Fresh free fodder: the fine art of foraging in New Zealand

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

The next time you're in the bush, or even just walking around your neighbourhood, stop a moment. Look at what's around you. What could you eat?

Are those lemons on your neighbour’s lawn? Could those mushrooms go into a stir-fry? Is that vine really just a weed? And what kind of tea would those leaves make?

Foraging has become something of a trend in the past few years. Fed up with rising grocery prices - and possibly also with not being able to travel - Kiwis are heading outdoors, scavenging for tasty ingredients growing right in their own backyards. Why? Because they’re free, fresh, and readily available.

Foraging is not actually new at all. Up until 600 generations ago, we were solely hunter-gatherers. For our distant ancestors, foraging was a means of survival.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

The next time you’re in the bush, or even just walking around your neighbourhood, stop a moment. Look at what’s around you. What could you eat?

Are those lemons on your neighbour’s lawn? Could those mushrooms go into a stir-fry? Is that vine really just a weed? And what kind of tea would those leaves make?

Foraging has become something of a trend in the past few years. Fed up with rising grocery prices – and possibly also with not being able to travel – Kiwis are heading outdoors, scavenging for tasty ingredients growing right in their own backyards. Why? Because they’re free, fresh, and readily available.

Foraging is not actually new at all. Up until 600 generations ago, we were solely hunter-gatherers. For our distant ancestors, foraging was a means of survival.

According to anthropologists, early man spent about 17 hours a week hunting and gathering food that grew in nature. Evidently, this era of humans was generally quite healthy. Their diet was exactly what their bodies were designed for: high in protein and fibre, low in saturated fat and simple sugars; and they got plenty of daily exercise.

At some point along the evolutionary journey, of course, humans discovered it was more efficient to simply grow their own produce than to go and look for it. They may also have simply depleted their surroundings of wild produce.

The bodies we’ve inherited are still much the same as our ancestors: bodies designed for a hunter-gatherer way of life. In fact, our entire digestive system – from our teeth to our gut microbiome – was geared for breaking down plants, nuts, and raw matter. And it still is.

It was only when we progressed from food found in nature to food produced by agriculture that our diet began to change, as did our tastes – and our health.

This isn’t the first time that foraging has seen a resurgence. Food rationing during World War 2 saw people head to the countryside to seek out supplementary means of nutrition. Nettles – otherwise a weed – were sourced as an alternative to spinach, and, in fact, harbour a similar nutritional content. Wild rosehips were harvested and made into syrup for their powerful vitamin C content: about eight times that of oranges. Blueberries and elderberries grew in abundance, providing a sweet means of making jam and pies. Wild nuts were gathered and carefully prepared to make flour for breads and cakes.

Today, foraging is no longer a means of survival. It’s just a fun new hobby. The challenge is to find food that’s safe, nutritious, and accessible. Obviously, this is a lot easier in rural areas than in cities. Our urban environment has changed so substantially that foraging safely and successfully is far more difficult than it ever was for our ancestors. But that’s no reason not to give it a shot.

There are enormous advantages to gathering wild-grown food. Yes, it’s free. And it’s fun – even for kids. The challenge of bringing back some bounty for dinner makes a walk so much more interesting. And then there are the very real nutritional benefits. Many plants that grow wild are much better sources of vitamins and minerals than mass-produced vegetables, and are certainly much better than any processed food.

Plants that have grown wild in their natural environment – without human intervention – are often at their natural best. They have fought the elements to survive, overcoming dry or hot conditions, while also competing with other plants and battling insects. In many cases, these factors make wild-grown plants even stronger, with a greater diversity of active substances such as antioxidants. Hardly surprising that traditional medicinal practitioners were able to turn much of what they found in the wilderness into powerful medicines.

Wild-grown plants also harbour much more intense flavours, so fewer are needed. According to renowned forager Peter Langlands, there are over 2500 varieties of forageable foods in New Zealand – so there’s plenty to play with.

But just tai ho (slow down) a minute before going bush with your basket and an appetite. There are some rules to this foraging game.

Foraging in New Zealand: How to do it safely

Where to forage

Most city-dwellers can now find foraging maps online, such as The New Zealand Fruit and Food Share Map. Collated by experienced scavengers, these maps are a treasure trove of information about community gardens, productive parks, and even low-hanging fruit. There’s also information about when to harvest and any other important details.

Check out Facebook as well: there are a number of private foraging groups in which members share tips for sourcing free fodder.

How to forage

First-time foragers are strongly advised to go with someone experienced. They’ll be able to help you identify what’s safe and what’s not.

The golden rule is that if you can’t identify something, don’t take it – and certainly don’t eat it.

Get permission from DOC, local iwi, or other landowners before wandering onto private property.

