Our current food system focuses on filling our plates with cultivated food, because large scale farming supports large populations.
Even so, it was still common to supplement diets with local wild food until recently. As soon as global supply chains prospered, the convenience of supermarkets meant we no longer needed to look somewhere else.
We were suddenly able to buy fruit and veg from all over the world at any time of the year and so we became disconnected from our landscape, leaving behind natural local resources and seasonal produce.
More than ever, it still makes sense branching out from cultivated to wild foods. We need to understand where our food comes from and how it grows. We need to take control of our diet.
What makes wild food different?
Supermarkets need to make food sales profitable, so they select long-lasting crops with the right weight, size and appearance, very often sacrificing flavour and nutrient content in the process.
In order to achieve this, large scale farming uses herbicides and pesticides that kill beneficial insects, earthworms and other vital microscopic organisms, so they need to feed the soil artificially with chemical fertilizers to help the damaged soil to produce the crops.
On the other hand, wild plants are naturally resilient. They need to cope with extreme weather conditions, compete with other plants, protect themselves from herbivores and adapt to climate change to survive.
In consequence, wild plants develop a higher content in nutrients and flavour. They contain high concentrations of minerals, vitamins and fibre and very often develop bold flavours such as sourness, saltiness, bitterness and pungency.
Why some wild foods are not viable economically?
Shelf life is not long enough
Food needs to remain in good condition through the long journey from farm to supermarket.
Certain berries are so small and delicate that it’s difficult of transporting them intact. Wild strawberries, bilberries and mulberries are examples of delicious food that is not economically viable to sell at large scale.
In general terms, wild herbs and salads don’t have a long shelf-life either. Such is the case of the much appreciated wild garlic and sorrel leaves.
Some varieties are favoured against others
Some fruits are just too similar in appearance and flavour to those already sold in the supermarkets. Because wild fruit tend to grow to smaller size, it cannot compete with bigger cultivated varieties.
There are hundreds of different apples, pears and plums that will not make it to the shops.
Our culture is not accustomed to some flavour profiles
In some western cultures, people are generally accustomed to more neutral flavours. In contrast, many wild plants growing locally have a bold profile, such as sour, bitter, salty or pungent.
A good number of common wild leaves are naturally bitter. While some Mediterranean cultures can’t get enough of chicory, other countries are not so keen on bitter flavours. (Except for coffee!)
The same way, Middle Eastern cultures appreciate sour cherries but some Western countries will stick to sweet ones.
Invasive species cannot be propagated
Some non-native wild plants are considered invasive species locally and are eliminated because propagation can cause ecological damage.
Think of Japanese knotweed stems and Himalayan balsam seeds.
Mushrooms are difficult to cultivate
Some wild foods cannot be cultivated because it’s just not possible.
Mushrooms are notoriously difficult to grow and there is only a reduced number of species that can be cultivated.
That is why you will never see parasol mushrooms in your local supermarket.