It looks like a nondescript suburban street in Melbourne’s north. Truth be told, it is a nondescript suburban street in Melbourne’s north. But to chef Matt Wilkinson it’s also a good example of the abundance of produce right under our noses. On the nature strip a mature mulberry tree drops the first fat red berries of the season. A ragged fig tree leans its branches over the footpath. Wild cherry, nectarine and peach trees follow suit. Meanwhile a rosemary bush twists its spindly arms through a broken fence paling into the laneway.
“One of the things I love is how the plant geography depicts the history of the area,” says the British-born chef, author of Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables and Mr Wilkinson's Simply Dressed Salads. We’re in Brunswick, former home of the market gardens of Melbourne, later the domain of Italian and Greek post-war migrants. The layers of history reveal themselves in the wheat plants growing in the reserve running alongside the Merri Creek (maybe originally grown as fodder for horses, Wilkinson speculates – he’s been known to boil the kernels and use them in salads), the walnut trees (looking like hard green apples, “the English love pickling them whole”), and the persimmons, pomegranates, citrus and olives of later arrivals.
“Urban foraging has changed into this,” says Wilkinson. “The fun part for me is how many back streets and laneways have overhanging fruit. You can pick the age and nationality of the people in the houses by what they’re growing. You’ll see lots of grafted fruit trees around here that are meticulously pruned. Then you’ll see the house of the young hipster family who don’t prune because they want to encourage birdlife or because they think they’ll get more fruit by letting it run wild. If you don’t prune a tree you’re lending it to the birds or to buggers like me.”
Foraging has been a ‘thing’ in the food world for several years now, led by chefs such as Attica’s Ben Shewry and Noma’s René Redzepi, whose hyper-natural cuisine is famous for its use of foraged ingredients. It’s not just about free food, as alluring as those two words may be. It’s about the connection between food, nature and culture; mindful cooking, you might call it.
A global trend though it may be, most Australians probably wouldn’t stop to think about what they can do with the nuts from Queensland’s bunya bunya pine, which are currently appearing on Attica’s menu. But you don’t need to go down to the woods to be in for a big surprise, because urban areas are teaming with foodstuffs free for the taking – spring and summer are particularly bountiful times for foragers (purslane, also known as pig weed, is particularly abundant right now - try it in purslane yoghurt dip).
A two-kilometre walk through Northcote and Brunswick, for example, taking in the Merri Creek and ordinary streets yields green almonds, quince, barley, blackberries, prickly pear, wild cabbage, saltbush, bronze fennel, silverbeet and various herbs. “There is no reason to ever buy hard herbs – that is, things with woody stems like sage, rosemary and thyme,” says Wilkinson. “We get ours (for Pope Joan) from whoever’s walking to work.”
For Sydney-based Katrina Kallos, who blogs at Mulberry and Pomegranate, foraging is about a connection to culture. Her Greek in-laws provided the introduction to wild greens (horta) such as radiki (covering the chicory and dandelion family) and sorrel. “It’s the thousands of years of knowledge I tapped into that made it all so much easier. Over in Greece foraging is just the norm. You see all the old ladies going out with an empty shopping bag and a knife. It’s all part of the Mediterranean diet, which has well-known health benefits.”
These days, Kallos’ family tends to grow their ‘wild’ greens in their suburban Sydney backyards, and they share seeds and produce among the wider community. “I guess you could say we go foraging in each others’ gardens, plus at farmers markets you can now find things like purslane. People are becoming more inquisitive and much more health conscious, although I do still hit the occasional person who asks why I’m eating weeds.”
True native or bush tucker foraging is another thing, says Annie Raser-Rowland. The co-author (with Adam Grubb) of The Weed Forager’s Handbook, she was originally smitten with the idea of bush food but found “it required about a millennia of accumulated knowledge”.
“Then I discovered weeds. They’re much easier to recognise and they’re abundant. They’re all around, and the more I came to know, the more I felt like an idiot keeping my well-tended lettuce and vegie patch. Nutritionally speaking, you’re often better off eating the weeds.”
