Getting our food from the woods

Wood*Ing Lab, the playground of Valeria Mosca.

No longer a niche practice or a fad, foraging is being increasingly adopted by chefs worldwide and people are becoming more and more aware of it. The benefits? Multiple. The connection with the environment? Total. The range of flavours? Infinite.

“Foraging is the act of gathering plants or parts of plants that are suitable for human consumption in pristine locations”. This is how Valeria Mosca, soft-spoken yet self-assured, describes it as she walks through the woods surrounding her Wood*Ing Lab in Brianza, gathering leafy greens and flowers and offering them to her companions to sample.

It looks like a practice that is light years away from the routine of contemporary life, yet, until 1800, meals primarily came from the wild for 85% of people in the lower middle class. Mankind has always been gathering and it’s no wonder that “Alimurgy”, a science that studies the introduction of wild edible plants into the diet in times of drought or famine, is an ancient art. 

Foraging can be practiced anywhere: you can gather in forests, meadows, arid zones, by the sea or in the mountains.

To explain the concept in the simplest terms possible, you might say that foraging is like going grocery shopping in nature, taking advantage of the wide variety of benefits and rediscovering, in an absolutely fascinating manner, what the animal and plant kingdoms are all about, where nothing is left to chance and every living thing cooperates with others like a perfectly oiled machine. “These days we are completely disconnected from the natural environment and we don't consider it a home despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, it actually is.” 

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Put together seven experts including chemists, toxicologists, herbalists, agronomists and mixologists under the guidance of the active mind of Valeria, a forager by vocation and a scholar and a chef. That’s how you get Wood*ing Lab, a genuine laboratory principally dedicated to research, study and the cataloguing of wild edible plants (WEP) and their inclusion into the human diet. All these experts gather at Wood*Ing on a daily basis to experiment, study biodiversity and work to get the message out on environmental protection via classes, consulting and even pop activities such as WEP tastings and dinners in the farmhouse that houses their laboratory. 

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Valeria, who studied culture and heritage conservation as she worked in several kitchens in her spare time, inherited a strong passion for the wilderness from her grandmother, who sent her out gathering plants in the meadows close to her home. For her, foraging is a lifestyle. She really cares about preserving the environment and is a chef who is extremely conscious of the potential of wild products. “With food from the wild, you have to learn the right way to cook and store it”, says Valeria.  “It is food that is extremely rich organoleptically, and so it is harder to manage while cooking but the results are nothing less than exciting”, with an incredible array of products to mix and match. 

In fact, many chefs and mixologists are warming up to foraging as a way to “explore the potential of new ingredients”, rich in flavour and usable in a wide variety of ways, whether you are cooking or mixing. Admittedly, this is bringing the practice of foraging back to the fore and this is a good thing, but you can’t forage by improvising.  You have to study the plants and gather them according to criteria that respects the plant kingdom with the knowledge that for every good plant out there, there’s a poisonous one, which can be fatal if eaten. A good grounding in WEP is essential.

What changes in the kitchen when we are dealing with wild ingredients? “In fact”, says Valeria, “cooking with wild edible plants does not require a lot of effort. Here we use slow cooking, smoking or pit cooking. What’s more, we enjoy experimenting with ancient and rediscovered cooking methods, such as earth ovens, which are still in use in every part of the world, from Sardinia to Iceland. We like simple methods because wild food is more delicate than our traditional food and it’s the only way to preserve all their nutritional and organoleptic properties.

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The range of aromas and flavours found in nature are virtually limitless and every season has its special characteristics and advantages. Spring is the season for gathering leafy greens, herbs, and tree buds, which can also be eaten raw. Summer is the season for picking fruit and harvesting grains. Autumn has mosses and lichens that can be added to flour to make pasta or bread. Winter, under a blanket of snow, hides the underground part of plants, which at that time of the year are dormant, and so bulbs, roots and rhizomes are more tender, tasty and nutritious.

