If you fancy yourself as a forager but don’t know a good edible plant from a bad one, let Diego Bonetto take you under his wild wing. Bonetto is hosting the Foraging in the City tour along the Cooks River in Western Sydney as part of Crave Sydney International Food Festival. The two-hour tour starts at Tempe railway station and covers a small loop of the river. Along the way, Bonetto points out weeds that are edible, and in many cases medicinal.
Our first introduction was with the commonly scorned dandelion, the leaves of which can be used in salads, the flowers in fritters and the roots as a parsnip substitute. Older roots can also be ground into a caffeine-free coffee, Bonetto explained.
“Dandelions make the most amazing honey,” Bonetto said. “And olive oil, infused into oil it’s fantastic for your skin and lips.”
Foraging is in Bonetto’s blood. He grew up on a dairy farm in Torino, in north western Italy.
In that kind of environment: “you grow up with dirt under your fingernails, you grow up with an enormous amount of knowledge around you,” he said. “If you don’t get up early there are no mushrooms left in the forest, someone has been there before you.”
Diego Bonetto introduced amateur foragers to Pig Face
With a small basket hooked over his elbow, Bonetto pointed out wild mustard, which tasted like peppery rocket; pig face with its bright pink flowers (though it has been planted here as part of a bush regeneration project and can’t be harvested), mallow — the leaves of which are mild and pleasant and are a good thickener for soups bush regeneration project; amaranth – a sacred herb of Central America, the leaves of which can be cooked like spinach; and an African olive tree, the fruit of which is prolific in Autumn and tastes “fantastic,” Bonetto said.
“But there is high wildlife competition [for it],” he added. “Wake up early in the morning if you want this olive.”
Bonetto is well known on the trail. Several walkers called him by name and shouted “hello”. He is humble and inspirational and cracked jokes along the way.
He knows exactly where to find certain edible species, including nastartium, warrigal greens and wood sorrel, which has a pretty lilac flower. Restaurants that experiment with foraged plants will pay up to $80 a punnet for wood sorrel. It tastes lemony and tart, and goes well with game, Bonetto explained.
He led us to sea blight and samphire, the latter which sells to restaurants for $80 a punnet. Bonetto explained what we can and can’t be picked: for example, the samphire and sea blight have been planted as part of an bush regeneration program and shouldn’t be harvested.
As Bonetto shared is vast knowledge of edible plants he would throw in general foraging tips.
Rule 1: “The best place to forage is in your own back yard,” he said. “Forage where you know, get to know a place, what grows when, how healthy is the colony. Foraging is not something you do opportunistically.”
Rule 2: “Know what you are picking,” he said. Use botantical drawings to help identify plants, and if you’re still unsure take good photographs that capture its structure, and find a foraging “uncle” – someone like Bonetto – who can offer advice. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it,” he said.
Foraging is in Diego Bonetto’s blood
He advises foragers, at first, to try just a small amount of an edible plant to see how their body responds to it. And foragers should never over-harvest.
“Be respectful of the plant,” he said. “If there is only a small amount, leave it.”
Last but not least, ‘gleaning’ or ‘scrumping’ are part of the forager’s trade, so if you see over-hanging fruit from a garden, or edible plants that are “garden escapees”, they’re fair game, Bonetto said, with his trademark impish grin.
For more information on Foraging in the City with Bonetto Diego click here.
Bonetto is also leading the Wild Chef Challenge throughout Crave Sydney where he will gather wild food for renowned chefs, who will transform them into a tasting. Members of the public will be taken on a foraging tour, listen to chefs discuss cooking with foraged foods, then share a tasting with wines and teas. Click here for more information.
The Food Sage participated in the Foraging in the City tour as a guest of Diego Bonetto and Crave Sydney.