An interview with Miles Irving, author of the Forager Handbook and creator of The Wild Box, on why we must include humans in our conservation models in order to look after wild spaces. Why foraging is sustainable. How foraging can help feed an ever growing population, and how we can restore our vital connection to Land.
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About Miles Irving
I started foraging at age 6, with the encouragement of my Grandfather, who owned a small woodland and knew a few species of edible mushrooms.
We went mushroom hunting and found several kinds, each of intriguing appearance and with very particular aromas; each quite delicious, as I experienced in our post forage fry up.
My grandfather, known for his lack of culinary skill, put the whole family off the idea of eating nettles by cooking a watery mess of boiled stringy nettles gone to seed, attempting to pass it off as nettle soup…
However, its hard to get frying a mushroom wrong and he passed that test as far as my palate was concerned. I was hooked and from then on gathered mushrooms every year.
However, a similar induction into wild plants, other than the aforementioned nuts and berries, was sadly lacking and my engagement with all things leafy and green suffered a further setback at age 16.
A friend had a copy of a wild food book which contained a recipe for fat hen, a plant she was able to recognise. We found and gathered some and tried out the recipe, which I can describe in one word: horrible. Let’s stick to mushrooms, nuts and berries was my conclusion from that incursion into wild greenery.
That recipe set me back 18 years, which is how long it was before I tried working with green stuff again. Meanwhile, I was increasingly irked by the suspicion that I might be missing out.
Eventually, I resolved to at least learn to identify wild plants, with a view to exploring their edibility later, prompted by meeting my soon to be wife Ali, who took me exploring many gorgeous wild plant filled places in Kent.
We got started with basic wildflower identification but really got down to business after Ali bought me a book of recipes by Italian chef Antonio Carluccio, called Carluccio Goes Wild. We were then on the hunt for the various wild plant species mentioned in the book. It was like a culinary treasure hunt! One by one we found them, and one by one we cooked the simple but utterly delicious recipes in the book.
The fact that friends were invited to feast with us added to the magic and sense of wonder of the experience. A whole new fascinating delicious world of green things opened up to me, but it was years before I realised that the key had been delicious and simple recipes.
After many years of supplying chefs through our business Forager Ltd which was founded soon afterwards, it has finally dawned on me that this is the key to engaging people with wild plants, much more so than plant identification skills.
Robin Harford: Hi. So you’ve been a bit of a kind of pioneer and thought leader and foraging guide for many, many years, I think really before, certainly before I started teaching and before foraging and wild food appearing on kind of high-end, front end cutting edge restaurants even kind of was on the radar, so I’m very curious about your own journey through the plant kingdom and what on earth got you into foraging? I mean, how did you learn to forage?
Miles Irving: Well first of all, I’ll refer back to that in a minute, but just to say about more recently, like this scene that’s happened in the last sort of 15 years or so, I feel like it really is kind of like a zeitgeist thing and this … I feel like I’ve been drawn in by other people’s interests. I had reached a stage where my early experience of foraging which was picking mushrooms mainly and berries and fruit, I was blessed enough to have a granddad that just had a little bit of knowledge and he got me inspired and started up when I was six, so, always done that but the time when I really started engaging with the plant kingdom as you say, it was a time when they was just beginning to be quite an intense interest among chefs, so it was like my own sort of sniffing around after something which had caught my imagination was massively enhanced by the fact that there were chefs who saw this as a way into what they were trying to do in terms of creating recipes which reflected landscape seasonality and just were a bit more real. They came through some real process rather than like an industrial process and so on.
