By Gill Baker, Wangaratta Sustainability
Have you noticed that ‘foraged’ ingredients turn up in recipes in glossy magazines these days? When I came across ‘Locally Foraged Wild Mushrooms’ on the menu of a classy restaurant, images of armies of mushrooms being chased through the forest flashed through my mind.
‘Foraging’ of course, is not at all new. It was how our human ancestors survived. ‘Gatherers’ collected the staples which kept the community going, while ‘hunters’ added a furred, feathered or scaly contribution. Fast forward a few millennia and foraging was still mainstream, but some enterprising forebears discovered there were benefits in propagating seeds from the best food plants.
Burgeoning populations and the march of technology led to the rise of the city, and more efficient agriculture, so farming continued in rural areas to supply city markets. Foraging still had its place, nomadic and indigenous populations gathered food wherever they could, and many still do.
But in the growing cities of the 19th century fresh, affordable food for the masses was not easily found. Although owners and managers became rich on the back of the Industrial Revolution, labourers in docklands and new manufactories were poorly paid and had to work long, hard hours. Their families relied on food bought from market stalls or from street sellers, some of whom left home in the very early hours of the morning to walk to the edges of cities to forage for whatever herbs and greens could be found. Usually wild garlic and parsley, nettle, chickweed and watercress, with mushrooms, made prime additions to meals. The greens were often gathered together into bunches of ‘potherbs’, a word I first came across as a youngster in East London, where my grandmother would refer to cheeky children as ‘cheeky little potherbs’.
Grandma brought up two healthy children on a menial War Widow’s pension, and I well remember her tasty stews made from ’scrag end of neck’ (sheep’s I believe, not much meat but enough for some taste and nutrition), garden vegetables, pearl barley and, you’ve guessed it, potherbs (well, perhaps not the nettles). My version, a family sized saucepan full, cooked for ages on the woodstove, is almost identical, just swap the scrag end bit for a nice piece of Australian casserole steak.