When I’m out in the woods doing field archery, I’m usually picking something to eat, much to the surprise of my companions. If they pluck up courage to accept a taste, they marvel at the citrus freshness of young wood-sorrel leaves and the sweet nectar you can suck from the base of red clover flowers. I can often be seen chewing on the stems of sorrel or wild grasses. Later in the summer, some woods will have wild strawberries and raspberries too.
Bilberry picking, 2016
Come the autumn, it’s time for blackberries and bilberries (which put blue berries in the shade, both as a super food and for intensity of flavour). These deserve a dedicated collecting trip. A couple of bags in the freezer lasts for months as a topping for Greek yoghurt at breakfast or the magic ingredient in a lilac smoothie.
With 75 % of the world’s food provided by just 12 plants and 5 animal species, it’s no wonder that food allergies, intolerances and digestive difficulties are increasing. Your body thrives on variety.
Urban lifestyles and screen addiction mean that few children can name trees and flowers and don’t know what can be eaten and, most importantly, what’s poisonous and shouldn’t be touched. Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods) called these kids ‘nature-deficient’ and links this to the worrying trends in childhood obesity, ADHD and depression.
Although I’ve read more about foraging in recent years, I learned most of what I know as a child out with my parents and grandparents. And we were always picking something for wine making including sticky dandelions, delicate gorse petals (ouch!) and foamy white heads of elderflower. In the war our grandparents put dandelion leaves in salad – perhaps with the resurgence of stronger tasting leaves like rocket, today’s generation would again find them appealing.
Top tip – teach your children and grandchildren what you know.
In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.
As a child I loved those ‘Dot to Dot’ puzzles and recently noticed books for grown-ups too.
It’s a bit like that interpreting the messages your body sends you about food and drink. The most blatant, like indigestion, demand your attention. You can easily join the dots and avoid trigger foods. When I twigged that white wine = headache, I stopped drinking it. Other messages are more subtle, like aches in your joints or bad skin if you eat too little fat or the wrong type of fat. You might miss them when you’re busy getting on with your life.
Sometimes it’s easy to see that diet and lifestyle go together with other people’s health and well-being but not to make any connection between what you eat and how you feel yourself. I suffered unnecessarily for years feeling tired and miserable and carrying excess weight without any inkling that the diet I thought healthy was actually doing me harm.
Breakfast and lunch have a big impact on your day so it’s useful to learn what your body thinks of them. Experiment a bit – porridge, protein smoothies, full English. What time of the morning do you start thinking about having a snack? Ideally it’s better not to be snacking. Is your breakfast so good you don’t need to eat again for 4 or 5 hours? My favourite green smoothie lasts me for 6h.
Try different lunches to find out how alert you are in the afternoon. Do you feel better after a salad than a sandwich? If you have a hot lunch, are you sharper when you leave out potatoes and pastry? Once you join the dots you can adapt your routine, feel better and enjoy life more.
What’s the hardest thing about a healthy lifestyle? The exercise? Juicing wheatgrass? Growing sprouts? Actually the hardest thing is constantly resisting temptation in our hostile food environment.
We live in a sugar and oil saturated foodworld. Last month I found myself in a typical town, past lunchtime, without having brought anything to eat. The mass of non-food for sale was depressing. I felt like a reformed drug addict in an opium den. It’s very, very easy to eat badly but difficult to eat well. Amid the throngs of willing consumers, I stood out from the flock like one of the decorated (model) sheep we had around Cumbria this summer.
To improve our food environment we can support the taxation of sugar in drinks and foods; we can oppose the advertising of sugary products to children; we can stop supporting sellers of junk by refusing to buy what they sell; we can just say, “No”.
As an antidote to mass-produced fodder, we were treated to a wonderful weekend when Taste Cumbria came to Cockermouth. What a great event!
There were artisan producers you could talk to, samples to taste and all sorts of delicious foods to buy. We bought smoked mackerel for tea that evening. The next day I enjoyed scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for breakfast. Monday evening it was smoked sausages for dinner (many thanks to all you lads at Haverigg).
On the Sunday I put the slow cooker on – well it’s not summer any more – and made a casserole with venison from Deer and Dexter which we ate with the last of our home-grown potatoes and lots of veg. Delicious.