So it does feel to me like as a whole thing that’s been drawn out in terms of people’s interest in landscapes and the plants and the sort of cultural roots of people relating more. Whilst you can sort of point it back and and see a role in terms of, we’ve probably got other people interested. It does just seem like a thing with a life of it’s own really that people and plants are somehow just being very much brought back together like where you learn things like the body shop and all of the other sort of commercial threads which have really strongly put plants into our culture now. Do you know what I mean? Like if you go and have a shower, just look at what you’re putting on your head or your body or whatever. It’s so much in the way of actual wild plant species have ended up being almost cultural icons in that sort of way and I just feel like you and me, we’ve just ended up turning up at the party … it just feels like something that is happening [inaudible 00:04:38]
Robin Harford: Yeah they definitely seem to be making their way into the households of Britain covertly and overtly in some instances. So on the overtly kind of side, you’ve run this company fForager down in [inaudible 00:04:57]. What is Forager? How did that start and what …
Miles Irving: Well yeah. I mean, I can just put some flesh on the bones of what I just said there really because I was beginning to really get engaged with plants, back in like 2002, 2003, it just started to become much more of a focus and I was going out foraging with my girlfriend then who’s now my wife, Ally, and we were starting to learn some plants but mainly because she got me this book … well we’d already started trying to learn the plants but she got me this book called [inaudible 00:05:39] by Antonio Carluccio which had only about 25 plants in it but we were just really getting stuck in and this was helped by just the quality of the recipes in that book, just simple Italian recipes where we’d go on a quest for whichever plant the recipe was for, that was what was driving it, we want to be able to cook that recipe, so it’d be wild sorrel or wild garlic or nettles is an easy one but that was then transformed into [inaudible 00:06:14] which was definitely not the easiest recipe.
Anyway, it was just this instant satisfaction that was coming, deep satisfaction and celebrated with friends who we were sitting down at dinner with. Now, I should say, this was kind of making good something that had happened about eighteen years previously. I had tried to sort of pull my repertoire after seeing a wild food book on a friend’s bookshelf and there were a lot of plants in there. At the time I was only really a mushroom forager and a fruit and nut forager as far as plants were concerned and we went out and foraged [inaudible 00:06:51] which was in the book, cooked the recipe which was in the book and the recipe was really bad, it was just really … I just didn’t find the final result very satisfying at all and it just put me off plants. I thought, well, here’s my earliest experience, going out foraging with my granddad and he cooks the stuff up and he’s a rubbish cook but you can’t really get that … cooking a mushroom, you can’t really get that wrong too easily and so they was delicious, that was an immediately self-reinforcing thing.
Blackberries the same, roasted chestnuts the same. So this to me just … it was like a shudder coming down. It seemed to me that plants were just not as good, they’re not as tasty. So that cost me basically 18 years of my plant journey I worked out the other day, which was all … it was all made good by this fantastic book by Antonio Carluccio and there I was with Ally, cooking these things up and having a great time. So this is where we get to the bit where I actually answer your question. We [inaudible 00:07:59] at a place called The Good Shed in Canterbury and it was a brand new opening, there was a local produce market which to this day I think is the best produce market in the country. Above it there’s this mezzanine area with a restaurant using the stuff from the market and a guy called [inaudible 00:08:18], the chef there was really trying to do, and was doing a great job of local produce, some organic stuff, seasonal produce all from the market, just like the kind of thing I was saying [inaudible 00:08:33] really hungry [inaudible 00:08:37] at that time, but he was an interesting guy because he’s half French and it seemed people like Michelle [inaudible 00:08:43] and [inaudible 00:08:44] really with the whole nouvelle cuisine thing in the 90s, crafting food around landscape and really with a strong emphasis on the wild plants, so he knew that was the missing bit.
Okay. So we rock up, we see wild garlic soup, no we saw soup of the day on the menu asking what the soup of the day was, we must have registered some disappointment when the guy told us it was wild garlic soup but that was only because we’ve been eating so much of the stuff ourselves you see and you know what it’s like, you’re not gonna go out and want to eat in the restaurant what you’ve been doing yourself, we wanted something a bit different, but when we explained that to this guy, he went and got the chef who’s just very excited saying, you’re doing some foraging, we really want that here, can you help us? Can you work with us? And he kind of made me promise that I would come the next day with a bag of wild garlic for him because they didn’t actually have a regular supplier for that, I’m not quite sure where they’d got it from but they were keen for me to do that.
So that’s how we got started Robin, just this one guy that could see how the whole movement towards local seasonal produce had to have wild food as part of it. I think it was quite visionary in that sense because no one else had really seen that at the time. At least I didn’t have a kind of [inaudible 00:10:08]. We later phoned people like Mark Hicks and Richard [inaudible 00:10:14], I say that we phoned their chefs, their boys in the kitchen who said Mark would want this, Richard would want this but to them it was just, it was kind of part of the thing but it wasn’t like they were on the search, like gotta make this happen because they were using [inaudible 00:10:30] and we just helped them to prosper. This guy Blaze, he was really hungry for it. So had he not been, and really compelled me virtually to bring stuff in.
