Sunday, August 3, 2014

Foraging for Edible Weeds Workshop | Sydney

If I ever become homeless in Sydney, I think I know where to forage for my food source. Did you know there are edible weeds in Sydney? We are accustomed to eating vegetables from our local supermarkets or grocery stores but how much nutritional value are we getting from them? The nutritional value of this food might be, for example, diminished during the food preparation process, leading to people consuming more than they have to, and resulting in issues associated with obesity. Did you know that peanut butter is now banned at schools given the rise of food allergies? I don't remember peanut butter or anything else being banned when I went to school. I find it incredible how our our food system and diet can affect a generation resulting in policies that society now has to make.

I got a few raised eyebrows when I told people I was going on this tour, probably demonstrating a mindset to the thought that weeds are that annoying vegetation that grows in your garden where allocation of some valuable free time is necessary on the weekends to get rid of them. But what if we can grow accustom to the thought you can actually eat them. Why would you want to do this? Why open up our minds to eating weeds or wildflower?

Diego Bonetto, a keen naturalist, took us on a two hour journey in the parks and reserves surrounding the Cooks River on the wonders of wildcrafting and harvesting for edible weeds in his ‘Foraging for Edible Weeds’ Workshop in Sydney. I attended his workshop on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago and it definitely was a mind opening, practical, and interesting experience, and at the same time relaxing and enjoyable. I learned about the species growing along the green belts in this urban parkland reserve, that there are certain types of wildflower that can be eaten and there are certainly medicinal and nutritional benefits in introducing them into your diet. It made me think twice before I spray that weed killer on my garden...I might put it in a salad with a touch of lemon and salt instead!

I'm eating lomandra - starchy and stringy in taste and texture
Bit about our guide, Diego...

Diego Bonetto, as well as being a naturalist, is a cultural worker, an artist and father. Foraging for wildflower is natural thing for Diego. Diego grew up in Northern Italy foraging for wildflowers on his family farm, where, as small boy, his mother would send him out looking for wildflowers to bring home for them to prepare and eat. Diego says that foraging for wildflowers is a common thing in Europe and even in Sydney, where parts of some European and Middle Eastern immigrant community forage for wildflowers to bring home for their homebaking. For example, don’t be surprised if your favourite ‘spanikopita’ (spinach and cheese pastry triangles) is cooked with Sydney wildflower foraged from the parklands along the Cooks River – seasonal, wholesome and delicious.

About the Foraging Tour...

Our tour started at 10am on a Saturday morning at Tempe Station, in Sydney’s South on a cold Winters morning. You can park your car at Tempe Station. I found it easy to find a spot on a weekend. If you plan to go during Winter, ensure you are rugged up and wear comfortable walking shoes. Also, ensure you have your coffee in the morning as good coffee will be hard to find there. We had a group of about 20 foragers eager to learn more on what Sydney’s Cook River has to offer. We were given Diego's little booklet, Wild Stories - a foraging guide' which came in handy along the way.

There were a number of species of edible wildflowers and weeds we learned along the way. Here are some highlights from the tour.
Our first stop was to forage for dandelions, which was essentially growing on the lush green lawn beneath where we were standing at the start of the tour. I knew little about dandelions (and if I consumed it in some shape or form in the past, I probably didn't pay attention and took it for granted). Dandelions, I learned, are the 'king of detox' and is commonly found in teas.  I learned it is effective as a diuretic because it contains high levels of potassium salts. It cleans our internals from all the starchy food we accustomed to eating in our diet. The plant leaves can also be used in salads or cooked to make omelette. A concerned participant asked "How do you know that that a dog has not pooed there?" Diego addressed this issue by saying the plant can be washed in vinegar before consuming and also noted that if you went to a farm where your vegetables are from, then you probably wouldn't eat anything! In any case, the best weeds and wildflowers to eat are those growing in your own garden as you know it is clean.

We also learned to distinguish between dandelion and flatweed. Unlike dandelion, flatweed has no lion tooth pointy fanglike leaves. Flatweeds can also be added to salads, usually the young shoots in spring, whilst in winter, it is usually cooked in soups. Flatweeds are known to relieve respiratory diseases and have been used as a remedy for chest diseases.

We stopped at a wattle tree. My earliest memory of wattle was when I was in kindergarten playing in the school grounds which hard a large brightly coloured fragrant wattle tree. I did not think at the time that this was a plant that could be eaten. Well, it's edible. The native wattle or acacia is actually an ancient bush food. Wattle seeds are popular in breads, biscuits and cakes. Wattle seed is gluten-free and so is suitable for particular diets. Wattle seed could be a useful ingredient in diabetic diets, as the carbohydrates are absorbed quite slowly, so providing energy over a long period.

We also came across a delightful weed and my favourite tasting one. When you try ‘sea blite’, your ancient food detector in your brain says “this is real food”. It’s like salty grass and the crowd favourite on tour. It's surprising sea blite hasn't been commercialised a little more.  Another one of my favourites is 'Poor Man's Pepper' which is popular amongst the Middle Eastern community with its peppery spicy taste.

There were many other interesting and educational sights and stories Diego told us along the way which made the two hours go by quickly.

Diego has also developed an online map of wild plants around Sydney and users can simply take a photo on Instagram, add the hashtag #wildfood and a team of experts will identify exactly what the plant is (and whether it’s edible). The plan is to have an interactive map that tracks the lifecycle of plants throughout the seasons. This is also to address issues that come with eating wild food - how do I know it's clean, or is it safe to eat?

Diego left us with two messages: If you are not sure what it is, leave it alone (or take a photo of it on Instagram and add the #wildfood hashtag). The second is be nice to the colony - don't take more than you have to.

There are a series of Foraging for Edible Weeds Workshop running throughout the year. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and mind opening tour. Give it a go!

For more information?
Go to:
Diego Bonetto's Instagram @theweedyone

$30 including an information booklet

Please note: The information contained in this post is general in nature and should be used as a guide only. You should consult an expert if you seek further advice on any matter relating to the plants.

Photographers from @artof2 (Instagram) on tour even giving the weeds a go.

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