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The scene of my domestication

The scene of my domestication

You may notice from the timing of the archives for this blog that things slowed down a little on the foraging front, at least with regard to writing about it. I’m still very much at it, but at the same time I’ve been domesticated. I came to own a home and it came with a modest piece of sand dune out the back, which a year and several tonnes of compost later is the start of a food garden. There are fruit trees, thriving beds of vegetables, chickens, a dog and a beehive ready to populate this spring. Some of my foraging has even turned a little domestic – like valuing foraged molluscs for the shell grit I can crush for the chooks as well as the meat for me, using kelp stems off the beach for dog chew toys, and scavenging free mulch and cow manure for the garden beds. The last time I foraged native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), it was to replant it my garden – and that is entirely definitive of domestication.

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

Working away in my changed circumstances, I have come to a recent realisation of how much more foraging and agriculture have in common than either of them have in common with the lifestyle of simply buying all your food. The ‘us and them’ of the standard view is of ‘us’ as modern western society arm-in-arm with agriculture as distinct from a foraging ‘them’ of either the past or the primitive. My ‘domestication’ really has been revolutionary in one sense, but in some ways it has also changed things very little. I no longer really forage greens, but grow them instead; even the edible garden weeds get a miss, although partly because right now in winter/spring it is mostly chickweed (Stellaria media) and it is such a big hit with the chooks. I’m just as inclined towards fishing and hunting; and foraged fruit retains the same appeal or maybe more – partly because my trees are all just one year or less in the ground and give me very little. The autumn harvest of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) will hopefully always be a firm fixture. When I think about, it’s really just more like old-fashioned country foodways. The growing and the foraging are part of the same package. Regardless of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, the two parties in the modern western world can be divided into those who very much want to get their hands dirty while bringing in their food and those who only really trust it wrapped in plastic in exchange for money.

I’ve previously discussed (e.g. here and here) how there is the concept of a continuum of foraging to farming along which people have shifted through history, incrementally between individuals and between generations, and not always in the same direction. Perhaps this foraging-to-farming transition thing doesn’t mean so much to you; and perhaps I make too much of it because as an archaeologist it is viewed as the process that pretty much defines the transformation to human modernity. But for someone like me for whom it is kind of a big deal, it is then also a very big deal to realise that to just end up standing there at the end of the day in your work clothes in a queue at Woolies or Coles (Walmart, Aldi, Sainsburys, depending on where you are) is to exist in a world that (as far as your personal engagement goes) has left the continuum altogether. Sure, the production of the food is still obviously on it, perhaps often at the perverse end of heavily industrialised agriculture (with battery chickens as the ultimate perversity), but the individual consumer is not. I think that I embraced foraging so as to have as much of an actual engagement with the reality of food as I could, and now grow for precisely the same reason.

Opportunism is central to the success of humanity. I now have the opportunity to grow more than I ever did before, but still I will not readily pass up the opportunity for a good forage. Nonetheless, the same intrinsically human opportunism is what puts people in the supermarket queue, finding that they are able with just a small part of the cash from their labour to bring home far more food than they could possibly eat. In that context, we foragers and growers are wasting our time – what sort of fool spends ten days to save a couple of bucks on mustard? But ‘agency’, the ability and freedom to make choices, is also central to humanity.

For me, the ideal of paid working life is not to be able to buy the things that I might otherwise forage or grow, but to buy the time and the ability to be in a place to do that foraging and growing. That is my choice, and I am sure that I spend more money on it than the equivalent cost of the food. I can’t make enough mustard to get me to New Zealand to fish for all too occasional trout, but I do paid work for that (and, importantly, I enjoy it). There is also a mortgage now; and it hurts, so one thing that I need to get out of that is a garden full of veg; not to help pay the mortgage, but to justify it. And that leads to a really key thing that I have realised about domestication and the shift from foraging to farming – whether on the scale of human history or my own small personal experience: it is not just about where the food comes from, but also what people chain themselves to in order to get it. Marshall Sahlins once described foragers as ‘the original affluent society’, referring to the fact that they might easily meet all their wants and needs, partly because those needs may be relatively few; whereas someone with infinite modern wants never can, and can therefore never be truly affluent at all. I admit that it is an unresolved logic, but still not without merit, that the desire to forage and grow your own food can somehow break the loop while living in a modern world with seemingly easy supermarket options. Taking ten days to make half a cup of mustard really may be the secret to affluence after all. I may have been domesticated, I may even have hooked up to one more chain, but I’m still not quite caged yet.