So what I’m trying to say is, I didn’t have this great entrepreneurial spark there that was saying wild food is it for the restaurants, this is the way it’s going … It took me about four months to really for the penny to drop where I asked this guy, do you have some like-minded friends who would also like to have this kind of stuff on their menu. Prior to that, I was just doing it to please him. Just like, alright mate, okay, I’m glad you’re interested in this, have some of that then.
Robin Harford: So I suppose one of the questions that comes to mind that obviously you and I have had somewhat heated discussions in the past over is around the … let me just clarify that. Heated discussions in the past until we started understanding each other and realising that we were both in the same worldview regarding wild food. So the question that often I see on social media when people post is, is it sustainable? Is gathering wild plants personally and to supply outlets, restaurants, etc, is it sustainable? So let’s start with a controversial one.
Miles Irving: Yeah. Well, obviously this is one we’ve banded … bounced backwards and forwards loads of times and as you say, I think we have a common view now which is basically that that’s the wrong question, yeah? So the question is, is the global food system as is sustainable and since pretty much everybody would agree that it’s not, I suppose where we start from, having agreed that it’s not, is that we have to be looking for alternatives. So if foraging for plants was just some thoughtless thing that we did just off the cuff because we can and who cares sort of thing, well, that would be one thing but actually, the exploration of gathering wild foods … well gathering food from the wild I should say, in terms of it being a potential avenue for feeding a lot of people, when we see that as an initiative towards doing things differently, then I think that’s a very different starting point.
It isn’t just people just grabbing out of self-interest and no care for the [inaudible 00:13:33]. So then I think there’s a couple of … [inaudible 00:13:42] a big, big question this one, but things you want to cover is first of all the methodology of most of what we do and I think most foraging is … the bulk of it is picking leaves or maybe picking the flowering stems before they flower and what you’ll notice with that is it’s just the same sort of thing that any gardener does all the time. So they’ll cut the lawn and what happens if the lawn grows back? Nobody would say. I sometimes facetiously say is cutting the lawn sustainably sustainable. We know that it’s not even an issue, it just seems like a silly question. Well, for us, where we’re cutting leaves and they’re growing back in all of those cases, it does seem like a silly question but if you do something like gather the fruits of the wild garlic, [inaudible 00:14:33] but like the seeds and that develops after the flowers.
Now, where people have done that and not been thoughtful, what’s happened is that the wild garlic gradually sort of shrinks and if someone did that for long enough the wild garlic would disappear but that’s obviously not sustainable. It’s just a bit of basic thought about the lifecycle of the plants. Does cutting the leaf hurt that plant? No. Does taking the fruit hurt the plant? Not yet, but it will do if you keep doing it and you don’t allow some seed to go back down to the gland, but I suppose the point is that anyone with any intelligence will notice that happening and will amend what they do and in fact, the only reason I know about that, we have always just taken a few of those, right? We’ve never done that kind of let’s take everything on the wild garlic fruits, but I know someone that has been a bit more gung-ho on it and he noticed and he fed that back to the foraging community.
So we’re trying to get word out to anyone which is good that it’s going out on your podcast because it’s going to reach some more anyones. If you’re picking wild garlic fruits or rams and capers as they put them, they call them, for goodness sake, take maybe like 30 percent of what’s there, don’t take a hundred percent because you ain’t gonna have a harvest next year and neither is anybody else. Well, you will next year but in three or four years time, these things are going to disappear. So, it’s that kind of thoughtfulness, if you do it thoughtfully and of course that’s what people always would have done, like the hunter-gatherers who had this as a way of life that had developed through generations and generations. What it means is when you depend on the landscape for everything, you have this kind of sense of the sacred about it, you have this sense of an emotional bond with it and you have this sense that you are a custodian and a steward of the things which have been given to you and that means that you are deeply, deeply concerned about the well-being of the whole landscape and individual species.