Avoid areas that are likely to be contaminated by sprays, road vehicle pollution, or dogs. And only take what you need. Pillaging will only deplete a resource. Stick to the rule of thirds: take one-third for your own use; leave one-third for someone else, and one-third for the species to regenerate.

What to forage

Now for the fun part!

Greens

Tired of paying for bagged greens in the supermarket? The weeds in your garden or the local park could be the next best thing.

Search for them in remote areas, avoiding roadsides or pathways, and go for the fresh, younger leaves as these are more tender.

Nettles have long been regarded as a pest plant, but their nutritional profile is similar to that of spinach. Wear gloves when collecting to avoid the stinging bristles, then blanch in boiling water to neutralise the sting. But don’t eat them raw! Nettles can then be added to any kind of soup, stew, or whatever cooked dish you might use spinach in. The leaves also make for a surprisingly refreshing and mineral-rich beverage.

Another ‘weed’, burdock is easy to find, and every part can be used. Although it’s possible to eat the young leaves, they are very bitter. It’s the root that makes burdock a worthy forage. This does involve digging up the whole plant, so be prepared for some work. The root can then be washed, peeled, and roasted like potatoes. You can also slice it thinly and add to stir-fries, or even pickle it. The root harbours some powerful medicinal properties: it’s a diuretic, an antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory.

Chickweed is common in gardens, and it’s far more palatable than it looks. The leaves are rich in minerals, and the saponins support the integrity of mucous membranes in the digestive tract. Both the flowers and leaves can be eaten raw, tossed into salads, stir-fries, and stews, or mixed into a pesto.

Fruit

Many rural kids will recall days spent picking wild blackberries on the farm, coming home scratched and berry-stained. These sweet fruits grow rampant on the invasive blackberry bushes in the summer months, and they’re delicious in jams, desserts, syrups, or on their own. Avoid the bushes on the roadside for obvious reasons.

Kawakawa leaves are well-known for their medicinal benefits, but few realise that the bright-orange berries can be eaten, too. The taste is somewhat sweet and fragrant, and can have a numbing effect on the tongue and gums (good for toothache). Pick only the ripe orange berries and pull the long cores out of the top of the berry. Harvest enough and you can make a punchy relish.

Fungi

New Zealand’s climate is ideal for a great many varieties of fungi, and some are indeed edible. But caution must be exercised with every mushroom: consult with an expert before throwing them in the pan. The common field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) grows happily on farmlands and other grassy areas. Rich in flavour, they’re great in anything from soups to omelettes.

Shaggy ink cap

Growing alongside is the shaggy ink cap, and it’s just as delicious. These are best gathered and cooked while they are still white on the outside with no stems showing.

Porcini are a highly sought-after wild fungus, and one of the most versatile. They have a large brown cap that can grow to the size of a dinner plate and can weigh up to 3kg. Packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre, porcini can be dried, fried, or added to soups, pasta, and risotto. Find them among oaks and pine trees.

Wild nuts

Acorns? Yes! Brown acorns are indeed edible but ONLY after they have been leached to rid them of their tannins, which are toxic and extremely bitter. This involves boiling and draining the shelled acorns repeatedly until the water runs clear. Once ready, acorns can be roasted whole or ground up for flour. They’re rich in protein, fibre, and even provide a good source of vitamins A and C.

Chestnut trees grow in many public areas throughout NZ – especially in the Waikato – and the fallen nuts are a free-for-all. These sweet nuts can be roasted and served hot with salt and herbs, or used as a stuffing. They’re a good source of protein and healthy fats.

Herbs

Dandelions are nutritious, flavoursome, and grow absolutely everywhere. The leaves can be added to salads as a substitute for rocket, and make an excellent digestive bitter.

Mustard greens also grow wild in urban and rural areas, and can be used in much the same way.

Horopito – aka ‘bush pepper’ – is a shrub that grows on forest margins. Leaves can be grey to light green and have distinctive red patches. Sprinkle over food as you would pepper – but be liberal!

Seaweed

Sea lettuce

One of the richest sources of plant-based minerals, vitamins, and enzymes, seaweed is surprisingly neglected. Bull kelp, bladder kelp, karengo, sea lettuce, and wakame are all available in New Zealand waters, and all are delicious and versatile.

Bladder kelp (rimurapa) dominates our rocky coasts, particularly around Kaikoura. Once harvested, it can be ground to a sprinkle that works well atop any dish, providing a nutritious substitute for salt.

Fresh sea lettuce may look slimy and underwhelming, but it’s satisfyingly crunchy and salty. It’s easy to harvest fresh from clear, shallow sea waters around coastal areas. Best used in salads, soups, and fish dishes, or dried as a wrap or garnish.

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