Early Settlers in Iceland – The Ultimate Self-Reliance Test!
Joy wasn’t the first emotion I experienced when my husband said he had booked us a surprise trip to Iceland – my first thoughts were – cold and barren. Ungrateful I know but Cold I would say is my main weakness – a holiday in it wasn’t what Id hoped for. Still grateful for this opportunity, the excitement crept in and I started researching the country on our journey there. I was intrigued to know how historically humans had coped in this cold and barren landscape without the modern trappings of my down jacket, gortex Parker and insulated snow boots. I was looking for inspiration to be tougher!
What I didn’t anticipate finding was such a fascinating history of toughness, of resiliance and slow but sure adaptation to survive in this unusual landscape. It is a history lacking in any kind of environmental support for human survival, the land and climate in Iceland yielded little in the way of advantageous natural resources for man. Reading the book of Settlers it is like reading how the land wanted to push humanness to its adaptive limits, like it was trying to push us off.
This article is a dedicated to those early Settlers, in awe of their self-reliance against all odds I would like to share their story with you. Perhaps we can all find some inspiration from Icelanders?
To begin with, lets clarify the term Icelanders – they are genetically predominantly Norwegians and Irish. In 874 dissatisfied with the current strict rule of the king in Norway and wanting to carve his own life (and swathes of land), Ingólfr Arnarson took two of his slaves, an open top boat, some livestock, seeds and tools then set sail. Whether he had determined to land in Iceland or not we don’t know. Its existence had been known since ancient Greek times when it was called ‘Thule’ and indeed people had even visited and stayed before 874 … Irish monks, another Scandinavian or two, but none had remained so we cannot include them here as ‘settlers’.
Ingolfr however did stay. After spending a couple of summers wandering and the winters in between sheltering, looking for the best place on the island to settle he settled, like most modern people, in the Reykjavik area. A bay in the west away from the ice caps of the middle area and the harsh arctic winds from the north/east, warmed a little by the gulf stream the Reykjavik area was a good choice. Well, as good as could be in Iceland.
The island he had landed on was 104,000 km area with a coastline of 3000 miles and the only creature to be found on land was the artic fox who had floated there on ice by accident from somewhere else. Hot springs, glaciers, black volcanic rock and live volcanos. If you stand on this bit of floating hot rock in the North Atlantic, just below Greenland and look south there will be nothing but ocean until the South Pole!
Settling the Island – On Becoming Icelanders
Thankfully Ingolfr had come prepared. As a landowner in Norway he brought some skills and the livestock and seeds to go with them. Together with the labour (slaves) to implement these, Ingolfr and his family who had followed raised a few sheep, goats, cattle and poultry. Like most settlers who initially use their own old ways of land management in the new environment they soon realised they need to adapt methods, Ingolfr struggled here with his usual methods of farming.
The climate and landscape was different from Norway and winter days could be as short as 4 hours of daylight with very short cool summers. This meant that much winter grazing was simply not available and there was not enough to store from short summers to cover such long winters for livestock food. The settler had to let their livestock wander in winter instead of keeping them close and feeding them – they left their livestock to become self-reliant themselves. This resulted in losses, until the farmers worked out what livestock was more suitable to focus on in this climate and landscape.
Cultivating, Foraging and Hunting.
The same problem occurred with the seeds he brought – some worked in this climate and terrain others didn’t. Winter veg such as potatoes, turnip, kale type veg worked but growing grains was notoriously difficult. They tried to grow grain they brought over, then when this proved difficult, they cultivated a wild grain on a small scale that didn’t yield much…. Barley grown on low lying plains was the only successful grain grown here and this wasn’t massively productive and ceased altogether for much of the first 1000 years. In fact a lack of grain and the settlers adapting around this characterises much of their diets development.
Foraging: One thing that kept early Icelanders alive in the absence of grain was Icelandic moss (actually a lichen found on the northern side) they would soak and eat as a porridge. A second bulk food was dulse a seaweed found more on the southern shores. It is presumed the idea of eating Dulse came from Ireland with the Irish women.
“Ever since the first settlement of Iceland , wild growing Angelica archangelica L. has been used for human consumption and has also been important as medicinal herb. It was also eaten fresh, picked in the wild on the mountainsides. In Iceland all parts of the plant were used – the seeds, leaves, stalks and roots and were eaten fresh, fried or boiled (o en in milk); or prepared in some other way ” (I saw skeletons of this all over).
“The most commonly used green plant in Iceland was probably Rumex acetosa L. It was usually served with meat, sh or as a avour to bird soup. It is still recommended in a cookbook as tasting well with boiled puf- n [15,29]. Generally speaking, the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is the most popular wild food plant also in Iceland”
Yarrow, and chickweed have all been identifed as present then with wormwood being well used between 900’s and 18th century. I also saw some ribwort plantain popping out in grass under snow.
Around the woodland areas, berries such crowberry, cloudberry and bilberry would have been available.