So the point of … you know this Robin, the tribal societies would have particular stories and mythologies around particular species or in the case of the Aboriginal Australians, individuals who would be responsible for the care of one particular species, there’s just no way they would be driving something to extinction that was part of that system of, well, kinship, actually they had a sense of kinship with these things.
Robin Harford: Yeah they did, or they do, the ones that remain.
Miles Irving: They do, yeah.
Robin Harford: I think what that brings up for me is this, I’m very interested in worldviews and how worldviews influence our relationship with not only ourselves each other, but the rest of the earth and the worldview of civilised, in quotes, people’s modern technological industrial information culture peoples is one of scarcity and the worldview of the hunter-gatherer and you can check this out with people like [inaudible 00:18:09] who was an anthropologist in his book Stone age Economics and there’s numerous anthropological works out there that have studied hunter-gatherer.
Miles Irving: [inaudible 00:18:19] a thing called the original affluent society didn’t he?
Robin Harford: Yeah he did. So the point of that is that the worldview of the hunter-gatherer is one of abundance, it’s not one of scarcity, it’s one of … the land provides and we are grazing animals, we’re caretakers as well, our grazing is a care-taking practise, whereas in the so-called civilised world, we don’t care take, we live in a scarce …
Miles Irving: We just take.
Robin Harford: We just take, exactly and we eat thirty species of plough grown plants in a year it’s estimated. Hunter-gatherers eat hundreds as you and I know. So the world view is topsy-turvy, it’s very different. So like you say, when someone says foraging is not sustainable, everyone’s going to hit the royal parks, it’s like well, it’s not sustainable if you’re coming from the worldview of a dog-eat-dog mine, mine, mine, I take for me and fuck anyone else, no, of course it’s not sustainable but as you’ve pointed out on numerous occasions and through numerous discussions, as foragers, we are intimately connected to our land base and we can see the influence our gathering practises have on the land and because we are foragers, this isn’t some little bit of garnish on the side of a plate we’re getting, we feed ourselves through the local landscape, so we’re actually very, very acutely aware of our impact on our local terrain.
So that kind of feeds into when the headlines have a bit of a hissy fit and they all start saying, oh, you know, we should be banning foraging, like the new forest puts up these not illegal, these signs that are warning people not to pick or the [inaudible 00:20:22] parts come out all red in the face but can you expand on the whole thing of kind of the problem of conservation as preservation?
Miles Irving: Yeah. Well, yeah, I mean, so, I suppose the thing is, where we’ve ended up right, is that there’s a kind of business as usual on the one hand thing that is implicit in the idea of conservation because what conservation does is it just sort of draws a line around certain bits of land and says okay, we’re going to conserve these bits because these bits are special and they may well be special but the point is by default, everywhere else then is kind of not special. It’s a bit simplistic but it is basically the idea is that we accept that the whole industrial consumer driven society is a given, it’s a reality and we’re not going to change that. So basically, everywhere else is just accepted that it won’t be diverse, lush, thriving ecosystems and I mean anywhere else like London or your local housing estate or the field where the wheat that makes your bread comes from. We just accept that we’ve lost that, it’s gone, and now we got to cling on to this other bit over here and of crucial and central importance about clinging on to this other bit over here is that there’s no humans apart from the ones that are managing it for conservation.
We basically are saying that the place of the wild, this wild space is a space that the humans aren’t in and in order to conserve it we need humans out and that’s just false, I mean it’s just basically false because other than this kind of fairly new thing that’s coming in now about rewilding work where they are trying to create landscapes with nobody in it, all the existing stuff around [inaudible 00:22:35] and nature reserves, they’re basically trying to recreate habitats which have only arisen because of humans not in spite of or in the absence of but because of humans, so they all cut the reeds now because that promotes the presence of certain birds and then they don’t know what to do with the reeds. We’ve got a place near us [inaudible 00:22:59] scratching their heads wondering what to do with all the weeds that they cut.
The only reason they know that this creates a habitat for birds which [inaudible 00:23:08] but we used to cut the reeds in order to thatch houses, now we’re not doing that, we’re not using it, which is, oh dear, commercial foraging, oh dear, shock, horror, there used to be commercial foraging on the reed beds, now there’s just natural [inaudible 00:23:23] cutting them and [inaudible 00:23:25] wonder what to do with it. It’s not commercial foraging anymore so that’s better isn’t it?
