Wednesday, 10 September 2008
For millions of years all food was wild, gathered from under trees, off leaves and out of streams, and even after people began to slowly shift to farming they gathered the edibles around them.
Nettles are not only one of the most common plants in Ireland, they are extremely nutritious – high in protein, iron and vitamins. It is versatile, and can be made into a cooked green, soup, tea, pudding, put into pancakes or scrambled eggs, even home-made beer. For those who have never tried them, they have a slight fishy flavour from their high levels of iodine, and go well with seafood.
Nettles are best as shoots picked in spring, but I am not picky, and will eat them even in summer, picking them from the field next door and making them into soup for lunch at my office the next day.
Dandelions are also nutritious, and in Europe are grown as salad. Gardeners often wrap the leaves together in a cloth, which blanches out the colour and eases the bitterness.
When you see an Irish field in summer, it will often be covered in purple clovers, yellow cowslips and white daisies – all flowers that can be eaten raw as salad greens. (If you want to try any of these, do make sure you know what they look like, to know that yellow flower is an edible cowslip and not a poisonous buttercup.)
Cowslips can also be made into wine, as can elderflowers – we have bottles of both on our shelves. In fact, many plants can be made into wine or beer with the addition of water, sugar and yeast – fermenting roots like parsnips made the original “root beer.”
There are many more local plants that I have read about but not yet tried – goosefoot is ubiquitous around here, for example, but everyone assures me its taste relegates it to the “desperate” category.
Many nut trees grow in Ireland -- hazel, chestnuts, beech and walnuts. Acorns can be made edible by leaching them for a day or two in water – either a running stream or water that is changed twice a day.
Most older people here seem to possess such knowledge, and perhaps every Druid and Neanderthal before them. Now such resources are almost forgotten, and would go unused even in a crisis unless we retain and spread the knowledge.
Of course, our nation does not rise and fall with nettles, but this is one of thousands of skills we have lost. And while somebody, somewhere has scientific knowledge Druids and Neanderthals could not imagine – say, to build wind turbines or solar panels – how many of us have this knowledge, or even a rudimentary grasp of science?
Famines might seem distant tragedies to us right now, with supermarkets around every corner, and let’s hope it stays that way. But I also live on a lush island teeming with food and surrounded by fishing waters, that saw the most famous famine in history. If such times ever come again, we will need to see, not just boarded-up stores, but the metric tonnes of food all around us.
(Upper photo: Beara, Cork. Lower photo: our land at Killina)