Fresh food is where you find it

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 08:35 10/04/2012
Michael Daly
FORAGERS: Michael Daly and his family, wife Llewela and two sons, Ciaran, 10, and Padraig, 7.

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"People think they're going to get poisoned and die," Michael Daly says. He is clambering up a bank to point out some banana passionfruit while he discusses the merits of gathering and cooking wild plants and weeds.

"Or else it's an image thing: `I couldn't have my neighbours seeing me out there up a bank trying to get something'," he says. "But that's not the whole idea. Besides it [being] free, it's good exercise, and it's exciting to find new things, especially things you can eat."

You probably know banana passionfruit as a weed. It's a vine that fruits this time of the year everywhere around Nelson, and drops its smooth, egg-shaped yellow prizes on to footpaths and bush tracks to rot away undisturbed.

That drives Michael Daly mad; he would rather call it dessert. He carries a knife with him everywhere he goes, and he won't leave home without a bag stuffed in his pocket. That's because he never knows when he might stumble across a wild food that's good to eat.

"Foraging starts in your own little neighbourhood, before you even go out into the countryside or park areas," he says.

Daly might be on to something here. Somehow our society has got to the point where we'll pay to pick berries, but ignore what might be growing on the side of the road on the drive to the farm.

Originally from Ireland, and still with a strong lilt, Daly has lived in New Zealand for 12 years, writing about food for magazines and working as an executive chef at major hotels around New Zealand. Fifteen months ago he left a position in Hamilton and sold his house to fund his dream: travelling New Zealand, from tip to tip in a housebus. Riding with him is his Kiwi wife Llewela, who he met on St Patrick's Day in Ireland 15 years ago, and his two sons, Ciaran, 10, and Padraig, 7.

The bus is parked outside a friend's house on Tahunanui's Rawhiti St when the Nelson Mail visits in early March. On a short walk up Tosswill Rd and down into the reserve, his youngest son scootering behind us, Daly points out a dozen items that can be picked for free.

"I can't understand why people are paying big prices at the supermarket," he says. There's nashi pears for eating or jam; flax pods with dried seeds for toasting and crushing into a marinade; nasturtium flowers and leaves for salads; tender stems of fennel; and piles of hawthorn berries to be cooked into a jam with sugar, spice and red wine (see recipe).

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"I say why can't I spread that amongst little slices of bread to make a bread and butter pudding, or why can't I mix that through an egg custard to make a flavoured custard or ice-cream, or fold it through a cake mix?" he says.

"You only take what you need. You don't say `Oh my God, there's a fig tree' and strip the whole lot."

Foraging also ensures the food is fresh, seasonal, and free of packaging and transport costs. Most of all, there's less rotting away.

As a chef, Daly hates waste. Seeing a laden plum tree or tree nuts rotting into the ground used to infuriate him. It still does.

"People could gather that stuff up and put it into buckets, or even put it at the top of their lane, so others driving past can take it home," he says indignantly. "But people just won't do it."

In short, there is good food all around us – but in our attachment to the supermarket, we've forgotten about it.

The book came about when he noticed the trend toward New Zealanders getting into gardening and organics. For Daly, the logical next step in organic produce is going looking for it yourself.

"I decided years ago [to write a book]; nobody else was doing it in New Zealand, and no-one [was] covering it in any books or magazines. But this last year, little bits have started to appear, where individual writers are starting to talk about it."

He thought he'd better get his skates on; he wanted to be the first writer to bring out a cookbook on foraging and hit the market first. Find It Eat It, which is released this weekend , is part educational field guide, introducing newbies to scavenging for wild food. It's also a cookbook, packaged with his own photographs and recipes, including spice rubs and dressings.

He's never had any ill effects from eating something he's gathered from the wild, but he acknowledges that the novice forager does have to be aware of what they're picking.

"I don't pick anything I don't really recognise and I don't eat anything I don't know about," he says. He's developed Find It Eat It's recipes using his eyes, nose, taste, and careful research of any food he didn't know: asking friends, searching the Internet and flicking through books in the library.

The book includes notes on how to find each plant, and tips on preparing nutritious food, including beach spinach, flat-leaf parsley, sage, rosemary, mint, kelp, chickweed, comfrey, dandelion, puha, plantain, nettles, kawakawa and onionweed, honeysuckle, field mushrooms, hawthorn berries, elderberries, rosehips, pine needles, chestnuts, and totara berries. Not to mention seafood.

He's tried to keep it simple, using plants that readers will find in abundance. "I didn't want to send people on a wild goose chase."

His own personal foraging is much more complex and far-ranging, but then again, he's well-practised. From a young age his grandfather would take him out searching for edibles in the wilds of Ireland. "Foraging is big where I come from. Now I can't go for a walk without looking at what's around me.

"It's the next step of self-sufficiency," he says. "Everybody likes something for free."

Find It Eat It, published by New Holland, retails for $39.99.

Contact Nelson City Council to find out about Open Orchards, a database of free foods available on public land.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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