Hunting: Despite an unusual lack of land mammals there were still plenty of coastal products. Fish such as capelin and herring, sea birds such as puffin and gulls eggs, sea mammals but for some reason the early settlers were determined to be farmers not fishermen so kept plodding on with trial and error land based survival methods for another 1000 years. Whaling wasn’t really a deliberate practice either though settlers would make use of beached carcassses. It wasn’t until spear-drift whaling was introduced in the twelfth century that the settlers could be said to hunt whales. They would go out in open boats, strike a whale with a marked spear so that when it died and beached they would be able to find and claim it. Salmon and trout were found in the clean rivers.
Food Preparation and Preserving in a land with no wood for Fire.
When the settlers first arrived, the country was said to be one of forests. This actually meant that the 25% of available land that could be forested because it wasn’t ice cap, rock or tundra, was tree covered. This ensured the early arrivals had plenty of timber for building and wood for fuel but within 30 years of settlement, the island had seen the arrival of about 30 – 40,000 more people, usually Norwegian men picking up Irish women en-route and this forest was all but gone! The slow growing nature of trees so far North meant the taiga type coniferous forest trees and the birch and willow couldn’t keep up with demand. This is shown in pollen analysis of soil samples. Scientists observed that tree pollen became replaced with more pollen from the pasture land plants around this time.
So circa 910, Iceland had around 35,000 settlers in a country of harsh climate with no fire-wood or timber for building shelter. How did they adapt?!
Lack of fire to cook on:
“As for cooking methods, boiling was by far the most common; there were no ovens for roasting and no medieval frying pans have been found in excavations. Meat was sometimes roasted on a spit but probably mostly when a cauldron or another cooking vessel was unavailable”.
*“Some Icelanders did have an alternative, fuel-conserving method for cooking. They simply cooked their food in the nearest hot spring. Sometimes the food was placed in a cauldron or other container which was then lowered into the boiling or almost-boiling water; sometimes it was buried into the hot earth close to the spring. We know that hot springs were used for cooking in medieval times, because a source dating back to 1199. Geothermal heat was probably used mostly for baking bread. moist rye bread) in some shops. The dough is placed in a closed container, buried in hot earth and left to steam in its own moisture for up to 24 hours.”
“For most cooking however, the most commonly used fuel, after a few centuries of deforestation, was either peat or dried sheep manure. This continued into the 20th century and sheep dung is even used to this day for smoking meat and salmon”.
Lack of fire-fuel to preserve food:
Another problem the settlers faced in addition to lack of fire to cook food or preserve it by smoking was a lack of salt for preserving. Even as a coastal country Iceland couldn’t yield salt for the settlers easily because of the lack of sunshine to evaporate water in the usual salt distilling process. Nor could fire-wood be wasted just on salt making. Their usual methods of preserving food simply didn’t work in Iceland. A method to extract salt from seawater via ice rather than heat developed. Seawater was allowed to freeze, the frozen fresh-water top was scraped off and the remaining water re-frozen. The salty under-layer became more and more concentrated. The resulting super salty water was heated so it didn’t take as much fuel to get to the brine stage as it would have with boiling the first seawater. Another frequent method was to gather seaweed and dry it. The dried seaweed was then burned and the salty ashes used to preserve food. This was called “black salt”.
Icelanders did air-dry fish but the results were variable as you needed a run of cold dry sunny days.
Another method of food preservation that developed uniquely in iceland due to shortage of fuel was skyr whey fermentation of meat. In the UK we see Skyr as a form of yogurt but it is actually a type of cheese.
*“Skyr making was thought to be more economical than ordinary cheese making; the yield from the milk was higher when skyr was made than when the milk was used for cheesemaking. The lack of salt may also have played a role, since cheese was usually salted to preserve it, but skyr needed no salt at all.
*”The milk – usually skimmed – is curdled with bacterial cultures and rennet. The culture comes from a starter kept from the last batch of skyr and the rennet was usually made from calf’s stomach, although butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) could be used in a pinch”
The resulting whey was used as main drink and used to preserve meat for up to a year in the absence of salting. The making of skyr and its ‘waste’ product whey for drinking and preserving meat was a lifeline for Icelanders even though it would’ve made everything it preserved taste sour it would’ve not only preserved meat without salt/fuel for drying but imparted extra nutrients in the form of probiotics and B vitamins.
Lack of cooking pots for cooking on fire
“Even cooking pots were in short supply. Some bog iron can be found in Iceland, but not nearly enough to make the cooking vessels that were needed: the clay in Iceland is not suitable for pottery, Cauldrons and pots had to be imported and were expensive. Wealthy men often bought cauldrons and rented them out.” Vicars had to pass a law prohibiting villages from using church fonts to cook in.
Lack of timber for building:
Turf-clad houses became popular with the use of drift-wood or stone topped and sided with turf. They were often built into existing banks then walls and roofs were covered with turf to minimise need for wood in the building and the need for fires to keep warm.
Despite all this hardship the early Icelanders were successful in certain aspects of their way of life!
The island community despite being sparse, was effective at self-organisation. The landowners decided to elect representatives to debate on community matters together and action results. In other words by
the year 930, one of the world’s oldest parliaments had formed. These communities were also willing to allow women to take roles of power. Scandinavian countries seem to have accepted that women have a presence in politics more easily and for longer – possibly thanks to this Viking view of women as strong and key holders!?