Vegie garden panorama

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

Spring flowers, broccoli among them

Spring flowers, broccoli among them

Watching a head of broccoli (Brassica oleracea) on a grocer’s shelf isn’t much of a spectator event, but watching one come slowly to fruition in your own garden is fine entertainment, the intrigue and expectation rising with each daily episode. You want it to become as big as it will get, but not to burst into actual flower. And you want to do it justice because it has been the star of a show before it even got to the kitchen.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Marigold (Tagetes sp.) and calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Marigold (Tagetes sp.) and calendula (Calendula officinalis)

And then the thinking starts about how broccoli is a flower bud, and how you have been enjoying flowers in salads of late from the calendula (Calendula officinalis), marigold (Tagetes sp.) and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) you planted as companions and the rocket (Eruca sativa) that has rocketed on all winter out the front. Capers (Capparis spinosa; more flower buds) and honey (bee-processed flower juice) could go in a fresh mayonnaise, mixed over the steamed broccoli and the whole thing strewn with petals. Deep-fried onion flowers (actual flowers, not where you cut an onion so that it looks like a bloom) come out a bit bitter and are dusted on top only very lightly. It is the last day of winter, but spring is well and truly here.

Spring flower salad starring broccoli, nasturtium, calendula, marigold, capers and nectar (honey)

Spring flower salad starring broccoli, nasturtium, calendula, marigold, capers and nectar (honey)

MolluscRules

Play by the rules, especially when you are a visitor: Bag limit of 10 paua (25 for mussels), minimum size 12.5cm

Paua (Haliotis iris)

Paua (Haliotis iris)

If there is one thing that I love as much as Australian blacklip abalone (Haliotis rubra), it is New Zealand paua (Haliotis iris). And I’ll go pretty close to the ends of the earth to get it. Southland to be precise; the remote south coast of remote New Zealand’s remote South Island, or even the more remote Stewart Island that hangs off the bottom of that. If you do happen to get there and find someone else holidaying in Southland, as often as not they will be a Southlander themselves. It is that kind of wonderful place with wonderful people where there are plenty of reasons either not to leave or to make an effort to get back if you do. As long as you are of the opinion that paradise can be often cold and wet, then this is it.

Cosy Nook on Southland’s south coast – supposedly not actually a great paua spot any more, but a beautiful place that can easily be on the way to one

Cosy Nook on Southland’s south coast – supposedly not actually a great paua spot any more, but a beautiful place that can easily be on the way to one

Where this place is and whether I got paua there is something I really couldn’t say

Where this place is and whether I got paua there is something I really couldn’t say

If you really time it right and get lucky, you might even get some paua without getting too wet, but this means getting to the right spot in the short window of the bottom of the lowest tide of the month as far as I can work out. If you strike out, there is at least always a pretty good chance of some lovely greenlip mussels (Perna canaliculus) for consolation. Off Southland, you will be doing well to get clear enough water for good snorkelling visibility, so it seems to me that you still want the bottom of the tide for that and to find a sheltered spot in shallow water on any typically murky day and just fumble about as best as you can. A sure haul of big ones would probably want you in some more challenging water and ideal conditions, but in the end you just have to make do with what you get.

Groping around in the low tide might make finding paua difficult, but mussels are a likely consolation

Groping around in the low tide might make finding paua difficult, but mussels are a likely consolation

greenlip mussels (Perna canaliculus)

greenlip mussels (Perna canaliculus)

Get yourself across the Foveaux Strait from the south coast to Stewart Island (Rakiura) on the other hand, hire a kayak for a few nights out in some of the huts around Paterson Inlet, take a decent wetsuit and your mask and snorkel and things certainly get easier. They don’t get warmer mind you, and it still rains on more days than it doesn’t, so you just gear up and embrace it as ‘part of the charm’.

I have to say that I hate those recommendations of ‘things that you should do before you die’, like paraglide naked in the moonlight with whale sharks in Lappland. But still, if eating fresh paua (or any seafood you took part in landing) at the bottom of New Zealand turns out to be one of them, you are sure to be glad of it.

Troll with a lure while you’re at it and you may get a barracouta (Thyrsites atun) – not a popular local delicacy, but can be bait for the blue cod (Parapercis colias) that is

Troll with a lure while you’re at it and you may get a barracouta (Thyrsites atun) – not a popular local delicacy, but can be bait for the blue cod (Parapercis colias) that is

While swimming is decidedly chilly around Stewart Island, there is a good chance that you will be cold and wet above the water anyway

While swimming is decidedly chilly around Stewart Island, there is a good chance that you will be cold and wet above the water anyway

Snorkelling alongside a kayak buddy helps you be a little bolder and gives you somewhere to stash the catch

Snorkelling alongside a kayak buddy helps you be a little bolder and gives you somewhere to stash the catch

Cook them as you would other abalone, sliced and tenderised in my view, sautéed hot and fast in butter (see here). Generous serves in a sandwich of that cheap soft white bread you mightn’t let your kids eat, particularly when camping, can be perfect (and $10 filling on 10c bread is somehow strangely and ironically decadent).

