Having munched their way through the blackcurrants growing in their own tiny back garden, Mr and Mrs Everybody decided to go foraging at a local Pick-your-Own. As usual, Mrs Everybody likes to relate our behaviour to our evolution.
For the last 2.5 million years human ancestors have collected plant foods, including seeds, flowers, leaves, roots, bark, algae, as well as animals and insects. Hunter-gatherers tend to feast on foods as they become ripe in the season, as well as to a limited extent collect food for preservation for the lean winter months. Since our ancestors began to use fire some 1.7 million years ago, low tech preservation techniques such as drying and smoking were undoubtedly practised. Food could also be sun dried or frozen where the climate allows, and these preservation techniques can also occur naturally as well. Berries and nuts have always remained an important winter food because they are easy to preserve and they are classed among the super foods.
For us urban dwellers, who must for the most part content ourselves with foraging in shops, 90% of the fresh berries we buy are imported, although they easily grow in the UK through the summer and autumn. While the berries in supermarkets may look remarkably fresh after their several thousand mile air journey, they may have been treated with radiation, gasses and other undeclared mystery ingredients and packaging such as MAP – modified atmosphere packaging, to retain the appearance of freshness.
Once a fruit is picked it continues to respire as it still lives. The idea is that the tasty and wholesome fruit containing the living seed is eaten by a hungry animal. The little seeds pass through the intestinal tract more or less intact. The fruit eater effectively transports the seed in their body away from the parent plant, and eventually the still living seed may have a chance to grow into a new plant elsewhere. In this respect, fruit eaters and fruiting plants have evolved a symbiotic relationship. The fruits provide nutrition and the fruit eater helps the plant to spread through the habitat.
Seeds will not germinate easily nor grow well from irradiated foods, because many of the enzymes and vitamins are destroyed. Although irradiated food looks fresh, it has the impoverished nutritional value of cooked food. By eating irradiated foods we are breaking our deal with nature and robbing ourselves of nutrition.
Plants should be eaten while they are still truly fresh and alive and while they are in season, or naturally preserved. With so much information placed on food packaging, it is still surprising that fresh produce is not labelled with something useful – such as the date it was harvested and with the post harvest treatment processes. This would allow the consumer to make sensible choices about the real freshness and authenticity of that food.
When you pick-your-own, you know that the fruit is ripe, fresh and untreated, although I have not been able to locate an organic pick-your-own around here. By picking your own berries you can save about 75% on the cost of the supermarket prices, gathering enough fruit to enjoy straight away and some to store for later use. While berries are for most of us considered a luxury, in the past they were recognised as an essential food.
We have already frozen about 5kg of red currants, blackcurrant and tayberries, giving a 100g serving for 50 days. This will provide a real boon across the darkest winter months, when fortunately the oranges will also be in season. It was easy to freeze and bag 5 kilos of fruit on the same day as we picked them.
Fitting in with our evolution, berries should be part of our minimum 5-a-day. As fresh berries are available in the UK from June to October, we will need to store a lot more for the winter – raspberries, tayberries, blackberries and field strawberries will be available through August and we will definitely fulfil our foraging needs again next month. Unfortunately my freezer is pretty full already and I don’t own a chest freezer, so we won’t be able to store all the fresh fruit we would like. As I write, millions of berries are dangling on trees waiting to be picked and eaten.
Going to do pick-you-own for the first time? First find a local pick-your-own. This website is a good starting point. Go on click it! http://www.pickyourownfarms.org.uk/
- Telephone the pick-your-own site beforehand to check what is in season, opening hours, regulations etc.
- Take your family, especially children and friends – in the past foraging was a collective activity.
- Wear sensible shoes because the ground is uneven and either old clothes, or dark clothes to prevent staining.
- At some pick-your-owns you can take your own containers, if not you will need to buy some empty punnets at the site. The containers should not be too deep or the delicate fruits will be squashed.
- While it is normally regarded as acceptable to taste one or two fruits while picking, please don’t feast in the fields. Pay for everything you pick first.
- Be prepared to process your fruit once you arrive home. Either eat the fruit straight away, or freeze it, sun dry it, or use it in recipes while the fruit is at its optimum freshness.
- Take some volcanically formed alum crystal with you. If you get bitten by an insect or scratched by thorns, wet the affected area with saliva and rub the crystal around and over the area for a minute or so to kill microbes and help the area to return to normal sooner. Click here to buy 3 alum crystals.
- Make plans to return later in the year as new produce becomes available.
- Be prepared for changes in the weather.
- Your tips for novice gatherers?