What they couldn’t grow they learned to subsitute or do without. As more ships started arriving – what they could’nt grow, substitute or do without could be traded with what they could grow, raise and make.
The settlers traded sheep wool, woven wool cloth, dried fish and dairy products exchanging it mostly for grain, tools and cooking implements. Rye and wheat were imported; rye for the poor, wheat for rich. Grain was more used for porridge or flat breads rather than risen breads in as it would go further and without much fuel consumption.
From the 1500’s Iceland was under Danish rule that resulted in a period of hardship for the country. This, coupled with lack of sunlight caused by ash fall out after a volcanic erruption a period that became known as the little ice age caused a long period of famine. After thousands of deaths, reindeer were imported to remedy the problem. They still roam freely in places and can be hunted.
Problems with imports
Some things came over with trade boats that were less welcome. Rats, mice, lupin seeds that have spread and taken over whole fields, rabbits that ruin puffin burrows and mink that were imported in 1700’s for clothes but now escaped. TB and the plague were also unwelcome stowaways to Iceland. On the other hand, sometimes ships wouldn’t come for months – so grain and other imports could not be relied upon.
“Icelandic cuisine was for almost a thousand years a cuisine of wants – want of grain, want of fresh produce, want of salt, want of fuel, even want of cooking vessels and utensils. The people of Iceland had to pay a certain price for choosing to live somewhere north of life, but they adapted to their environment and managed to survive for a thousand years on what they had”*. Finally after trying farming for a thousand years realised fishing made more sense than farming and harbours developed more around the 3000 miles of coastline…. Trading at ports, fishing and whaling provided work. Whaling – a sperm whales head could contain 3 tonnes of spermaceti, an oil prised throughout Europe for street lighting, medic food beauty products…. this could be sold at a premium and the profits used to buy in staff – and so fishing moved from being a self-sufficiency activity to being an industry,creating employment for whole communities who could then use their wages to buy goods in.
Iceland in Modern Times – read the next article to see how from the self-reliance of early settlers Iceland has become self-reliant as a country in modern times. Cheap hot water on tap, free cold mineral water to drink, self-reliant in energy and vegetables, dairy and eggs… permaculture principles abound plus the ultimate Volcano Bug-Out-Bag situation that many modern Icelandic families are faced with.
*From the article https://nannarognvaldar.com/a-little-food-history/
A Final Nail In the Coffin for Traditional Crafts?
Recent research into the state of health for our body of our traditional skills has shown some alarming results.
What Are We Losing?
Two recent pieces of research, one by the Heritage Crafts Association and the other by Ordnance Survey of 2000 Britons revealed that traditional skills are dying. Between them they cite; map and compass reading, darning, clog making, saw and spade making, tanning leather, swill basket making, identifying wild plants, wagon building, starting a fire, wiring a plug, changing a tyre and baking bread. Some skills are so rare they are on a critical ‘red’ list by the HCA at risk of becoming extinct as the last craftsperson dies. It is not just Britons that are losing traditional skills – a similar piece of research from Australia found that ‘Generation Y women can’t do the chores their mothers and grandmothers did daily’ and that ‘only 51% of women under 30 can cook a roast compared to 82% of baby boomers’. It also reported that ‘only 23% can grow a plant from a cutting while 78% of older women say this is a breeze’. Also interesting is the fact that young men are more likely to be able to change a nappy than a car wheel. (The Courier-Mail).
What Are We Gaining Instead?
It is a natural stage of all civilisations that with the event of a new technological age, traditional skills get left behind. The OS survey found modern life skills for us that are considered essential today and which now replace the old skills are tasks such as:
Following a sat nav
Using a smart phone
Installing computer programs
Working a tablet
Managing several labour saving devices at once.
Why Are We Losing Them?
In the OS Technology Survey of 2,000 Britons they found that most people believe technology is leaving people less skilled The study found almost eight in ten blame the decline of these skills on technology, while another 54 per cent think it’s due to children no longer learning them at school. Australia Social researcher Mark McCrindle said: “Women of today tend to be busier, juggling more roles, and are quite prepared to compromise a bit of the homemade just to save some time.”They also have a lot more disposable income compared with their mums and their grandmothers so buying a cake mix is not a big deal.”
The research all suggests that we are losing traditional skills for the following four reasons:
new technology replacing old skills,
schools not teachIng old skills,
us wanting convenience due to time pressure of busy lives
and more available income creating a buy-it-in and bin -it culture.
But, so what?! Isn’t this just evolution?
What Are The Consequences of This Skill Shift?
In years gone by, these skills would have been considered essential for everyday life. The report found that ninety-four per cent of people questioned believe there could soon be entire generations who have no idea how to do some of the skills once considered essential. Today, whatever we think (or just don’t think) technology, however great it is, isn’t invincible. The OS report warns; ‘There are times when it can let you down’ and ‘even if it’s a skill you think you no longer need, it’s important to have at least a basic grasp of it – basic map reading skills are vital as sometimes, batteries and phone signals let you down and map reading is an essential skill which could save your life’. Pressures on global food security coupled with no individual knowledge on how to grow, forage or prepare real food could see famine here with people surrounded by food potential but lacking the knowledge to realise it.