PauaFeet

If patience was indeed a virtue, a great many more fishermen and women would be saints. And if persistence was instead the virtue, almost all of those who keep on fishing through most of their lives would be candidates. Because that is what fishing so often seems to call upon. I know one bloke who heads out to catch live bait in the afternoon to fish dusk in one place, the turn of the tide in the night at another and has been known to catch a few z’s on the floor of the dinghy before trying another tide change or dawn, only to go home empty handed. When many, including me, might have been more inclined to take the squid from the bait catch home for a meal at a decent hour, he is after Sydney Harbour’s game fish and only its game fish – kingies (Seriola lalandi) in the day and jewies (Argyrosomus japonicus) in the night. For others, the persistence is a fierce refusal to be beaten by a particular fishing spot or method; returning again and again because they know that sooner or later the fish will be ‘on the chew’. For me, it is trout along the shores of the outlet of New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka where the Clutha River begins.

No fish

Not catching fish, but with a wonderful view on Lake Wanka

As a younger man, going back some 20 years, I did well there. ‘Tassie devil’ lures were the go at the time. Later, there was a decent run of hooking up on diving hard bodied lures with rattles in them. Soft plastics were also tried, but despite being the rage of modern fishing, they are a recurrent disappointment for me. In fact, for three years running, everything was. The closest I came to a feed was a rabbit that the car got the better of on the way home one evening

But I persisted. I recognised that a lot of the time I was fishing with the sun too high because with a kid, twilight was an increasingly difficult time to get out fishing. Or that I was I running lures too high in the water because they cost too much money to risk busting (another one) off on the lake floor. And I knew that I had started to often fish… perhaps ‘ambiently’ is the word, just casting and retrieving mechanically with the consoling pleasure of simply being there, perhaps on my own, perhaps with the boy along for the outing, a play and a splash. The place I am talking about objectively presents a scene that anyone would call beautiful, but which for me has somehow become some sublime treasure as one of the key touchstones of the Kiwi part of me (an Australian for the most part).

HaweaFishing

Still not catching fish, but still with a wonderful view on nearby Lake Hawea

But as far as the actual core purpose of the activity goes – trout (or land-locked Quinnat salmon as an outside chance) – nothing. For close to three consecutive annual trips. And then finally, this year, one long skinny jack-jawed old male brown trout (Salmo trutta). I was, quite simply, utterly joyous with my prize. If you had asked me, when that fish was securely on shore, if I was content to simply fish for the sake of wetting a line in paradise, I would have laughed disdainfully in your face. When push comes to shove, there is inevitably one core and utterly dominant reason why I fish, and that is to catch fish and eat it. If you had come to me with an insistence that I put it back because you have bought into the cruel perversity of catch-and-release, it would more likely have been you taking a swim (seriously, if you want them to remain in the water instead of a pan, then put don’t give them a hook in the face to start with). There was nobody there to see me walk back to the car that evening, nobody to see a two metre man feeling like a three metre one walking with a two foot fish feeling like a three foot one.

BrownTrout

Brown trout (Salmo trutta)

For all that this fish was destined for the plate and completely guaranteed a welcome reception when it got there, a big old seemingly half-spent male is still not the ideal animal for it. But thankfully, there is possibly nothing wrong with any of the salmonid fish that a hot smoker can’t fix. A mix of manuka and apple wood sawdust, 30 mins in the hot smoker (one full load in the methylated spirits burners that drive it all plus some time finishing as the box cools down), some decadently expensive horseradish cream and some crackers, and it was all worth it. Perhaps as many as twenty outings (albeit some very cursory) over three years, more than $300 in fishing licences, maybe $200 in gear and a great deal of salivating expectancy; all down to what was essentially a pretty simple feed. And all of it worth it.

BrownTroutSmoker

SmokedBrownTrout

Hot smoked brown trout with horseradish cream and capers

Goat river dawn

This is a place where dawn arrives and is utterly insistent upon you knowing how beautiful it is. But still it is goat (Capra hirca) country; which is to say that it is rough back country with soil poor enough for profitable farming to have given up on it. It is a quiet pocket of rural New South Wales, all scantly managed marginal grazing land or bush blocks either resided upon by lovers of a simple life or occasionally visited by city owners. High on a hill behind our riverside camp site, a friend of a brother of a friend has given us the nod. We are free to roam his wonderful slice of nowhere, free to hunt his land.

