PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS CHEN
STORY BY EDWINA HAGON
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM JAMES TURNBULL
Convenience surrounds us; in fact, it is almost unavoidable. Street corners play host to aptly named convenient stores, local deli’s offer sustenance so sublime they put Grandma’s cooking to shame, and laptops enable supermarket splurges from the reach and comfort of home – sans the cockeyed trolley and it’s clunking wheel.
It is interesting then that as accessibility is progressively punctuated with ease, our hunter-gatherer instinct is proving alive and well within today’s society. Albeit, with a vastly different backdrop and presumably better shoes.
The clearest example presents itself in the form of foraging in and around urban environments. This sees urban dwellers searching for and exploiting food resources within their local surroundings.
“For me, first of all I look at plants with respect, secondly I look at them as resources,” says Diego Bonetto, a fervent Italian with a colourful scarf and penchant for foraging the area defined by Sydney’s bioregion. Bonetto leads the way into the greenery surrounding the Cooks River. Incessant rain has left the area resplendent, almost fluorescent in its leafy hue.
Very quickly it becomes apparent that if anyone is going to unearth a sense of kinship with uncultivated plants, Bonetto is. He identifies at least 15 different edible plants including plantain, mallow, chickweed, purslane, sow thistle, fennel and dandelions in a relatively small area and describes the taste and utility of each with thoughtful veracity.
Growing up in Italy, Bonetto recalls tracking dandelion as a young lad in the wake of a high fat, starch filled winter. “It is a detox plant so it cleans out impurities” he enthuses, hooking the yellow flower fondly between his fingers.
“Dandelions are bitter,” he says pausing contemplatively before adding, “Like coffee… you want to taste it?”
While an afternoon spent – under the watchful eye of our true protagonist, Bonetto – munching metropolitan ‘weeds’ and baffling the occasional post-work pedestrian is one thing; it is crucial to note that reading this article does not an expert make; unless certain that the plant can be positively identified, never, no matter how courageous or hungry, eat any part of a wild growing plant. Not all plants are as distinguished as dandelions, and confusing one plant with another could leave you severely constipated – at best.
Most of the edible ‘weeds’ that flourish in and around developed areas are introduced species, rather than natives of Australia such as the traditional ‘bush tucker’ plant foods consumed by Australian Aborigines. The native plants that are left to cultivate untouched, thrive in this country’s climate. Rather than trying to control these plants, why not make use of them? Understanding these so called ‘weeds’ as not only a source of food but craft material and folk medicine as well is an eye opener, to say the least.
Armed with this knowledge and freshly acquired consideration, one stands better prepared to appreciate, with full capacity, the dishes drummed up by Lachlan Peachey, a keen urban forager and the chef at Erskineville’s finest play on words – Fleetwood Macchiato.
“What I like about foraging is the gaining of knowledge; the revelation and subsequent appreciation of the small inconsequential things around us,” says Peachey. “It provides a connectedness to my place and the moment.”
Landing back in Australia after a stint travelling and working in the food industry abroad, the ‘place’ was a small café in Brunswick, Melbourne and the ‘moment’ entailed a penniless, recently retired traveller. “[The café] didn’t have any money really, so I started with picking the wild fennel that I would pass on my way to work,” tells Peachey. “I still do… fennel grows nearby [Fleetwood Macchiato], while the paperbark from the recipe is in the streets,” he adds. Wild figs, bee pollen and native purslane have also found their way onto the plate in two of Peachey’s Fleetwood Macchiato recipes concocted especially for Dish Pig.
“What I like about foraging is the gaining of knowledge… It provides a connectedness to my place and the moment”
With the growing concern surrounding the origins of food, the distance travelled and the length of time held in cold storage, foraged food promises locality and seasonality – qualities relished in today’s society. Alongside the obvious attraction of free produce, foraged food is organic, nutritious and gets bodies moving, off the couch and out into the fresh air. Hell, bring the dog but be mindful of territory marking or a yet to be foraged side salad may end up with a tart, unsavory dressing.
That said, mindfulness is key; while foraging enables connectedness with forbearers’ eating habits, today’s urban environment does not readily foster plants unadulterated by pesticides or other toxins from cars, dogs and the like. Steering clear of well-manicured parks and heading instead towards unkempt or familiar areas, such as your own backyard, are safer places to start. Among other things, being sensitive to the fact that, unlike us vertical types, wild animals do not (yet) have the convenience of the corner store and when foraging on shared turf, care should be taken to gather only what is needed.