For many thousands of years, the ancestors improved and refined their foraging techniques, spending many hours searching out the most valuable and nutritious plants and those herbs that would be vital for medicines.
It must have taken many years of careful observation — along with trial and sometimes fatal error — before there was any degree of certainty to this inexact art. And along the way there were those who developed a sort of sixth sense about what plant was good to eat and which herb would cure a toothache.
This knowledge was passed down through the generations from father to son, mother to daughter, a body of knowledge that steadily grew.
When you think about it, they didn’t have a lot of choice though. Without the bounty of nettles, dulse, hazel nuts and more, they couldn’t have survived in a time when meat was an occasional luxury. Wild growing things, flowers, were their food, their medicine and their inspiration. Many early myths and legends bear testament to recognition of the mysterious — and sometimes magical — nature of plants.
The early names of the legion of wild growing things that humankind has utilised are often poetic and full of story.
The heavenly-scented Meadowsweet, for instance, once known as “the bride of the meadow” and beloved of the Druids. Meadowsweet blossom were also a favoured cure for headaches when steeped in hot water.
Leaves of St John’s Wort, used in salad, were sometimes made into a lotion to soothe sunburn. The plant is believed to have a calming action on the nervous system. Legend held that it had the ability to “make men more agreeable”.
But there came a time in Ireland and other parts of the world too, when all that natural bounty which for generations had been made into jellies, jams, wine, lotions and potions and a myriad of other uses, could not be as good as what you could buy in the shop.
Shop-bought produce was to be had in clean, shiny jars with colourful labels and it saved often over-burdened women the job of gathering, cleaning and cooking. After all, why bother, when shop-bought was just so handy and there was always so much to be done.
Many people continued pretty much as they always had, gathering plants and herbs throughout the summer and rejoicing in autumn’s gift of mushrooms and nuts. Gathering wild foods was an event that was occasioned both by poverty and a passion for the earth’s bounty.
But an odd notion blew down the narrow country lanes and around the hedgerows. To be seen collecting any of the plants, grasses and berries of old had come to be regarded as a clear indication of poverty. To be poor meant to be vulnerable, and most people had had quite enough of that. Farming became more mechanised and convenience became the watchword of a generation.
Then Copenhagen-based restaurateur Rene Redzepi opened Noma, which specialised in wild edible foodstuffs — and foraging became fashionable. Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world for three years running. And now chefs from all over want to be seen using foods from the wilds. Some even go so far as to employ full-time foragers. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the country have our own, particular foraging forays. Mine is for the delicious chanterelle. Blackberries and mushrooms are always favourites. But there’s much more that’s wild and free we could be enjoying.
In 1978, Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín wrote a guide that quickly became a best seller and has gone on to become a classic. Now Kit has decided to re-issue Wild and Free — Cooking From Nature.
The book is a cornucopia of recipes, poetry, folklore and Cyril’s illustrations to help with identification.
Kit told me of their years spent collecting information and recipes.
“What people want now are some inconvenience and a more natural diet. And the fact that so many of these foodstuffs are available for free, is another important reason for foraging, or picking wild food as we used to call it. We thought nothing of it. It was a way of life. We were sent off to the bog to search among the heather for the fraughan when they were ripe, or crab apples, blackberries, whatever food was in season to pick. It was something we loved and that we all looked forward to.”
“Cyril died 14 years ago. Without him, this book would never have been written. He was an author and poet of national prominence, and it was entirely due to his scholarship that it became such a success. We both had a great interest in the environment and our history and we were grieved that such a large body of information and experience was all but lost. We spent hours out in the fields. And we concentrated on the more common and easily recognisable sources of wild food, those most associated with traditional use. As a Gaelic scholar, Cyril researched through the medieval Ossianic tales and poems for reference to wild foods.”
“We never made a fetish out of our cooking. A great majority of the recipes were taken from our personal record book. They were jotted down over the years more or less as we went along and people can adjust quantities and flavours to their own tastes. I think the message of the book is to enjoy the wonderful bounty that nature has given us, to renew that contact with nature and the deep running excitement and harmony that comes from it.”