Finally we popped into the United Reformed Church to restock my favourite Rhubarb and Ginger from Jill’s Jams. Jam isn’t health food but a teaspoon on a cracker topped with the creamy unpasturised Lancashire from a cheese stall was yummy.
The Rotary Club’s Human Fruit Machine was an absolute delight and brought smiles all round.
As sad as it is for me to say, the current food and farming system is creating catastrophic change as it contributes to climate change, global famine and malnourishment, damaging our planet to the brink of disrepair. Parts of our conventional food system harm nature, people, communities and civilisations in the wild and urban world.
Spring is nearly here and doesn’t it lift your spirits to see flowers appear? Some of you will be making preparations to grow this year’s vegetables. It’s wonderful to eat them fresh the same day you picked them when all the vitamins and enzymes are at their maximum. Not everyone has a garden or allotment but something we can all do is sprout seeds and beans on the kitchen worktop.
You’ll need some sprouting trays with slots in (buy from a health food shop or on line), thenchoose what to grow. Mung beans and green lentils are readily available in most supermarkets, very easy to sprout and only take 3 days to grow. Alfalfa seeds are my favourite but few shops stock them so I buy them on line. Then there are radish seeds which have a real flavour kick, chickpeas, broccoli seeds which are high in sulforaphane (being studied for potential cancer protective effects) and lots more.
Mung and Alfalfa
Soak your seeds/beans in a glass of water for 4-8h depending on their size. Rinse and put into your trays in an even layer about one seed/bean thick. Each morning and evening, rinse the sprouts thoroughly under running water, then tip the trays to drain away any excess so that the sprouts are not sitting in water. When they’re ready, harvest them with a fork; they’ll keep in the fridge in a container for a few days. Give your trays a thorough clean with a brush and they’re ready to start growing the next batch. (Step-by-step sprouting video under my superfood series.)
Eat sprouts raw so that you keep the goodness. They’re good on salad or with breakfast or as a snack.
I recently went to Norway on holiday, brilliantly arranged by the lovely people at Cockermouth Travel. As well as the breathtaking beauty of the place, I was struck by the slim, healthy build of the population and the fabulous food! Game stew was a highlight plus lots of fresh fish (they love their herrings) and vegetables. (OK there were fast food places for tourists in the town centre; you’ll find that everywhere in the world nowadays.)
Breakfasts were a feast of cold meats, cheeses, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and yoghurt. That’s a high nutrient breakfast to fuel the national pastime of walking up mountains, come rain or shine. Over here continental breakfast has been diminished to coffee and a croissant – not satisfying, not healthy and not continental.
And more breakfast!
Going on holiday is a great opportunity to reconnect with real food. You might go to more exotic places that I do. Perhaps you’ve sampled the delights of young coconuts or fresh bananas which I’m told are divine.
It’s a shame we emulate the Americans more than Europeans. We eat more processed food than any other European country. We also have the fattest population plus the resultant deteriorating health. The French and Italians love their food and you can enjoy locally grown produce, artisan breads, grass-fed meat and amazing cheeses. Food is a high priority for them. They spend money on good ingredients and take time cooking and eating. Meals are not rushed or gulped down alone in front of a TV or computer. There’s a strong social element with lots of talk and laughter round the table. Enjoy it while you’re away and keep it up when you come back.
Top tip – make good food culture a holiday souvenir to bring back home.
It’s always worth keeping an eye on fresh produce that’s being sold off. The other day I spotted big lettuces on sale for 25p. I immediately thought of my Mum’s lettuce soup recipe – here it is:
12oz roughly chopped lettuce
1/4 pint milk
4oz spring onions, chopped
1 tblsp flour
1pt chicken stock
salt and pepper
Put the butter in the pan with the lettuce and spring onions. Cook until soft. Add the flour, then the stock. Bring to the boil. Simmer for 20 minutes. Cool a bit. Blend. Add milk.
I bought one of the lettuces which weighed nearly 2lb, plus a bunch of spring onions, and made a big pan of lovely soup which I froze in portions. I often eat soup and cheese for my lunch (no bread). There was still lots of lettuce left for us to have in salads that week so nothing was wasted.
Getting so many meals for so little reminded me of a student I know in Leeds. He goes to the market, buys whatever they’re selling off and makes soup. His mates spend a fortune on processed rubbish but he’s getting good, fresh, real food at a monthly price of <£30!