Goat river panorama

Although this land is more accustomed to a cloak of ragged dry brown, after decent autumn rains, it is wearing splashes of lush green with remarkable ease. This may mean that goats can feed well all over the mountainsides and eschew the necessity of the river where we are taking our walk, but it is so spectacular a route that we stick to it as first choice, leaving traipsing steep hillsides and gullies as a last resort. As it turned out, the hunt got down to business only once. With only one rifle between us, there is only one shooter, behind whom I was trailing by some 50 metres to be neither seen nor heard by his quarry. I got the signal that a mob had been seen, sat down and covered my ears. When the bang is as loud as it is from our .243 rifle, I even cover the deaf ear. The noise, unsettling as it is still is to me, is bizarrely comforting, because it is the power that makes sure that kills are as quick and certain as we can make them.

Goat hunting country

Way up a hillside, a young billy lay down with a heart shot. We retrieved, bled, gutted and hung him over a stick for ease of carrying, and then with little fanfare we retraced our spectacular walk along the river with our prize. Along the way, the rifle was dropped, damaged, and that was that, hunt over, but successful.

Goat toting

It is on the one hand very satisfying to be returning successfully from a hunt, but there is still a sombreness in the weight of a load comprised entirely of dead animal. As a relatively infrequent hunter who is essentially a (fish-eating) vegetarian except for my own meat from occasions like these, I sometimes think that I may be softer in this regard than most. But then I think that I am probably wrong when I find that my meat-loving companions observe the kill with no less respect. There we are, three men from the city who all happily and frequently leave the concrete and wires behind to go bush, completely affirmed with one of many reasons why. Walking up a river in the middle of nowhere, armed and toting a fresh carcass, we are not alien townies out of our comfort zone and out of our depth. We are just three men. Perhaps you never really love where you are and what you are doing until it is imbued with this sort of meaning; that is both flatteningly simple and at the same time loaded with much of the moral complexity of life. There is no whooping and punching the air to proclaim the kill, but neither are their regrets or pangs of guilt. This, to me, is where meat comes from, with all responsibility taken personally for the fact that the ingredients label reads ‘100% dead animal’. Not from a supermarket, but from the middle of nowhere.

Goat hunters' curry

With a quality bag of curry mix (not available in big supermarkets – go to an Indian one and tell them it is for goat), the off cuts from breaking the carcass down to freezer-ready portions become a wonderful take on the traditional camp oven hunter’s stew

 

Urtica incisa, the Australian 'scrub nettle'

Urtica incisa, the Australian ‘scrub nettle’

My first nettle (Urtica spp.) recipe, made in England and taking on the traditions there, was a potato and nettle potage (either a stewy soup or soupy stew in my understanding). Back in Australia, where Greek and other Mediterranean food is more embedded in the culture, the next was cheese and nettle pastries. Along the way, I have chucked it in fairly indiscriminately as a ‘spinach substitute’ (although I use ‘substitutes’ so much more often than spinach, it is not a very fair term).

More recently it has been nettle tea. The flavour is mild and mixes in easily with whatever concoction I have on the go (currently lemon myrtle, ginger, strawberry leaf, fennel and lemon grass). Health claims (some proven) abound, none seem to be contraindicated by any issue or medication of mine, and so I figure that small doses in mixed tea are going to beneficial (but check for yourself, especially if you are going to consume a lot and are on blood sugar, blood pressure, blood thinning or psych drugs).

Out my way we have an Australian native ‘scrub nettle’ (Urtica incisa), although the European introductions of Urtica dioica (large leaf) and Urtica urens (small leaf) are also about.

You can sometimes get by picking nettles without gloves – but never without some regret

You can sometimes get by picking nettles without gloves – but never without some regret

Gloves are highly recommended, either leather work gloves or rubber dishwashing gloves being my preferred protection when picking. Sometimes I don’t fuss much about a few stings and other times they annoy me; picking nettles is like managing boundary-pushing naughty kids – it can bring out patient benevolence and suffering with a smile, or a lip-bitingly restrained frustration, depending on how it catches you. And so with the same analogy, you don’t want to approach it by sizing up the enemy, but with a well thought out engagement with something that may try you but which you actually love.

