Wild about weeds!
By Alec Smart
2042 magazine caught up with Diego Bonetto, expert local forager, who hosts workshops on the gathering and use of wild flora and funghi growing in our neighbourhood.
Interest in ‘wild foods’ is on the rise. TV cookery programs increasingly feature recipes that combine plants and mushrooms collected from fields and forests. There has also been a revival of centuries-old Indigenous methods of food gathering and preparation - aka ‘bush tucker’ - long overlooked.
‘Wild food’ is defined as anything edible that has had no management to increase its production. But plants and funghi gathered from nature are not just great for cuisine, many have important medicinal qualities.
Local forager Diego Bonetto explains his motivation and methodology for picking useful weeds. Diego grew up in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, where wild-gathered foods include sweet fruits, peppery leaves and tasty mushrooms.
* It must have been challenging learning about wild foods in Australia - where fruits tend to be bitter, leaves are tougher to cope with the harsher sun, and many mushrooms are poisonous?
Australia is host to an incredible variety of plants and mushrooms. We have indigenous flora and fungi but also vast amounts of exotic species. There are very distinct genera unique to Australia, but it is also common to find indigenous species that are a version of exotics’ relatives (nettle, ramble, sow thistle, plantain, dock, etc) with similar properties and at times interbreeding.
What it means is that if you have an understanding of plant identification, the skills are transferrable… Yes, there are tough, unpalatable and poisonous plants and mushrooms, but that is true everywhere… I love it and found plenty of yummy fruits, exceptional greens and tasty mushrooms, just need to know what to look for.
* Are edible ‘weeds’ best appreciated with a salad dressing or combined with meat or dairy products?
Edible wild plants are best appreciated in small amounts, as part of a complex diet. If it is a new ingredient for you, have a little at first, so to get used to the taste… I enjoy some wild edibles fresh in salads, others I boil them first, and others I use them in ferments, or pickles, or dry in soups. Some weeds high in oxalic acids (wood sorrel, dock, amaranth, purslane) are best eaten with dairy.
* In the Callan Park and Cooks River native landscapes you identify 20 species of edible flora. Are these more for salads or have they other uses?
Neither Callan Park nor the Cooks River greenways are ‘native landscapes’, but a cacophony of plantings, urban landscaping, garden escapees and remnant vegetation. The plants we talk about are many and depending on the season, they can be used for salads, preserves, ferments or craft.
* What are some of the medicinal qualities of Australia’s wild plants?
There are many, as our medicines are mostly plant-derived. There are plants excellent for digestion (wild fennel, dandelion, mugwort), there are plants great for skin salves (chickweed, plantain, dock), there are plants that would help with cough and sore respiratory system (mallow, horehound), and so much more.
* You provide a 'Wild Stories Foraging Guide' booklet for people who participate in your workshops, have you any plans to publish an illustrated book?
Yes, coming up early next year, it will be called Eat Weeds, with illustrations by Mirra Whale, photographs by Hellene Algie and recipes from Marnee Fox, Joseph Astorga and more. Keep an eye out.
* How are you having to adapt to the current Covid-19 crisis with your foraging workshops?
I busy myself with online content. I write on my blog plant features, propose free home-schooling projects (every Monday, 10 am, on my Instagram @theweedyone), and I am about to launch an online foraging course. However, as soon as the restrictions relax I’m out in the fields. My workshops are for a limited number of people and outdoor. This allows for plenty of social distancing while providing a learning experience in nature
* Your website says you “collaborate extensively with chefs, herbalists, environmentalists and cultural workers promoting new understanding of what the environment has to offer.” Which of the collaborations that you’ve been involved in have you most enjoyed, and why?
I love working with chefs and mixologists extrapolating flavours and possibilities. As I often say, I teach people what is edible, but when a professional cooks it, everyone loves it and agrees.
I love working with councils and institutions, as they create an important platform that allows for learning and experiencing.
I love to work with environmentalists, bush regenerators and ecologists, as together we build resilience, look after fragile ecosystems and build care for resources.
I love working with aboriginal elders, as there are old stories dispersed in this land, everywhere, in everything. All species are affected and become part of it, including us migrants. The sooner we realize that we are part of the stories, the faster we understand how to pay respect to nature and its doings.
* Anything you wish to add?
I teach foraging skills because it gives people motivation to learn about what grows around them. By providing possible benefits, people are enticed to get to know the plant names, their identification features, cycles and properties. This process empowers people and facilitates empathy. We learn to care for the land because we have a direct benefit from it. And that is good. I teach about foraging because people can then learn how to care for their surroundings.