They say that to truly appreciate something’s value, you have to lose it first. Not sure if such drastic measures are always needed, but it certainly was the case with the forest for me. Childhood – and how you spent it – is something to be reckoned with, about which I found out last year, when I stepped into the spring forest, greeted by a green and white carpet of wood anemones, bird songs and the air heavy from the earthy moist. The missing ingredient has finally been found and the balance restored.
I’ve written before about the healing powers of the forest, the concept around which a form of nature therapy evolved, in Japan called shinrin-yoku (森林浴), and in English – forest bathing. The main principle of the practice is to reconnect with the forest (and nature at large) by opening one’s senses to the natural world and simply being in the moment. ‘When was the last time you touched a tree? Walked barefoot on the grass? Listened to the bird song?’, shinrin-yoku teachers ask. Human relationship with nature is something that intrigued me long time ago, when I was still a little girl walking cheerfully by my Babcia’s side, searching the forest for mushrooms, kneeling on the forest floor to smell the wildflowers and touching the fluffy moss.
To see forest as a place for a gathering or a day out is one thing, but to see it as a living thing, a world in its own rights – is another. And it is a universe that ought to be respected. Having grown up in a close vicinity to Puszcza Niepolomicka, a forest that once served as hunting grounds for Polish kings, I heard countless stories over the years on how people depended on it in times of hunger. My Babcia, now 76, often goes back in memories to the times when she used to, as a young woman, work in the forest with other girls from the village. They’d mostly clear the paths, learning the forest geography pretty well as they worked.
No wonder, then, that my own childhood was dotted with forest trips that appeared seasonally – to the extent that I considered flying back home to be able to participate in some of them when I lived abroad.
April meant wood anemones. Nothing will ever beat the first spring visit to the forest: the meadow of lush greenery abundantly dotted with white flowers; the air heavy from the earthy smell mixed with the sweet and delicate scent of anemones. It’s a ritual me and Babcia have had since, if what she and my Mum say is true, before I was born.
May is for lily of the valley. A little tricky to find, it likes to grow on the sunny forest side, hidden under the trees. Elegant, dark green leaves, in shape reminding these of wild garlic, and a single stalk with tiny, white lily flowers. The scent is delicate, ephemeral, but the memory of it stays with you for days.
June is when the first wild mushrooms start to appear. The excitement in my family reaches dangerous levels, as everyone wants to be the one who finds the first mushrooms of the season. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the taste of the first-in-season creamy mushroom sauce is divine. It’s like eating the forest.
July continues to be the mushroom bounty month (assuming that there was rain), but it is also a month for berries. Wild strawberries and bilberries are the two flavours of summer that I will never be able to go without. No matter where I was, I always found myself missing these two. It’s the month of dreamy bilberry buns, of the sweet flavour of tiny wild strawberries eaten straight from the stalk, it’s pierogi with bilberries and a generous dollop of cream. It’s heaven. If you want to eat great in Poland, come in July.
August brings different mushrooms (namely opieńki, that appear later in the season), and blackberries. No idea how many of these I devoured over the years, but each year I am surprised by how sour they can be and how, at the same time, delicious.
The repertoire of wild edibles from the forest is much greater than these few examples. It is only our perception of what’s edible, what’s delicious, and where the food is supposed to come from, that often prevents us from even trying to reach further than our local supermarket for dinner or lunch ideas. But to consider forest or a meadow as a provider of herbs for casserole or berries for the fruit tart one has to leave the premise of ‘I want it now and I want it instant’, and go some length to acquire the missing ingredient. And this is what proves difficult for many.
The idea of taking a day off to spend it in the forest picking mushrooms or berries – without any warranty that there will actually be some to even be picked – may sound crazy to some. For others, however, it’s the highlight of summer, a practice that has a much deeper meaning than simple foraging for wild foods. Melissa Caldwell, a food anthropologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, describes this practice at length in her brilliant article Feeding the Body and Nourishing the Soul. Natural Foods in Postsocialist Russia. She sees similarities of the discourses surrounding natural foods in Russia to these of the Slow Food Movements, organic agriculture and Food Democracy movements when it comes to what’s considered healthy and good to eat, but what’s different in Russia (and other postsocialist states) is the attention to nature as the source of spirituality and sociability.