Rather than limitations, seasons are an amazing source of variety. However, with foraging, using fruits foraged all year long means learning how to follow micro-seasonality. “There are sudden mini-seasons for certain foods that may last only a couple of days, so you have to watch out for them meticulously and be ready to gather the product so you can then defeat the problem of seasonality by using various methods to preserve and store them. For instance, take the blossoming of Acacia tree, which produces a very delicate flower that can be damaged by sudden, heavy rainfall, or the fruit of the beech tree, beechnuts, which are very good.  Birds love them and so they disappear quickly”. This is where fermentation and drying come into the picture: this is how we ensure the availability of food all year long; what’s more, these processes enhance the food’s nutritional properties. 

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There are many ways you can ferment.  The range of processes used by Wood*Ing is wide, from lactic acid fermentation to the Japanese technique of soybean fermentation to produce miso paste. However, there is one myth needs to be dispelled: “Fermentation is not a technique that originated in Asia.  Fermenting has been going on in Italy and in Europe for millennia but it hasn’t remained in our food habits or culture. For this reason, we no longer regard fermentation as part of our culinary identity”. This is because on the continent of Europe we have increasingly embraced the homogenisation of food, thereby destroying regional food identities and therefore the regional uniqueness of some foods. “Lactic acid fermentation processes are not all the same and can change due to outdoor conditions such as temperature, humidity, air quality, among others.  A fermented food can express the essence of particular region and represent something unique”. This is a fundamental concept for Valeria, a meticulous fermentation watchperson over the products she gathers to ensure a healthy and beneficial product.

 

WEP should not frighten you; instead, they should be regarded as the ancestors of crops. They possess flavours that are similar to those of the plants we normally eat but the taste is much more intense and lasting. Eating wild foods also means rediscovering the complexity of flavour and properties that have been lost to us because they have become standardised as a result of plant selection by humans. For instance, burdock is a member of the artichoke tribe and its leaves, stalks and taproots “taste just like artichokes after a quick blanching but have a flavour that is far more intense”, say Valeria. “Pimpinella anisum, also called aniseed, tastes like cucumber but with tannic nut-like notes”. The young shoot tips of Norway spruce (Valeria’s favourite plant) have a citrus-like taste suggestive of lemons, but with the aroma of balsam. Ground elder has the same flavour as celery, and so on. There are no limits, really. WEP represent a universe of flavours and textures that is much wider than the spectrum we are familiar with.  What’s more, they are full of essential nutrients: “one lettuce leaf has 25 times less vitamin C a nettle leaf, which, moreover, contains iron and potassium”.  Even the Norway spruce has 8 times more vitamin C than cultivated lemon, which an extra hint of balsam thanks to resin”. 

So how to you decide what to put on your plate? In foraging, nothing is left to chance: “You have to gather intelligently. If a plant species presents a risk, it is not gathered. A better idea is to focus on invasive or plentiful species to help maintain the natural balance and work cooperatively with the forest”. 

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Valeria is a vegetarian but her research is not limited to the plant world: with a view to cooperating with the environment, gathering invasive animal species too is an undeniable act of harmony with nature. This is the case of Sinanodonta Woodiana, a freshwater mussel similar to the zebra mussel that ran rampant in Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, outcompeting native species, invading and damaging their habitat and depriving them of their living space. Sinanodonta Woodiana (Chinese pond mussel) is widely consumed in Asia and this is why we are investigating various possibilities of using this bivalve in cooking.

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The future for the team at Wood*Ing is considerably bright: besides the imminent move to new headquarters that are bigger and 100% environmentally sustainable, the activity never ends, world level collaboration is increasingly ambitious and more frequent, as are the projects planned for launch. Programmes to teach foraging in schools to help children rediscover their bond with nature will soon be launched as well as a project in Africa that will teach alimurgy to women to encourage them to use local products such as moringa, a plant that can provide as much protein as meat, a scarcity in Africa, for sustenance. 

The potential of foraging is therefore considerable. On the other side of the coin, if all seven billion inhabitants of the planet were to rely solely on wild edible plants, we could no longer regard the practice as sustainable. Realistically speaking, foraging is not a food supply model that can be carried out on a large scale. Nevertheless, it is still possible to practice it and enjoy its benefits while learning to include a few WEPs in our diet: Walk on the wild side, gathering in an appropriate and environmentally aware manner.

 

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