What can we do?
Ninety Three per cent of people asked in the HCA survey think teaching these skills
should be brought back into school so younger generations are taught them
from a young age. Greta Bertram, who led the red list research on behalf of the Heritage Crafts Association said ‘We would like to see the government recognise the importance of traditional crafts skills.
So, we can hope maybe that the government will offer some protection of endangered traditional crafts eg through funding craftspeople to take on apprentices and also making these skills part of the national curriculum. Or, we can take it into our own soft, smooth hands and learn some traditional skills ourselves. With online learning and hundreds of day and evening courses around the country in everything from blacksmithing, to horticulture, to cookery via basketry and hurdle making to dry stone walling… we have no limit of opportunity to learn things for ourselves and pass the skills on to our own children. The figures for this behaviour uptake however are as sorry as the figures for the extinction of the crafts themselves… although ’86% of people questioned claimed they wished they were better at some of the traditional skills only 16% were making a conscious effort to try to improve their knowledge in them’. Come on Crafters, put down your gadget and pick up a course!
If I tell you that all the seaweed you see on your local beach is edible bar one* which is not likely to be present anyway – does that demystify the whole subject a little? At Wild Harvest we teach many different subjects broken down to be easily accessible for beginners and yet which take our learners to a level of basic proficiency. Its ok to be a master of one subject like foraging, or an artist in something like basketry but where will that get you if the situation is not about pleasure but survival?
So, this Seaweed Survival blogpost is designed to give you enough knowledge to make some basic foods and still benefit from the same bountiful health benefits that eating fancifully prepared and nominally challenging recipes will bestow. I believe we should be unashamedly pragmatic in our learning journeys in order to keep moving forward, there is no need to make the learning journey so complicated, information overload stops us starting. At Wild Harvest we encourage people towards the confidence to move from ‘head-to-practice’ by giving simple easy to follow instructions and just enough peripheral knowledge to interest not overwhelm you – so here are the seaweed survival basics to give you the confidence to get out:
There are some general harvesting and processing rules that can learned for foraging in general and can apply to coastal foraging too without the need for much more, for example
Harvesting – from an unpolluted environment, at the optimum time of the day/year for the best nutritional benefits and safety of the collector, without uprooting – just cutting a plant and not stripping a resource bare when you find something you like.
Processing – once you know that most of our seaweed is edible the only difference is preference for one taste over another ie palatability rather than actual edibility. It is simply preference that will determine how you process seaweed because all of it can be processed in pretty much the same ways. In a survival situation of course palatability or preference is less of an issue than edibilty and nutritional value – all of our seaweed can be quite tastily:
Patted dry and fried from fresh either shallow fry or deep fry into crisps
Boiled/added to mash potato or cooked grains and cooked in oil or fat as patties
Boiled as a vegetable
Eaten (a little) raw (if sea is clean)
Dried and crumbled or powdered and stored in a jar for later rehydration in a stock or soup.
Health benefits of eating seaweed
Seaweed is one of the few foods that is contains all of the 56 trace elements essential for human health, amongst them is calcium, iron, magnesium, iodine, potassium and selenium (the latter becoming scarcer in farmed land veg due to soil depletion). The brown sea weed especially is rich in alginates …… and fibre for the digestive tract. Seaweed is a low fat and calorie food despite being also high in fibre and minerals. Purple seaweed like Laver contains more B Vitamins while Kelp in particular is rich in Lignans which are pre-cursors in the body to the formation of phyto-oestrogens. This is linked to Japanese women’s low incidence of breast cancer. The Okinowans from an Island off Japan eat between 7 – 10 portions a day and are the worlds oldest nation. Iodine present in seaweed helps with thyroid functioning.
Seaweed is cited as ensuring a healthy heart and digestive system and can also detox the body of heavy metals. It is a useful ingredient where there has been a radiation leak.
Note the drying of leaves does not compromise the nutritional value as its mostly water that is lost though any vitamin c will deplete with oxidation and heat.
Topically seaweed is good for hair, scalp and skin (face and body) its unusually rich combination of minerals, nutrients and amino acids are drank up by the skin and absorbed by the hair to give a shiny healthy appearance. It moisturises, is beneficial for anti-ageing and calms senstive and spotty skin. Add dried powdered sea weed to soap making, bath salts, or body butter and conditioners.
Making iodine solution.
Steps to extract iodine from seaweed:
Burn some seaweed in a metal container above heat.
Wash the ash with distilled water, filter it through cloth or coffee filter paper.
Boil the water until there is just watery salt left.
Put this in a glass jar.
Now add sulphuric acid (car battery?) – the water should go purple brown. (When you add the sulphuric acid it hisses and some liquid evaporates there’s a possiblity that if you put muslin cloth or iodine paper over the jar you may catch some crystals).
