Our Feast! exhibition at Stonehenge reveals what the Neolithic people who built the monument ate, and where their food came from. In this blog post, Jessica Seaton looks at how we can reconnect with the places where we live by foraging, just as our prehistoric ancestors did, and gives some tips for beginners.
We are losing our sense of place by the food choices we’re making. Now I think I know why, and I wish I didn’t.
The light dawned as I listened to English Heritage historian Susan Greaney – curator of the Feast exhibition – explain the fascinating science of pinpointing where in the British Isles the pigs and cows eaten by Neolithic feasters had lived. She went on to say that – because we now drink water from France and eat bananas from Costa Rica – the same will not be true of us, should our bones be analysed by archaeologists in the future. We are no longer ‘hefted’, as a Cumbrian sheep is to its fell – given a sense of belonging passed from ewe to lamb, generation on generation, that bonds it to place without need of fences. Is our rootless life affecting the make-up of our very bones?
And if this is true, does it matter? Looking around the Stonehenge visitor café where Susan and I were talking, I wondered about the food we eat now, and how it contributes to our sense of place.
Then I remembered a striking sight I had seen earlier: a young woman in a long white woollen cape worn over a cloud-grey net dress, its frayed hem dusted by stains of earth. This woman, and many others like her, journey each day to Stonehenge to breathe in our past or to take part in ceremonies. Enough evidence for me that we still need a sense of place, however we find it.
The prehistoric men and women of Stonehenge would be indistinguishable from us if we met them in the street. They were about our height, but much stronger. In their fine-boned heads smiled two rows of straight, white teeth well used to eating fresh, crunchy food. They’d easily recognise a Sunday roast, but be puzzled by a firmly wrapped ‘Paleo’ bar of fruit and nuts – until they opened the wrapper that is, and found inside a modern version of their own ‘berry patty’. Was the small lump of berry and apple paste found in the excavations at Durrington Walls a very early form of Native American pemmican, a high energy mix of animal fat and berries – a prehistoric energy bar?
Although plant remains are rare survivors at prehistoric sites, the tiny clues of burnt nuts, preserved pollen and food residues in pots suggest they would have been expert and confident foragers, as well as farmers.
Could foraging be a way that we can feed our need to reconnect with place and with the habits of earlier peoples – if only for an hour, or an afternoon?
I think it is. Reserve a little time, find a good foraging book and a plant field guide, dust off your muddy boots and take your willing heart out into whatever natural land is near you. You’ll be rewarded by exercise, fresh air, free foodstuffs packed with satisfying minerals and vitamins, and a glowing sense of liberation. If you feel nervous, don’t be. Start with easy and rewarding plants and build from there. Remember, there are 350 or so edible plants in the United Kingdom and fewer than 20 very poisonous ones. (That’s good odds, but don’t take risks – have a good guide to hand.)
The foraging year starts for me in February with the first nettle tips pushing through the cold damp earth. Glorious nettles! They’re usually remembered for childhood stings, but nettles are a fine, delicate vegetable – tasting a little like spinach, and full of iron – when the sting is safely cooked away. The people of Stonehenge spun nettle stalks into cloth (a tradition that continued even into wartime Britain) and most likely ate them too. To avoid any hint of stringiness, pluck the delicate leaves from the tip of the plant in early spring. Sweat them down to make a rich, savoury soup or use them fresh instead of basil to make a herbaceous pesto.
Next on my list of easy-to-identify delicious plants is wild garlic, or ramsons. Years ago we had a young goat called Ramsons. She was a cheekily difficult animal, who avoided our attempts to catch her each evening by positioning herself on the other side of a deep, flowing stream.
You’ll find wild green ramsons, like our naughty little goat, alongside streams and in damp places all over Britain, especially in the west. The tender spear-shaped leaves make a stunning, lusty green pesto with soft sweet chestnuts, walnuts or hazelnuts. Make a batch big enough to last a week or so and keep it in a jar in the fridge, a slick of olive oil on the top for best keeping.
For a delicate spring salad, wild leaves are best picked fresh. A trip to a lane or hedgerow can yield a quickly gathered colander-full. Hedge garlic, wall pennywort, wild sorrel or dandelions are easily identified and will add life to shop-bought salad (which may suffer by comparison). If you live near the south or west coast you may have noticed towering stands of pale green Alexanders growing by roadsides. Peeled and steamed, the stems and leaves are a ravishing accompaniment to Easter lamb. They have a mesmerising, myrrh-like flavour that chimes with the sweetness of the roast meat.
But Stonehenge men and women might have preferred the barrowloads of pork they feasted on with crab apple sauce or a berry compote. The straggly, two-harvest elder bushes grow in forgotten places all over the country. Nowadays we can make elderflower cordial from the lacy flowers, then wine, jelly or vinegar from the deep burgundy berries. As long as those plump pigeons don’t get there first.
And it’d be foolish to forget blackberries. For millennia we’ve been staining our fingers with juice and pressing our bodies against springy banks of bramble to reach a scratched forearm for that last glossy berry.
These characters on the wild stage are just a few of the epic cast to be found at our feet, over our heads and at arm’s length. Gathering them permits a tiny freedom from the implacable grasp of commerce, enables us to feel closer to our ancestors and allows us to eat the very place we’ve been. Foraging alone may not change the make-up of our bones; but it just might change our spirit.
Top image: Jessica Seaton foraging (photo: Liz Seabrook for Hole & Corner)