I have been back in England now for several weeks after two trips overseas discovering edible wild plants: first one to Brazil, the second to Australia.
Too much ground there is to cover in one newsletter so it will have to suffice to tell the story of the Brazil trip first in this one, saving the story of my Australian trip for a future newsletter. Brazil was a real eye opener, as might be expected from a country with 40,000 native plants, as compared with our 3,000 and an estimated 8-10,000 wild edible plants, as compared to our 400 or so… Ross and I were privileged to spend time in Sao Paulo and in the Atlantic Rainforest (that’s the really endangered one- only 5% of it left…) with the great Brazilian Chef Alex Atala, and with Valdely Kinnup who knows more about wild edible plants in Brazil than any other man alive. (Valdely is famous for the following quote: “Biodiversity coming out of our mouths won’t do very much good, we need biodiversity to go into our mouths!” In other words instead of just talking about biodiversity and conservation we need to eat a wide variety of species so we value and conserve them, as well as the land and culture that supports them.) We were also joined by a couple of other wild plant folk from Brazil. Needless to say we went for a VERY slow walk in the forest, where these guys all pointed out the very many wild edibles there, as well as the small but deadly poisonous snake which all of us stepped over before the last person in our party noticed it… I would love to tell you all about this trip but this isn’t the place so if you want to know more check out my blog which should be posted in the next few days.
But the heart of the matter for British chefs are the ingredients we saw which have a connection to the British wild food larder. There is a Brazilian plant named Jambu, which has the same flavour and sensation when you eat it as a little known British wild edible plant called sneezewort which we recently began sourcing from Scotland. If you have ever tasted sneezewort, you will understand why I mentioned sensation: the experience of eating this little plant, a close relative of yarrow, is like a cross between eating Szechuan pepper and licking a battery! I have always seen sneezewort as one of more obscure wild ingredients so it is a real surprise to discover that Jambu is a plant with an established place in Brazilian cuisine. We ate its flowers and leaves as part of a dish at Alex Atala’s Dalva e Dito restaurant. Alex has used it in many ways over the years, giving many pointers to how our native ‘jambu’ –sneezewort- might be used.
This is a lesson I have learned over and over: so many of our overlooked edible wild plants have strong traditions of use somewhere else in the world. Burdock: only used for a soft drink here, but used as a root vegetable known as gobo in Japan; the peeled stems used like cardoons in Italy. And hogweed seeds: in the last two years I found out that these are used as a spice in both Iran (where they are known as golpar) and Iraq. In Brazil there is a fruit called pequi, the essence of which is used in both sweet and savoury dishes: to my palate, this fruit has the same flavour as hogweed seeds!
The second of our products which Alex’s restaurants- and many others- use is swinecress. We don’t find enough of this spicy, mustard & wasabi flavoured Cabbage family plant in Kent but elsewhere in the UK it is super abundant. Anyway, much to our surprise this plant grows all over the place in Sao Paulo- big bunches of it are sold on the markets. In one Brazilian state it is being harvested from farms where it grows as a weed with the support of a university project who have analysed it for its nutrient properties and found it high in protein, calcium and vitamins C and A! The quest is now on for better supplies of swinecress so more of you can use it- mustard / wasabi fanatics (you know who you are...) will already have partaken of the small amounts we occasionally get in.
Then thirdly, there is a rather obscure seaweed, not native to the UK but found on a few sections of our coastline and considered to be invasive, known as dead men’s fingers. A few years back when I tried to interest chefs in this seaweed we didn't get much response. So once again I was surprised to find it featuring as a key ingredient (described by its Latin name Codium) at Alex Atala’s DOM... It has a rich flavour and makes a delightful green broth; small pieces of the coral like fronds add a strange but wonderful visual aspect to dishes. My favourite seaweed Professor Christine Maggs of Queen’s University Belfast will be delighted to hear of this. Years ago she told me of its invasive nature as a non-native to the UK and said that marine conservationists would celebrate if anyone could ever create a market for it that resulted in its removal from British beaches.
The more I think about what we do the more I think that our job is not so much selling plants but adjusting categories in people’s heads. Just look at the ingredients I have discussed above. We have a herb that seems like a practical joke if you have nothing to connect it with. All of a sudden, it becomes the British Jambu, connected to long standing Brazilian culinary tradition and held in great esteem. Swinecress- you only have to look at the name to see how low British people's estimate of this agricultural weed was in the past. Yet it is a highly prized medicinal plant in Brazil and is also becoming a highly prized salad ingredient. Then dead men’s fingers- strange, repulsive even to look at, and an invasive alien species, hated by British marine biologists. All of a sudden, it is a gourmet item and highly prized, because Alex Atala is using it and features it in his book! How easily things can move from one category to another in our heads, when we are given a good reason to see them differently.