Adding sodium hydroxide dissolves the iodine crystals into the solution and neutralises the acid.
You will have a brown liquid that you can test the strength of (how many ppm from 0 – 50 of iodine) using iodine paper (a bit like litmus paper).
Fertilize Your Soil With Seaweed
One cold November when back-packing alone with two toddlers I stayed at a community in Scotland. Erraid is the smaller sister community to Findhorn and I earned our stay there by trudging up and down to the beach to collect seaweed then covering the growing beds with a deep layer of mulch. Over winter the seaweed would rot down nourishing the soil ready for Spring and in addition to the usual benefits of any mulch seaweed has the extra advantages of:
Not carrying weed seeds
Not carrying diseases of land plants
Breaking down easily
Rich in Selenium
*Desmarestia – is the name of the toxic seaweed. It is a fine frond-like pale green-brown seaweed that grows in inter-tidal waters and emits sulfuric acid and has out of the water a ph of 2% so would burn your digestive system (perhaps you could use this in your iodine making experiments to get the iodine out of seaweed?).
“I grew up on the wide sandy beach at Marske-by-Sea on the North East Coast, barefoot and raggy-haired, alone, dreaming of joining the mermaids. My school was only seventy metres from the beach so I even chose coastal erosion as my geography project to justify to the teacher why I should spend his lessons ‘on-site’. Moving inland to live on farms in Yorkshire subsequently meant I’ve lost touch with the wide skies and the fresh salty smell of the coast – if you are lucky enough to live near the coast make a pledge now with me to get out to the beach soon and bring seaweed into your life! Post your pictures on Facebook and remember to tag ‘Wild Harvest School of Self-Reliance’ – we offer prizes every couple of months for the best tagged photos! – Di Hammill x
A Brief History of Rag Rugging.
Before wall-to-wall carpets the working class families of Britain would’ve blocked out the cold from the floor using home-made rugs assembled from rags of cloth that were torn from old clothes, bedding, coats and household items. I like rag-rugging because it is a no-sew textile craft and Im not that proficient or patient at sewing!
Each year the whole family would get involved in making the new hearth rug, with children cutting up bits of cloth, parents prodding and poking the rags through the backing material. The old hearth rug would then be relegated to the kitchen and the kitchen rug in turn to the back door. The back door rag-rug would then become the cover for the potato clamp or the compost heap. Given the fact that rag rugs were a craft of poorer families and the rugs were so well used that nothing remained, the history of rag rugging isn’t as well documented as that of say embroidery – it was a craft of necessity, not something one would spend much time creating and publishing and documenting elaborate designs so the history of rag rugs is fairly intangible… few real life examples left and no written/drawn history.
Rag Rugging is said to have originated in West Yorkshire Mill Girls innovation born out of need – when they asked to take home the hessian sacks that the wool came into the mills in and were allowed to take home any of the scraps of wool fabric that were under nine inches long. The settlers later took the home craft to America but because the cloth of the US was cotton the rag rugs developed differently over the Atlantic – with long strips of cotton fabric from old dresses and household fabrics usually in pale and flowery patterns, braided then coiled into circles. images.
Materials and Tools for Rag Rugging – Nothing Special Needed!
Aside from a couple of black bags of old fabrics – fleeces, t-shirts, sweathirts, felts, being the best, the tools needed for rag-rugging are minimal. You can get away with a piece of hessian and a pencil for the clippy method and for hooky method of rag hugging you can use a crochet hook rather than buy a special rag-rugging tool. A piece of chalk to draw on a rough design and a needle and thread or bondaweb to turn over the edges at the end can also be useful but in its bare bones a piece of hessian and a pencil would make a rug. Scissors too of course for the cutting.
A Family Activity with Useful Results – Could Rag Rugging be right for your family?
There still exists a few older folk who remember helping their grandparents rag-rug and they always smile when they recall their memories of it so one can only assume it was a cosy family time together, the kind of time we have replaced with individual technology time. We still end up with old clothes though and we still use rugs if the contents of the shops is anything to go by so if you are interested in crafting and can hold a pencil then you should consider this easy yet fulfilling craft. To produce something useful and beautiful out of old cast-offs is pragmatic art at its best. I personally don’t like to spend time making things that aren’t both useful and earth-friendly so rag-rugging ticks my conscientious crafting box.
Learning How to Rag-Rug
Wild Harvest is producing two videos showing you how to do two different rag-rugging techniques; clippy and hooky. Clippy, also known as Proddy or Proggy, is a technique so called because it involves prodding short clips of fabric through a hessian backing piece. Hooky involves threading a long strip of fabric over and under the weave of the hessian, forming little balls on the topside of the hessian with ‘hooks’ of fabric. Each method is different to do and gives distinct differences in appearance, each method can be used alone or combined with the other method. Clippy is the type that is usually associated with rag-rugging and is the shag pile scruffy looking tufty rug style usually with more abstract patterns whereas hooky is finer and can give rise to quite detailed designs, some rag rugs are almost works of art to be hung on the walls as hooky can allow shading and details of design that is more like a painting. Watch the videos and try both methods to see which you prefer but remember you can use both methods in one rug!
