The fungi foragers of southern England have been up in arms about a recent ban on mushroom picking in the New Forest - and the arguments are long and emotional
The Ethical Foodie: Walk on the wild side
14th March, 2017
As the UK Forestry Commission imposes a blanket ban on foraging in the New Forest, our food columnist, chef TIM MADDAMS questions the wisdom of this and makes the link between foraging and mindfulness
Our woodlands do need to be treated with respect, but the Forestry Commission has let itself down a little here, certainly on the communication front and probably on the scientific one too
Wild food is very trendy these days, gone it seems are the days of necessity and so, in this world of apparent localised food abundance wild food is eaten only for its flavour. But should we see a return to foraging as offering the opportunity to feed us more regularly than perhaps we allow it? Often foraging is seen as a past time of the foodie folk of these fair isles but certainly for me it's more than that.
When I first heard of the idea of "Mindfulness" I recognised that this is a state of mind I often find myself in. I'm addicted to it: It's the forager and hunter in me that does it. Every time I head into the woods with a basket for mushrooms, or flick a fly line across the stream after a trout I seem to slip, little by little, into a world where nothing exists outside this moment. The phone is off, the watch ignored and I feel good. In response to making this commitment the natural world seems to reward you.
Walk distractedly through the woods to your favourite spot for a particular mushroom and you may well be successful, but allow time to drift around, follow previously unnoticed deer tracks or simply the whim of the moment and somehow you always seem to strike gold. Is this the sub conscious at work? I'm not certain, I think it's a deeper connection with the natural world itself, but that's not to say that the conduit for this hippie-like communion isn't the unconscious mind. This is my therapy - time spent in the wild, gathering food.
But should more people forage? Well the fungi foragers of southern England have been up in arms about a recent ban on mushroom picking in the New Forest and the arguments are long and emotional. Essentially the Forestry Commission (FC) is concerned that marauding gangs of enslaved foreign workers are stripping the forest bare of all useful fungi, and trampling the precious undergrowth at the same time. Foragers are adamant that whilst some large illegal picking teams can at times be found they are few and far between; the vast majority of mushroom foragers pick only what they need for their own consumption and since picking a mushroom does no more harm to the fungi itself than plucking a plum from an orchard tree it's easy to see why they are so cross about this blanket ban.
Perhaps a better approach would have been for the FC to close a part of the forest, control the area properly and survey the fungi and associated bio net, (including the symbiotic relationship between many fungi flies with plants and other fungi) and gather a base point for diversity before rolling down the iron curtain around the whole forest. It's not up to me to decide and our woodlands do need to be treated with respect, but I do feel that the FC let itself down a little here, certainly on the communication front and probably on the scientific one too.
I believe that foraging your own food, from gathering the simple blackberry to the most highly prized woodland fungi is not only good for the mental health, but the physical as well. It's certainly better for the palate, wild garlic, nettles, alexanders, three-cornered leeks - all these are easy to identify, and of course by eating them we are not eating something else and so perhaps making a tiny contribution to a fitter planet and a healthier environment for us all.
Then we have nutrition. Although nutrition is a toddler of the sciences it's obvious to all but the most hard of thinking that a wide and varied diet seems to give you the best chance of getting everything you need and everything the body can metabolize and make use of to thrive. I mean wide and varied in the sense of using what is in season in the locality.
It's long been documented and shown that gardening and growing your own are excellent low carbon ways of improving one's wellbeing and mental health and I think its time to add foraging to the list.
Tim Maddams is a an ex River Cottage chef based in south west England. @TimMaddamsChef
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