Homesteaders are known for their fabulous, organic veggie patches. And I would never deny there is something exquisite about vegetables that you have grown yourself, but it’s not my favourite method of generating edible foodstuff. Nor is it the easiest. There’s plenty to go wrong with any agricultural system: drought, pests, unsuitable temperatures, soil depletion. It only takes one frost at the wrong time of year, or one day when you couldn’t quite find enough water, and the whole lot is toast (or frozen toast).
Agriculture began roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago (23,000 years ago according to some sources). But humans have been surviving a whole lot longer than that, largely thanks to my favourite food skill: foraging. I love foraging. There is a sacredness about it. It invokes another type of awareness, too. As you wend your way through forests, or tread across meadows, your senses are heightened. And, as many an indigenous person has said before me, it’s as if the plants speak to you. It’s a very primal treasure hunt. Nooks will invite you. Glades will beckon. And before you know it, you are plucking dinner.
My Beginners’ Guide to Foraging
1. Clearly you don’t want to wind up like Christopher McCandless. Not everything is your friend, and tricksters lurk aplenty in the shadows of the forest. Even books don’t really cut it when it comes to safeguarding would-be foragers. You need a local guide to start out. I am indebted to my neighbour in Turkey, Dudu, for initiating me into the sacred art of foraging. Identifying edible plants correctly takes a while to learn. In the beginning our dulled modern eyes are not accustomed to the nuances of leaf structures and petal shapes. One green sprouty thing looks very similar to another. But once you’ve learned to identify two or three different leaf varieties, it gets easier.
2. Start with the green. Green leafy things pushing out of meadows tend to be safer (I said tend to be). Nuts are generally OK too. The high risk pursuits are the berries and mushrooms.
3. To really be able to thrive on foraged food you have to cultivate a decent relationship with your environs in all seasons. You can soon learn where certain plants tend to grow, and which conditions they like. After eight months of wandering round my new plot of land in Spain, I now know exactly where and when I can find chickweed, plantain, nettles, burdock, walnuts, chestnuts, dead nettle, dock leaves blackberries, dandelion, rosehip and wild mint. Now I will begin to expand my foraging zone to find other species further afield.
4. If you really get into the zone, you can start calling plants forth. I often go on hikes and ask for food. Then I walk planless, following my intuition, letting the Earth herself pull me to where dinner is. This is just the best.
My Current Faves
In Turkey I was living on a different bunch of wild greens than here in northern Spain. In warm drier climates, things like purslane, carobs, nuts, mustard greens, and thistles might be more in abundance. Here is northern Spain, it's green green green.
Mallow (photo above)
Full of vitamin C and iron, mallow is a staple for foragers. It’s versatile and easy to cook with. You can eat it raw, too. Use it pretty much as you would spinach - in omelettes, or pastas.
Back in Turkey, Dudu would go crazy for dock leaf. Here in the cooler north, no one seems interested in it. Yet it’s sooo yummy. It has a slightly bitter zang to it and works really well with wild garlic in risottos.
I’m getting into plantain. There are two types: Long thin fingers and fatter, rounder leaves. Take your pick. Baby leaves are tastier. Plantain can be used in pasta sauces and risottos. It’s a bit tougher than mallow, but still tasty. You can also make tea out of it which is good for coughs.
Ooh there’s nothing like a bit of chickweed in your sandwich or salad. It’s a lush, succulent edible, better raw than cooked.
Another favourite of mine. The leaves are peppery, a bit like watercress, and you can use both leaves and flowers to make delicious salads. You can also make a pesto out of the leaves by bashing them in a pestle and mortar with some garlic, salt and olive oil. Mouth watering yet? :)
Back in Turkey, I was blessed with a lot of these on my land in winter. Mustard greens also grow by the coast here in northern Spain. They taste like a cross between kale and broccoli, and when cooked are very yummy. Not to be confused with Canola, though (thanks Kit Springs for the warning). https://saskmustard.com/production-manual/plant-description/how-to-distinguish-mustard-from-canola/index.htm
Nettles! There’s not much you can’t do with them. They’re great as a tea, in soups, boiled or fried. I love boiling nettles, draining them and then pouring lemon, salt and olive oil onto them. Heck, you can even turn the stalks into twine if you want, and make clothes out of them! For eating, the tops are more delicious. Obviously nettles sting, so you need gloves when harvesting them. The sting disappears once they’ve been properly cooked (at least 5 minutes).
Dandelion (See top photo)
Pretty much everywhere has dandelions, and they are sooo versatile. You can eat all parts of the plant: root, stem, leaves and flowers. The roots are boiled like carrots. You can use the stems in risotto, and the leaves in salads. But that really is just the beginning. Here are sixteen more dandelion recipes from The Prairie Homestead: https://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2014/04/dandelion-recipes.html
This is a new one for me. I had no idea what it was until a friend spied the giant leaves and mentioned it might be burdock. The roots are incredibly long, so you have to be careful when digging them up. You scrub them, peel them and boil them, and hey presto you have food. Here are more ways to use burdock from Ask a Prepper
Other edibles to look out for are chicory, milk thistle, bullrush (cattail), sorrel, arrowroot, wild onion, wild garlic... and many more.
If you fancy this in 3D, you can watch my foraging video “How to Find 7 Things to Eat in 5 Minutes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OggyR1Ks4iY
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