Take on Nature: The Wild Food Plants of Ireland unearths riches under our noses
BILBERRIES on a mountainside, hawthorn berries on a country lane, seaweed swaying in a rock pool at low tide or mushrooms in forest.
Our Irish countryside is a rich source of free food but most of us have lost the inherited knowledge passed down over millennia of how to reap it. Even those who want to go out and forage for wild food are wary in case we pick something that is poisonous – a particular hazard with mushrooms and other fungi.
There has been a recent growth in courses and illustrated books to help those who want to rediscover this knowledge and the abundance of free food – and the sense of adventure and reconnecting with our landscape – that foraging brings.
One of the most impressive I have seen is the just-published The Wild Food Plants of Ireland by Tom Curtis and Paul Whelan. Both are academics and bring an additional depth of knowledge to their subject rather than straightforward identification and description.
They include recipes drawn from personal experience, family lore and traditional cooking methods, as well as tips from chefs, including Darina Allen, who provides an introduction.
They leave out seaweeds and other foods found on the shoreline and mushrooms, pointing out that both these food sources are diverse and complex and deserve their own books.
However, Tom and Paul still manage to identify 162 species and subspecies, with pictures, maps and descriptions of the habitats where they can be found.
Many of our cultivated crops, for both humans and animals, originated as wild foods that have been selectively bred over many hundreds of years to produce modern derivatives that are now mass produced. According to the authors this has led to a loss of genetic diversity and vigour which has left them more susceptible to pests and diseases, increasing the danger to food security.
The Wild Food Plants of Ireland is a serious academic work but one from which it is easy to mine the information you need to simply go out and identify edible herbs and plants which grow among clumps of grass, on the edge of a forest or in a hedgerow and pick them; then they give you a few suggestions of how to cook them.
Taking, as an example, wild celery – we are given its Latin name ‘apium' and, for the Gaeilgeoirí among us, its Irish name ‘smaileog'.
Celery is native to Ireland and is of course now widely cultivated, but it can still be found growing wild in “upper parts of salt marshes, brackish ditches and edges of estuaries, inland by larger rivers”.
The authors suggest that, like the domesticated versions, wild celery can be used in soups and stews or, if used raw, in salads with wild herbs such as basil or dill.
The native version has a more bitter flavour than the domesticated ‘blanching celery' or ‘celeriac' and was used for medicinal purposes into the Middle Ages.
As well as our indigenous plants others have been introduced and, in the wildest sense, gone native, including goji berries, which originated in China but were introduced to Ireland in the 1700s and can now be found naturalised growing close to coastal areas and seashores and along inland tracks.
There are layers and layers of information in this publication – making it much more than just a forager's handbook – but it does not take long to familiarise yourself with the structure and to metaphorically and literally dig out what you need.
If there was a university course for foragers this would be a key text and it will hopefully help many to see our landscape in a new light, as a rich source of nourishment and diversity that should in itself be nourished.
:: The Wild Food Plants of Ireland by Tom Curtis and Paul Whelan is available from Orla Kelly Publishing.