In the Tver region in mid-summer, as in many parts of Russia, blueberries are the currency of daily life.Melissa L. Caldwell
‘In the Tver region in mid-summer, as in many parts of Russia, blueberries are the currency of daily life’, she writes and goes on to describe the berry picking craze that takes over a large part of Russian society every summer. The notion of natural foods, that are better, more honest and more nourishing is something that propels foraging trips to the forest in Poland, too. Similarly, as in Russia, the roadsides from summer onwards are suddenly dotted with makeshift stalls offering the abundance of the forest, like berries or mushrooms, as well as crops grown in the countryside (strawberries, raspberries, cherries). Years go by, and the stalls are not disappearing, tempting drivers to stop and indulge in the summer bounty.
What makes the ‘natural’ foods so appealing that the demand for them is not declining, even within the realm of the over-abundant and heaping in variety modern food system? According to Caldwell, it is due to the perception of nature as the caretaker of the society – a narrative reverse to the one we’re used to: that it’s humans who ought to protect the natural world. ‘Russians look to the land as the caretaker of society, rather than emphasising the moral responsibility of individual citizens to safeguard nature’, she writes.
Russians look to the land as the caretaker of society, rather than emphasising the moral responsibility of individual citizens to safeguard nature.Melissa L. Caldwell
To be able to forage for wild edibles, one has to admit first that it requires knowledge and perseverance in order to partake in the forest summer bounty. The mighty human has to step down from the pedestal and humbly admit that when left without the supermarket as the primary indicator of what’s edible and good to eat, they are probably clueless of how to feed themselves. The intimate relationship that humans once had with the surrounding world is in decline, and the source of knowledge of what’s safe to eat and delicious shifted from trusting one’s senses to trusting the industrial food system.
A few weeks ago, I made garlic and nettle flatbreads, with very young nettles I found in the forest the same day. It surprised me, how much convincing it took for some to even give it a try – the mere fact that one of the ingredients came from the wild was the seat of distrust. How detached have we become from the natural world to consider its bounty inedible, and then consume a bowl of sugary cereal for breakfast, thinking that it’s safe for us? To clarify: breakfast cereal is not healthy. It is not even particularly safe to eat if one was to have it every day. A bowl of breakfast cereal is a choice as nutritionally sound, as eating a few spoonfuls of sugar, but we are convinced that it’s good for us. Is it really? You do the math.
I spent 7 years travelling around the world, talking to people from various backgrounds and cultures, learning about their foods and diets. It was a rewarding journey, rich in meaningful encounters, an incredible amount of firsts (ever eaten nattō, anyone?), skills learned, recipes collected, and knowledge acquired. It also brought a realisation: we, humans, forgot how to eat. Apart from rich culinary traditions, I discovered something else along the way: more and more often we tend to put our trust in the food system, that is supposed to feed us in a way that’s best for us, instead of trusting our own knowledge and senses in order to feed ourselves properly.
How can a microwaved burger be more appealing than dumplings with freshly picked bilberries? Is a bowl of breakfast cereal really more delicious than breakfast of fresh bread, vegetables and herbs? Why are many of us suddenly scared of everything raw and unprocessed?, I pondered as I travelled to places near and far, hoping to find the answers.
To my surprise, I found myself back in Poland, roaming the forest in search of wild edibles I am yet to try, sowing vegetables in my Mum’s garden and learning beekeeping from my Dad. Once we realise that the world of food choices does not end in the supermarket, we discover that we are capable of not only expanding our diets in edibles that are not sold in mainstream outlets but also – that we can grow and forage for foods ourselves. And with the knowledge of where our food comes from – comes respect for it. It’s difficult to waste a tomato that you’ve been so lovingly looking after for a few months. Or to throw out a basket of mushrooms that you spent a good few hours picking in the forest.
If you can improve the eating, the rest of life gets a little better, too.Bee Wilson
‘No one is too busy to cook’, says Bee Wilson in her brilliant book First Bite. How we learn to eat. And I encourage you, strongly, to try. Cook. Bake. Grow your own food. Grow herbs on a windowsill. Explore the back garden for edible herbs and flowers. Pick berries in the forest. Because, as Wilson puts it, ‘If you can improve the eating, the rest of life gets a little better, too.’
Enjoy the journey!