Robin Harford: That’s bonkers isn’t it?
Miles Irving: On the other hand you’ve got situations like in the Kenya areas of the Maasai tribes and in Yosemite National Park. These were some of the first natural national parks, nature reserve type things and in both cases, ethnic cleansing was essential for the programme. Let’s get these indigenous people off the land so that we in our wisdom can manage it for wildlife. Well those guys have been managing it for everybody, wildlife, humans, plants, whatever you want for thousands of years but implicit in this. So the cornerstone of those conservation movements elsewhere, I don’t say in the UK but elsewhere were racist, imperialist, colonialist and plain wrong because they tried to create a fiction of a pristine wilderness untouched by human hands and the fact is those landscapes were the product of people working as part of the landscape just like any other species and the point for me Robin is that humans are a keystone species.
Robin Harford: So for people who don’t know what a keystone species is, could you briefly explain?
Miles Irving: Yeah well, of course. This is the cornerstone of conservation thinking and one I agree with like in Yellowstone National Park when they reintroduced the wolves. The wolves are a keystone species because they have a much greater impact on the overall functioning of the ecosystem or the thriving of that landscape than any other species because they keep, basically they keep the grazing animals moving so nothing gets grazed too heavily and it’s complex anyway. Beavers are the same. They, in a different way, they create the floodplain that causes a lot of species to flourish. So the point is that when we are embedded in our surroundings, we have a disproportionately strong effect on the landscape that makes it flourish, also we have a disproportionately terrible effect when we’re not embedded. Either way we’re a keystone species, we’re having more influence on the biosphere than any other species but the point is, what’s gone wrong? And what’s gone wrong is when we were vitally connected to land and when I say vitally, like we were practically, economically, socially and emotionally connected.
So in all these ways, we were connected, we were eating food from land and we were made for molecules that came from here and now we’re the only species on the planet that doesn’t … like a squirrel is made from stuff from here, he doesn’t have imports and stuff from plastic bags that came from somewhere, he just eats what’s from here. So in all of these different biological, every other kind of way, we were vitally connected to the land and that’s how our keystone species-ness was functional because we were of course like any other species changing, disrupting, disturbing, altering because life is a flow of movement and exchange and if we weren’t disturbing, disrupting, altering, moving then we’d have been dead but because we were alive, we were making things other than they would have been had we not been there but the point is, they were better because we were there.
I know we could debate like certain things, most people are pretty convinced that the humans wiped out the megafauna. I’m not convinced about that totally but regardless, if we did or not, the enhancement of lands on the whole with human presence was beneficial. So the point for me Robin is that the vital connection between humans and land, that’s the thing we need to be conserving and the conservationists have got it totally wrong because the very thing that is the Keystone, the cornerstone of biodiversity is people being connected to landscapes, people being economically engaged with landscapes, people making use of all of the wild things that are there so that they have … well involved in the complexity of land, instead of which we go onto a piece of land, sweep absolutely everything off, kill the fungi, the bacteria, the plants, the animals, the insects, everything, just so we can get one thing and then that one thing comes in to us.
So the point is that biology is wonderfully complex and diverse and therefore flourishes whereas humans reduce landscapes and a sort of mechanistic thing, so we just want one thing but then we’re also treating our bodies like a mechanism and we’re giving it one thing. So from that field that we killed everything, yeah? We just get starch, we get [inaudible 00:28:28], we put that in our bodies, what happens? Our system breaks down, the land breaks down, we break down, it’s all a mess.
Robin Harford: This is … we could have a week-long conference just on this one particular area which maybe, hopefully sometime down the line we will, but I just want to … I just want some of the listeners to realise what our removal from being embedded with our land bases has [inaudible 00:29:02]. I’ve got some figures here that actually I picked up at the weekend at a gathering that I was at and with soil depletion, [crosstalk 00:29:10]
Miles Irving: We’ve got the stats people.
Robin Harford: Got the stats man.
Miles Irving: We’ve got the stats to prove it.
