Sunday, 16 January 2011

Wild about free food

Robin Harford's plateful of "lovely, scrummy new wild edible plants"

With the New Year's arrival it's good to feel that Spring is on the way at last. And it's not just the snowdrops and aconites that'll tell us the garden is coming back to life. Grocery bills will be cut as the new season's fresh fruit and vegetables find their way into the shops.

However those who like their food not just fresh but free will know that Nature's larder also opens up at this time of the year.

This part of the country is a popular place for many food foragers. One of the best-known in the area is Robin Harford, based in the tiny hamlet of Northmostown between Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. He is the publisher of the 'Free Wild Food Collection' and webmaster of EatWeeds: The Forager's Wild Food Guide to Edible Plants of Great Britain

A teacher at the Eden Project he has organised culinary events at Otterton Mill and the Dorset Food Festival. He's been featured in the Guardian and in the BBC's Good Food magazine and BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme.

Robin Harford's wild food courses for this year are listed at

Food forager Robin Harford at work

Recently he was boasting on his website about how friends were struggling to find enough stuff to fill their salad bags in their organic market garden. "After all 2010 has been the coldest winter in a hundred years!" he writes. "Not so for the hedgerow salad bags I gather, which are over brimming with lovely, scrummy new wild edible plant growth."

Last year's Wild Food Day on 25 September 2010 saw Otterton-based Chris Holland, founder of Wholeland , teaching people to discover edible plants and traditional folk remedies. The event ended with a lunchtime cook-out of gathered fruit, leaves and roots on the beach at Branscombe.

For many food foragers living off the land is an essential part of the art of survival, and few people in East Devon know more about that than the instructors at the Commando Training Centre (CTCRM) in Lympstone, the principal military training centre for Royal Marines situated a few miles to the north of Budleigh Salterton.

More than 50 years ago one of the pioneers of food foraging who settled in East Devon was instructing commandos in the art of survival in the wild.

George Murray Levick, a naval doctor and Antarctic explorer who took part in Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition of 1910-1913 to the South Pole survived six months of appalling conditions sheltering in an ice-cave. He and his five companions in the Northern Party of the Scott expedition were trapped by the Antarctic winter.

George Murray Levick (1877–1956), British Antarctic explorer, member of Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913, the Terra Nova Expedition, skinning a penguin on board the Terra Nova, 1910

Levick's reputation as an expert in survival in hostile environments was such that at outbreak of World War Two he was asked by the Government to instruct commandos in the art of survival. In Antarctica he had tried the experiment of living for a week on seal meat and nothing else. The notes that he now made in wartime formed the basis of a memorandum published by the Naval Intelligence Division "for the use of agents and escapees who may find themselves at large on the Continent without food."

Commander Levick's notes on edible wild plants were published by the Admiralty during World War Two

The document, entitled Living off the Land, stressed the need for a radical approach in order to survive. "Men should be impressed with the importance of forgetting old prejudices when they are faced with the necessity of eating anything they can get hold of," was the advice regarding animal foods, including rats and mice, all birds, frogs, snails, dogs and cats, grass snakes, lizards, hedgehogs, eels and horse meat.

The issue of wild vegetables is presented as "a more serious subject" because of the importance of recognising the chief edible plants as opposed to those in which "food material is enclosed in cellulose, which our digestion cannot dissolve." Detailed advice follows on the methods of preparing stinging nettles, clover, bracken fern, sow thistle, dandelion, arrowhead, mushrooms, corn, hips and haws, and - surprisingly - yew berries, described as "wholesome food" although the foliage is recognised as poisonous, and the seeds within the berries are in fact extremely toxic.

Murray Levick's contribution to the art of survival and living off the land will be one of the features of this year's exhibition at Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton The exhibition will run from Sunday 10 April until October.

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