To attend a rag-rugging course contact Wild Harvest School www.wildharvest.org
Where our local supermarkets and restaurants stand today our ancestors once hunted and gathered their food. Hunting and gathering was, over the last century, becoming a romantic relic from the past. The subject of anthropologists and historians (how eating such large quantities of nettles in World War Two was said to give certain communities green tinged skin) wild food foraging has experienced an upsurge in popularity, so let’s look at some of the reasons why modern man may wish to learn about wild food today.
Benefits of Wild Food Foraging
Firstly, wild plants have optimized to survive on their own – we don’t have to do anything at all to enable their growth. Foraging is therefore easy gardening – it is a low input-maximum output system of gardening – we don’t have to worry about planting, potting on, weeding and watering. Nature does all this for us leaving us simply to do the harvesting.
Secondly, foraged greens are the ultimate in ‘local food’. You can’t get fewer food miles than the distance between the dandelion patch on the green over the road and your front door. Unless, of course, you decide after reading this to allow a few weeds to colonize a part of your own garden.
The third advantage of wild greens over the cultivated veg. we buy from shops is that they are usually healthier. How? On two accounts. They are ultra fresh having just been picked by you, they haven’t sat on supermarket shelves for three days and in chilled transit for a week before that (some vitamins diminish over time and with exposure to air or heat). Wild plants are usually of the darker green colour and of the bitter perennial type which are packed with minerals from the soil drawn thirstily up a long tap root through the need to survive harsh conditions without help and these are then deposited in the leaves/roots/flowers of the plant. These plants are known as dynamic accumulators. Compare a dark green shiny dandelion leaf to insipid water filled nutrient deficient iceberg lettuce or white cabbage – bred to meet a demand for bland taste rather than nutritional content.
A fourth advantage is simply that wild food is free. Learning about foraging can ensure you a lifelong supply of free greens for your family!
The main benefit though, I believe, is this:
Economic, social or climatic disaster could see our shops empty in three days due to the modern tendency to operate ‘Just In Time’ Stocking Systems to minimise capital outlay. How would you feed your family? The reason I started to learn about wild food nearly twenty years ago was to future-proof my children. In an uncertain future where imports may stop and domestic food production could be under pressure, to have knowledge of a native wild food source could save their lives.
Warnings When Learning to Forage for Wild Foods
So, we have considered the benefits of learning about wild food, but there are also some warnings that must also be communicated here, caveats to heed before embarking on gathering wild food.
Here they are:
Pollution. If we are hoping to eat wild plants for their health giving properties it is no use collecting them from busy roadsides or the edges of recently sprayed fields as we will be ingesting potentially harmful chemicals. Always harvest away from busy roads and recently sprayed farmers fields (you can usually tell a sprayed field because the weeds in in will be pale and droopy).
Law. When harvesting it is important to work within the law. Law relating to wild food foraging would be concerned with theft, trespass and conservation. Foragers are protected under law from theft charges as we are allowed to gather leaves, flowers, berries and mushrooms without being guilty of a Theft Act offence but must not uproot a plant without the owners permission. In theory you still need the landowners permission to cross land/take these weeds though or you could be guilty of trespass. Finally the law protects some plants that are at risk we must not forage these for the conservation of their species. For a full list (updated every five years see Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) but don’t worry too much about this as there is still plenty of more common obvious stuff to start with anyway!
Conservation in its own right, not just to adhere to the law. Natives living in nature based cultures know to just take a little from a few plants rather than strip a resource dry. When berry collecting in Autumn always leave some fruit for the birds to winter on, some for the plant to reproduce. If you struggle with the temptation to pick the lot – think about the fact that the birds, by eating berries will be ensuring the future survival of the berry giving shrub by pooping out the seeds in ready made fertiliser onto the soil around ensuring bountiful supply for your own tomorrow too so leave some for this reason.
Identification Errors. Although there are many edible plants growing in the UK there are numerous poisonous plants, the consumption of which could result in serious illness or even death! So, rather than just looking at a new plants’ picture in a book for a quick i.d before you guzzle it down compare other variables than just its appearance…
After comparing the plant to a clear image in a reputable reference book, I personally prefer photographs rather than artist drawings however beautiful and I like photos across a couple of books showing the plant in all its growing stages from overwintering rosette, spring buds, summer foliage and autumn fruits/seeds. After the visuals – compare notes on the plants habitat eg. woodland or pasture, light preferences, seasonality with your observations of the current plants situation and only then decide if you have a match.
This isn’t the end of it, you should then do a sensitivity test next. This involves:
Rubbing the plant on a sensitive part of your skin eg. inside arm or neck.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If no itching or stinging occurs chew a small piece of the plant and spit it out. There are always exceptions though – (think nettle) and conversely not all poisonous plants sting, again this is just one of many tests to be performed together.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If no ill feeling follows chew and swallow another mouthful.
Wait for 15 – 30 mins. If all is well go ahead and tuck in.
This may seem laborious and lengthy but it is only done in situations where you are still new to a plant.