Robin Harford: Yes, it’s in the book, it must be real. So anyway, just entertain this from people [inaudible 00:29:19] life foundation. So globally we’re losing seventy five billion tonnes of soil each year. Already half of the top soil on the planet over the last hundred and fifty years according to the WWF and we’re seeing a persistent decreased productivity on 20% of our croplands due to nutrient depletion, erosion and pollution. So that’s pretty frightening when everyone’s going, oh no, we can keep farming in the kind of industrial way that we have been doing.
Miles Irving: We can’t.
Robin Harford: So another one with farming is half the world’s population live in rural areas and 90% of the world’s farms remain small-scale but they’re in decline and squeezed onto only 25% of the world’s farmland. That’s from grain report hungry for land. In the UK, the number of small farms decreased by 11,000 between 1987 to 2003 and only one percent of the total workforce in the UK consists of agricultural workers compared to for example 49% in Thailand or 75% in Uganda and when you go into … so we have to discern the difference between industrial farming and agriculture and more traditional cultural cultures way of farming. If you’re going to Asia or India, I’m going to India in January and I’m hooking up with local farmers who get a huge amount of their food produce from the forest. They are foraging farmers and there’s this debate, oh, if farming happened and agriculture happened, there was this absolute rigid line that came in through, right, we were hunter gatherers, now we’re farmers and that’s just … with all the recent kind of research and evidence that’s come out through anthropology, I think … you and I have discussed a chap called James C. Scott who’s written a book against the grain and it’s absolutely not like that.
Native Americans would plant crops. They just didn’t do it in the same industrial way we plant crops and I know people …
Miles Irving: I’m not sure they even did selective breeding to begin with, they were just [crosstalk 00:31:31].
Robin Harford: So that kind of importance of us getting embedded back into our landscape is absolutely, I mean just vital. So I want to just quickly move on because you and I for years … or maybe not years but certainly quite a while have talked about how can we engage the population of Britain more with wild food? Bearing in mind that, was it something like eighty percent of people live in cities and their time is scarce and all this kind of thing which again is a bit of a myth in our industrial worldview that we don’t have enough time to forage food for us. So you’ve recently come up with an idea for something called wild box.
Miles Irving: The wild box, yeah.
Robin Harford: So could you just tell us more about that and what the purpose of that is for.
Miles Irving: So the wild box at face value appears to be like a subscription veg box containing wild plants and it is that, but really, it’s a tool, it’s a way to learn the plants and I … other than having a mentor that you kind of almost live with or certainly you have regular contact with, I think it’s probably the most effective way that you could learn a lot of plants just week on week, because what I have noticed is the thing that a lot of us do now, I’m talking about foraging … people like you and me that are trying to educate people, so we take people out for a day and it’s a very inspirational thing for people because they get to see basically the possibilities of … sometimes you might see 30, 40 plants or even more in the course of a day but in no way that anyone can properly engage with all of those 30 or 40 plants and retain that in their memory. I’ve done things like get them to stick each plant in a book and then they’ve got like a little herbarium of everything they saw and that means if they wanted to they’d go back out with the book but in practise, it only really works for the keenest. They’re probably people who’ll end up being foraging teachers themselves.
Most people, there might at best learn three or four plants that they actually would use again in the next week or the next fortnight and likely [inaudible 00:34:15] they’ll probably come back to the same course next year and have to almost start from scratch and that’s perfectly understandable because the way that we would learn that information ordinarily in real life, in traditional societies is you wouldn’t even notice that you learnt it and when you … notice how you learn to speak, because you just pick it up, you just absorb it from your surroundings and you’d absorb it when you’re sitting down with everybody at the afternoon where they’re preparing things and you absorb it when you eat it three times a day and so on.
