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Release peace: the magazine

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The Lost Art of Food Foraging

Article by: Winnie Axworthy

The Astonishing and Little Known History of Foraging

It all started in 1241. It was the year of the Code of Jutland (Danish: Jyske Lov). This civil code was enacted by King Valdemar II of Denmark and became the law of the land on the peninsula of Jutland, the island of Fyn, and parts of what is today Northern Germany. Astonishingly, the legal code still applies today and while it contains a plethora of provisions, one of the quirkiest and most applicable ones for the purpose of this article is its granting of permission to anyone to forage as much as they can “fit inside a hat”. Let us delve into how to interpret this in the 21st century and the concept of foraging ‘the Danish way’.

Responsible Foraging

In today’s life, the provision in the Jyske Lov is interpreted as foraging an amount that can be carried in a small bag, though Danish authorities are known to interpret this very generously, just like their neighbours in the North and East. Still, this limitation on foraging is meant to encourage responsible foraging practices. Before exploring some fascinating local wild plants and recipes it is therefore essential to brush up on the best practices of foraging: The forager should not damage or interfere with the lifecycle of the plant, so it can continue to reproduce and sustain itself. One should also not pick the last remaining plants of a kind. There can be a surprising variety in the abundance or scarcity of a plant species. Some, such as nettles, thrive generously and can be picked as needed, yet others grow in a more scattered pattern and may not be as plentiful. Crucially, the natural environment should be respected by, for instance, ensuring that animal habitats are never destroyed as a consequence of foraging activities. Perhaps most importantly for one’s personal health is to be informed about which plants are edible and which might be poisonous.

Fun(gi) Foraging

In Denmark’s Lillebælt Nature Park, budding foragers can follow trails specifically designed for finding wild food. Of help can be an especially developed app named Vild Mad (‘Wild Food’), which provides a guide to Lillebælt’s edible plants and fungi. It includes seasonal tips and recipes, such as on mushrooms and other nutritious foods, as well as when they are in season in Denmark and how to identify them when foraging.  It even provides a range of recipes, from a simple mushroom toast called “smørstegt svampebrød” to seasonal berry marmalade and the more complex chanterelles with South Jutlandic Lardo. Many plants listed on Vild Mad are well-known but might usually not be considered part of most people’s dinner plates. One such example is the app’s suggestion for a salsa verde that is made from nettles.

Sealife: Cumbersome Crustaceans

Along the Danish coastline, winter is the time when many hard-shelled creatures can be found lurking in shallow waters. Lillebælt’s coast runs east of the main Jutland peninsula of Denmark and is home to a wide variety of sea life. But one species of crab is causing problems in the area as its population has grown beyond sustainable levels. In recent years, the beach crab population has begun rising exponentially, negatively impacting the coastline’s fragile ecosystem. In a twist of fate, these crabs taste delicious, and in truly pragmatic Danish fashion, the public is being encouraged to catch and consume them. Local authorities have gone so far as to provide a simple recipe for crab soup, making it easy to catch and cook crabs free of charge. The recipe is part of a programme called “Smag på Lillebælt” or “The Taste of Little Belt”. The concept encourages residents and visitors alike to experience the nature park through the foods that are produced locally, not least wild food that can be found in the area. Beach crabs can be caught easily, such as with a string, a clothespin and a piece of sausage. One can even wade in the water and set up a small net.

Backyard Berries

Berries are amongst the most common fruits for foragers to endeavour on picking. While blueberries, strawberries or raspberries enjoy great popularity, few may have heard of the humble rosehip. These red berries grow on bushes common as decorative garden plants. They should not be consumed straight from the bush, but they can be made into jam and tea. The jam, for instance, can be simply created by following a cycle of boiling, blending and straining the berries. Vild Mad has a foraging guide for every month of the year, which provides information on common berries, mushrooms, and other edible plants, as well as recipes and tips for the identification of plants.

Easy Homemade Gin

In Denmark, various foraged plants can be used to distil flavoured gin or aquavit. Sloes are used for this process, as they are in other countries, as well as sea buckthorn, blackberries and even oak and beech shoots. This allows for a virtually limitless number of flavours that can be derived. The snaps can even be tailored to one’s individual taste preferences by taking a berry or other fruit of choice, washing them and cutting slits in them. They then need to be covered with alcohol such as gin or vodka. Sugar can also be added to create a drink that is more akin to liqueur. The concoction must be left sitting for a couple of months, then sieved to remove the fruit, and then ideally left to develop for another month.

A Long and Healthy Tradition

Few activities are as environmentally sustainable and healthy for the human body as exploring the wild, combined with consuming food directly from the source. And while it is not known whether King Valdemar II was an ardent forager himself you can still follow in the footsteps of history when embarking on this centuries-old Danish tradition.

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