Seasonality, Processing and Storing of Wild Food
Your diet was once about ‘what you could get and when’ as there were no fridge/freezers and not much in the way of imported food, certainly not for the poor. Eating what was in season fresh or learning to store harvested food to keep over the year especially during the hungry gap wasn’t a fashion it was the only way to survive. Our ancestors learned to preserve the wild harvest by drying, smoking, salting, steeping in oil or covering in fat to prevent air (and hence bacteria) entering, pickling, or boiling into a syrup (foods with high sugar content eg. honey keep well).
In late Spring, Summer and Autumn food is abundant but in Winter, for hunter gatherers , it was important to know where and when root foods were available. Roots store the foodstuff and vital energy of a plant over winter to give it growth in the Spring so the optimum time for eating roots is autumn/winter. More importantly though, our ancestors would have to find these roots in winter when the leaves of the plant; the usual indicator, would’ve died back. Some plants leave overwintering rosettes of leaves often very different to the plants actual leaves but at least there was some marker to show where to dig. To dig speculatively for roots in winter would expend more energy than would be gained by eating the results of digging so this method would not have been used unless their was another system of indicators. Our ancestors would’ve had a much greater awareness of plant life cycles and a system of markers. Roots are very rich in starch and have always been a good winter food (think how we still yearn for baked potatoes on a cold bonfire night) and so roots, together with dried meats, dried herbs (all reconstituted in a hot water to make a broth) and dried berry fruit leathers, nuts and seeds would’ve been the winter staples until other methods of processing and storing became available. Examples of wild edible roots are dandelion, dock, silverweed, marshmallow, bullrush and dock, thistle and burdock. These can be used immediately or stored by roasting/drying and chopping or grinding into a powder to store and add to the pot later.
Now of course we can preserve berries in fancy vinegar and oil or freeze them on fast freeze or dry herbs and mushrooms in an electric dehydrator but please do practice with traditional, fire, fat or solar methods of preserving, just so you have the skill for a time when you may need it.
Following the energy of the plant, after winter the growth forces move up from the roots to enter the stems, leaf buds, and leaves so Spring is a time for eating spring greens. Some weeds surface as early as February and so can provide a refreshing plate of spring greens to end the hungry gap. Useful early weeds are dock, lesser celandine, chickweed, cleavers (goosegrass or sticky willy), dandelion and nettle leaves. Followed by hogweed leaf buds (huge, cooked like asparagus) and ramson. These can all be simply mixed together steam fried with butter and seasoning as the green part to a meal, dried into vitamin rich powder to add to other dishes or have as tea. Leaves on trees follow and certain types can be eaten; beech in April raw as the green layer in a sandwich or cooked, silver birch leaf tea rich in vitamins a, b, c and e. I tend to dry leafy greens by laying them in baskets cover with brown paper or a tea towel and leave in warm dry room for two weeks turning occasionally then crumble the leaves into jars (adding dried flowers or other ingredients as they come available) these can be made into teas or added to meals eg. rice, omelette’s or crumbles over the next year. This way, long after the leaves have died back outside we are still getting the benefits of wild greens in our diet. To preserve leaves by drying retains much of their goodness and indeeds concentrates it as you are simply evaporating the water out. Some wild greens eg. plantain or ash keys are so bitter that they need double boiling to make them edible. Double boiling involves bringing the plant to boil in one lot of water, changing the water then re-boiling.
Blossom and flowers follow on from the leaves, some can be a wayside nibble; hawthorn and blackthorn, while others like elderflowers can be made into fritters (dipped in batter and sprinkled with sugar) or made into recipes such as strawberry and rose-petal fool or sweet violet sauce for venison, meadowsweet flavoured ice-cream and sweet ciceley and rhubarb preserve.
Towards the end of summer the flowers give way to either fruit, berries, seeds or nuts. The hogweed gives round flat seeds that give a citrus peel flavouring to puddings or can be eaten as a wayside nibble. On my walks I warn students they taste like citrus peel with a washing-up liquid after-taste! Large, long sweet cicely seeds have an aniseed flavour. Gather hazelnuts early to beat the squirrels and store them in shells in your airing cupboard.
In 2010, I became concerned not only with preserving the wild harvest but preserving the nutritional content as best I could. I decided after making elderberry cordial, rosehip syrup and hedgerow berry jam for years that I was boiling the life out of fresh fruit and decided to research the effects of heat on vitamin ‘c’. Having believed the old wives tales of making vitamin ‘c’ rich berry syrups for my children for a decade I bowed to modern science and reluctantly realised that I had been boiling most of the vitamin c out of the fruit for years. I therefore began experimenting with different ways of preserving berries without cooking. These are some of the ways I have discovered:
1. Fruit Leathers: mash up the berries in a bowl, pick out as many stones as possible (you could mash through a large gauge sieve, spread the paste thinly and dry somewhere in the sun but covered with paper or in the oven on a very low heat eg. 47 degrees for a couple of days. Cut the dried leather into sheets and store in air tight container. I have made leathers that have lasted nearly three years made in this way.