These wild-growing plants are all around. Think chickweed and purslane, dandelion and mallow, nettles and wood sorrel. They might be those things you tore out of your carefully tended vegie patch on the weekend. They’re growing in the cracks of footpaths, along train lines, on vacant blocks. In fact, they’re everywhere.
Raser-Rowland sees the growing weed movement – 14,000 copies of The Weed Forager’s Handbook have been sold since it was published in 2012 – as a natural extension of backyard vegie growing. “It’s the counter movement to people getting scared of food that doesn’t come in a sanctioned environment, like a supermarket.”
While she sometimes heads out with basket in hand, her suburban backyard provides for most of her weed needs. Fat hen, mallow, nettles, sowthistle and purslane comingle with root crops. Lettuce has long been banished – the weeds, which can be used in much the same way in salads (they can also be braised, or used in soups, pies, and more) have far more nutritional value. Pick the young leaves for a milder, juicier ingredient – especially pick before the plant flowers. Older leaves and stems can be woody and unpleasantly fibrous. “They require getting used to for a lot of people because they have more bitter and sour flavours and more texture. The modern palate is used to sweet, fluffy flavours.” Raser-Rowland and Grubb run occasional Edible Weed Walks - find out more here.
Foraging does come with an important caveat emptor: namely, to be careful with where you forage and what you take. The rule is not to eat anything unless you are sure what it is. Mushrooms are the most obvious subject for concern. No-one wants to mistake a death cap mushroom for a slippery jack when making risotto. Hemlock, while fortunately rare in Australia, could be confused with wild fennel or celery. Chickweed has a doppelganger known as petty spurge that can blister the tongue. And there are other dangers besides: as Wilkinson says, gesturing down the Merri Creek, “There’s a patch down here with native mint, bush tomatoes and snakes.”
Foraging on public land also raises the issue of pesticides. The ‘new’ foraging is about the urban environment but it pays to be cautious. Some local councils mix dye with herbicides to alert people to their presence, but these can wash away in rain. “People need to be aware of what the rules are in their local area,” says Raser-Rowland. “You probably wouldn’t want to go picking somewhere new after rain. Apart from my own backyard I prefer the slightly overgrown bits of parks, not alongside paths where there might be dog wee.” Another factor to be aware of is road pollution, and sites with industrial contaminants such as lead paint.
So what of the ethics of foraging? There are strong arguments in favour of the Wombles’ creed (making good use of the things that we find – the things that the everyday folk leave behind) but what of the householders whose gardens are providing fodder for foragers?
All three of the people we spoke to agree there is an unspoken code of ethics. “Just knock on the door and ask,” says Kallos. “A lot of the time people are either unaware that they have this food source in their own backyard – with green almonds, for example – or they can’t be bothered using it and feel a bit guilty about it. I had a neighbour who was thrilled I was using his produce.”
Fruit overhanging laneways is fair game, says Wilkinson, although nature strips are a grey area over which neighbours might prove proprietal. (“I had a lady yelling at me about taking rosemary.”) Raser-Rowland suggests taking an offering to a helpful household. “Take them some crumble or whatever you made with their produce – it’s good PR. But if a tree looks like it’s really well maintained, netted or pruned, you can be pretty sure they want to use every last bit of it themselves.”
If you want to follow the letter of the law, it is illegal to remove anything from a national park. Most states require a licence to collect produce from a State Forest. Parks and reserves are a matter for the relevant councils. And it is, of course, illegal to trespass and remove things from someone’s property.
In general, there is a common sense code governing foraging. Take only what you need or can use. Leave some for others. Appreciate it. “I used to wonder if it was a fad thing,” says Raser-Rowland. “But it really seems to make people happy on a deep level. It’s like, wow, food isn’t some incredible revelation – it’s actually right there, in front of us.”
Purslane yoghurt dip from The Wild Forager’s Handbook.
Disclaimer: Matt Wilkinson co-owns Melbourne café/restaurant Pope Joan with Larissa Dubecki’s husband Ben Foster.