Once picked, the leaves and stems begin to wilt and with that the stinging hairs largely wilt too – after a day or so they can be dealt with in bare hands, giving just a few dull stings to the fingertips that feel somehow more numbing than painful. Nettles are commonly host to a fair few bugs hiding among the stinging protection, so it is useful to give them a chance to abandon the wilting pile while you are at it. Tie them in bunches, give them a rinse and hang them somewhere breezy, then come back to pluck leaves (the child-rearing analogy ended with last paragraph by the way – just so we’re clear). You then have something for dinner, for steaming and freezing (ice cube trays are handy for setting aside little doses that can go in anything taking cooked greens) or for the dehydrator. Once dried, I don’t suppose it matters whether it ends up in tea or food (or a hair rinse for that matter).

In more temperate parts of the world, nettles are often a spring thing, but with our native version, it seem that like many plants, the flush of new growth normally associated with spring can come any time after solid rains. This makes them just as likely to be an autumn or winter harvest in the areas that I go after them.

Drying scrub nettle leaves

Drying scrub nettle leaves

I think that nettles are one of those forages where neophobia can quite reasonably make for a limited and tentative start – these are leaves that you won’t touch after all, and so might not easily take to eating. But when you wrap your head around the idea that the stings are a defence behind which they don’t then have an added deterrent of inedibility (or unpalatibility), you may, like me, become quite fond of them as a vegetable or tea. After all, there aren’t too many plants that can do both (while also cutting it as allergy medication, dandruff shampoo and enough other things to get someone to settle someone down to write a book of 101 uses).

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

There is an idea among some mushroom foragers that one should not take the smaller specimens because they will be bigger for the next person. But what if there isn’t likely to be a next person in your ‘secret’ deep corner of the forest? And if there is no rain on the way and they won’t be getting much bigger anyway? With these justifications added to few options other than going home empty handed, I came home recently with a modest haul of button versions of saffron milk cap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

Harvested button saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciousus)

Harvested button saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus)

Where I went wrong to start with was assuming that heavy coastal rain in the week before would have carried through more than it did to my inland destination of Belanglo State Forest (the right information was just the internet away and I didn’t check). Instead, they had had light showers that hadn’t soaked in enough to prompt much of a fruiting frenzy among the fungal mycelia in the soil and pine roots below.

It was a good learning experience though, and here is the tip from it – drainage lines and south and east facing gentle slopes where moisture holds better for the forming fungal fruiting bodies will still yield a few when only minimal rain has been through; and fire trail verges where drains get carved by graders into the forest edges achieve the same effect of concentrating limited water and bringing forth some mushrooms. Truth be told, there was one more option of getting out and covering far more forest that I did, but my fellow forager wasn’t quite up for that – largely on account of being three years old.

Button milk caps transport well - you can't stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

Button milk caps transport well – you can’t stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

The end result is that I would definitely back the harvesting of small saffron milk caps during drier times or when rainfall has been only quite recent. While I suspect an Iron Chef jury would, I can’t stand up and say the flavour was that different, but my feeling is that the win for buttons would really be on texture and being able to integrate better with other ingredients as a tight package that shows off the colour and exoticness of the saffron while being able to be enjoyed separately but not as the exclusive focus of the dish (they are good enough to do it, but not good enough to warrant it every time). Other thoughts:

  • They don’t get huge anyway when it is dry; the few that were giving fruiting a go weren’t getting much over 10cm diameter (compared with >20cm in good wet conditions) without being hard, dry, insect-chomped and no good for the basket anyway;
  • As buttons, saffron milk caps store and keep a lot better than as big open caps. These are mushrooms that bruise easily to an unappealing green, and while the gills are still a little tucked under, they will refrigerate well and unblemished for twice the time (maybe 6 days instead of 3 at good quality, more as simply edible); while they freeze (once slightly cooked) and dehydrate well enough, fresh remains best;
  • You don’t actually gain as much weight with cap diameter as you would think – a 5cm dense little saffron milk cap is not far off the same amount of mushroom as a 10cm one, just with more consumer-friendly packaging (probably why buttons and larger flat commercial mushrooms are often similarly priced despite being the same fungus).

We remain blessed in Sydney to have an under-appreciated mushroom bonanza every autumn an hour or two from town; such that it is more a function of rainfall than foraging pressure that determines our chances of success. Perhaps when the crowds catch on, picking buttons might be rude, but for now, it is a delicacy that the resource can bear and that foragers can freely savour.

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

Note: This was written a couple of weeks ago; if you go the forests over a week following big autumn rains it would be a very different (and better) story in terms of getting big mushrooms (and probably more slippery jacks (Suillus luteus). As it happens, that means right now!

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