2. Put uncooked berries into vinegar and oil as a sweet salad dressing.
3. Blend with vanilla ice cream and refreeze.
Make a sugar syrup, pack uncooked bashed or pricked berries into a jar and cover with the hot syrup. Leave to seep for about three weeks then blend in a food processor to make a vitamin ‘C’ rich syrup.
Berries and rosehips could be dried whole to make a tea later, strained through muslin
Freeze small berries like elderberries in ice cube trays to pop out when needed.
Beginning with Wild Food.
To begin your journey into wild food foraging, processing and storing I recommend that you start with just three to five plants this year. Right now, choose three to five easily identifiable, easily accessible and simple to prepare weeds, I recommend dandelion, nettle, elderflowers/elderberries, ramson, and maybe daisy as they all meet these criteria but you can choose others. Write them down now or google some if you are having trouble thinking of names of weeds. Find one way you can use each and pledge to go out collecting this week and set aside some extra time before one mealtime to get to grips with it. Here are some basic family meal ideas, I dont apologize for not being ‘foodie’ I came to this from a background of being neglected underfed child then as a concerned mother wanting to future-proof her children so I don’t tend to offer gourmet recipes just healthy family basics. Plus I find it offensive to take a commoners food source and turn it into a fancy meal to impress friends at dinner parties or charge too much for in restaurants looking for a niche.
Bacon and Dandelion Pasta. Fry some bacon (or quorn?) roughly chop and fry a couple of handfuls per person of small/medium size dandelion leaves and a little onion with the meat, add to pasta.
Chickweed Pakora. Collect a small carrier bag of chickweed. Chop roughly. Make up a batter mix adding spices of curry, cumin etc. Stir in the chopped chickweed. Put dollops of the chickweed/batter mix into the frying pan and cook in oil. Drain on kitchen roll.
Elderflower cordial. Pick 12 heads of elderflowers on a dry non windy morning (else the pollen will have blown/washed away and the taste will not be as piquant). Put them upside down in a large bowl, cover with cold water and weigh the flowers down with a plate so they sit under the water. Leave for 24 hours then strain the water through a sieve into a pan, measure the liquid and for every 1pt add 300g of white sugar. Bring the flower water/sugar mixture to boil, add optional squeeze lemon, bottle hot in sterile bottles and seal immediately. The cordial will keep for up to three years. Dilute to taste with cold or hot water, fizzy water or milk or pour over deserts like a syrup, elderflower is especially nice to sweeten gooseberry deserts. A simple way to make champagne is to add a pinch of yeast to one of your cordial bottles decanted into a larger plastic pop bottle, shake then leave for two or three days, let off air and leave again. After about 5 days you will have light fizzy champagne without the complicated methods found in many recipes.
Elderberry or bilberry sweet yorkshire puddings with cream and sugar. Make up batter mix, add elderberries and spoon of white sugar, cook as yorkshire puddings and serve sprinkled with sugar and cream.
Ramson (or wild garlic) is often found in woods near rivers. Gather a few handfuls and chop up and mix with either new potatoes and butter or cream cheese and pasta. Use the white flowers in salads.
Nettle soup (and any other of the greens above thrown in) Collect a carrier bag of nettles from a shady spot so the nettles are not too dark, large and tough. Chop and fry a potato and an onion in oil, add the nettles (removing any large stems) and salt and pepper. Put a lid on and wilt it for a minute then add stock to just cover the nettles. Cook until the nettles are mushy then put in food processor with some cream and nutmeg to taste. My children will eat three bowls of this in a row! You could put a blob of cream cheese in to serve and a sprinkle of nutmeg, serve with oat cakes or crusty bread.
Adding to Your repertoire of Wild Food Recipes
When you have got used to including these ingredients in family meals without having to refer to recipes, choose another three to five plants to research and use. For the next year I might add:
Hogweed leaf buds
Jack by the hedge
Red clover flowers or lavender.
Wood Sorrel – looks like clover but found in woods and has a very tart lemony taste. Chop finely and mix with sugar and a little vinegar/oil to stuff fish. Serve with mash potato (including some silverweed root?) and steam fried hogweed leaf buds covered in butter.
Grate the root of Jack by the Hedge (garlic mustard) and add it to some mince to form into burgers. Serve in a bun with cheese and fresh garlic mustard leaves).
Make some almond shortbread biscuits and add either red clover flowers (chopped up) or lavender or dry red clover, lavender, chamomile and rose flowers to sweeten herb tea.
‘Gardeners Revenge’. Ground elder is no relation to the Elder tree but is still as useful in the kitchen and dry frying it and serving it in omelette or pasta gives gardeners the opportunity to get their own back on this pervasive troublesome weed. It’s really tasty and very easy to prepare – just fry!
Wild Food Foraging should no longer be seen as a quaint old fashioned idea our fore-bearer’s did for their survival because it’s benefits are too numerous to ignore for families today. The knowledge of how to secure healthy local food easily and for free is surely a legacy you would want to leave your children…. so get foraging now!
For advice or to book on a wild food walk or rural craft course with Diana please visit www.wildharvest.org