parts leaves and flowers in salads or cooked as a spinach,
use bulbs as for cultivated garlic
Wood Sorrel
Oxalis acetosella
leaves have a tangy flavour leaves in salads or cooked as a spinach contains oxalic acid so should not be consumed in quantity, avoid with gastric inflammation or kidney stones
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Hedgerows and woods are a good place to forage in the autumn. At this time most of the fungi are producing their fruiting bodies which are the parts that are eaten, also fruit and nuts are maturing. There are blackberries, haws on Hawthorn (Crategus Monogyna), sloes on Blackthorn, Elderberries, wild strawberries and rosehips. Nuts include hazel, beech brash, acorns and sweet chestnuts (not horse chestnut). There is plenty of competition from birds and rodents for the plentiful supplies. Also it takes lots of time to harvest enough to make a meal, but they can be added to other ingredients to enhance the flavour.
Spring is a good time to collect leaves and shoots as they are young. They are usually less bitter than mature leaves and should have fewer blemishes. Hawthorn leaves are best just after they emerge and were known as 'bread and cheese' as they can be eaten between bread and butter. Primrose flowers (Primula vulgaris ) have a drop of nectar in their tubes which gives an instant treat and they can be added to salads.

In the garden some of the cultivated ornamental plants can be eaten. Day Lilies, Hemerocallis sp. have edible flowers which taste just like lettuce. Nasturtium flowers and leaves add a tang to salads. Oregon grape, Mahonia sp. yields bunches of small grape-like berries which can be eaten raw or made into a preserve. The berries of Fuchsias do not have much flavour, but can be made into a desert or a perserve.

If you live near to the seashore many of the shellfish are at hand, especially when the tide is out. Care must be taken as there can be some nasty bugs lurking within and some people are allergic to shellfish. Local authorities usually post warning signs when harvesting is dangerous.

A good guide for beginners is Food For Free by Richard Mabey, or a few searches on the Web will return hundreds of pages on the subject. As for fungi there are organised courses and walks which can be booked to help with identification.
If you do not have a plot of land to harvest from, bear in mind that you should seek permission before venturing onto another's property. Take only what you can eat yourself and do as little damage as possible. Leaves and shoots will re-grow if the roots of perennials are left, and it is illegal to uproot a plant from the wild.

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