So I’m trying to do something which will actually bring people into a deep … well it’s just that they really do know a lot of plants and they really do get into the habit and life style of eating a lot of plants. So by sending people seven plants every week and they’re not just leaving them to sink-or-swim with no further information, we provide what we call a weekly wild food navigation notes and those contain descriptions of the plants, four, five, six recipes depending on the week which will enable them to use everything in the box and then usually there’s kind of just some other notes which are a bit more broad in their potential scope. Last week I was talking about some fields near my house and how that’s accessible to us for various different plants but I might just talk about what it means to follow through the seasons and see how things are changing. All sorts of different thought trains that we … that I enter into with those which are just trying to get people into that mindset of thinking about food in a different way as something that’s coming from your local surroundings, but anyway, the point is that if people engage with this and it’s 20 quid a week, so it’s a little bit of an outlay but if people engage with this, they will gradually get familiar with a lot of plants or on the other hand, there’ll be plants they’re already familiar with that they’ve never been able to make that leap of knowing about it as something you could eat to it being something you know by experience and you do eat.
We’re trying to just basically bridge that gap either [inaudible 00:36:29] total ignorance of the plant or that you’re not actually using something you know you could and I’ve worked out, having done the maths, because we had a provisional conversation last week didn’t we Robin and I just went off and thought I need to get the maths for this, so I’ve got stats too. Yeah, and like, we’ve been going … last week was week 30 and with week 30, we presented people with plant number 75 and 76.
Robin Harford: That’s extraordinary.
Miles Irving: In other words, we have now covered 76 plants in 30 weeks.
With the different parts of the plant that we’ve used … so some we’ve used the leaf, the stem end, the flower, whatever but all told, that is 94 different ingredients that we’ve put out to people in 30 weeks.
Robin Harford: That’s phenomenal. My brain’s just popped because you mentioned that when we go out into the landscape and we engage with plants on a daily basis, preferably a daily basis, that one of the cool ways is to pick a plant, put it in a book, press it and have our own little herbarium, but herbariums to me, I’ve always until a few years ago, I always thought, well, why do I want to look at these dry plants in some kind of pressed flower press but actually what I think is really cool about the wild box is that you’ve created almost a living herbarium for people and you’re not chucking it all at them in one go, they’re not being hit with seventy-six plants, then they go completely [inaudible 00:38:09] out but then they never do anything with it. They’re actually slowly being drip fed, here’s this unique plant.
Now obviously you’ve got [inaudible 00:38:17] in there, sometimes in dandelion, etc, but what I really like about this project is that you’re opening up people’s minds to the absolute diversity of wild food plants in Britain that seventy six plants, you’ve already doubled the number of plants in, was it week 30? Than most people would eat in a year and you’re giving them recipes, you can see the plant in … they can see the plant in their hand but it does bring up a question for me and is getting a box through the post gonna get them out there? I mean, how long should people be subscribed for? Are you kind of like some corporate business that just wants a customer for life and all that usual malarkey that [crosstalk 00:39:15] do because I get a sense that actually you’re trying to make yourself obsolete.
Miles Irving: Well, I suppose what I think is, anyone that gets this box every week is gonna start either recognising plants that they’ve seen in the box in their locality, especially if they’re a gardener, they’ve just realised that they’ve been yanking these things out and calling them weeds for years which is … yeah. I mean, so I mean that pays for the box in itself all of a sudden. I always think like here you are working hard to grow salads and pulling other things out which are actually superior salads in order to make room for the salads that you’re trying to grow, not knowing that’s what you’re doing.
Robin Harford: It’s bonkers. That’s really bonkers, isn’t it?
Miles Irving: I mean this week for example, we’ve got hairy bittercress going in the box which most gardeners just hate and detest because it’s so prolific and it explodes hundreds of seeds out when you touch it when it reaches that stage and then you know each of those seeds is going to create another hairy bittercress plant. So you have this magical transformation from thinking curses, it’s done it again, 100 bittercress seeds are going to now pollute my garden with another 100 bittercress but [inaudible 00:40:31] almost want to kneel down and say thank you, thank you that I didn’t even have to sow your seeds, you’ve just said your own seeds and now I’m going to have more delicious bittercress plants all over my garden and I haven’t had to do any other work other than accidentally bump into you and make you explode seeds everywhere.
Anyway, so there’s that category. People will realise that there’s plants that have been there all along that they can eat because they now recognise them and then there’s the other category of people who knew about nettles and dandelions but didn’t know what to do or they tried them and had a negative experience and that’s where my earlier story about the Carluccio book comes in.
So, I had a negative experience with [inaudible 00:41:14] positive experience with the recipes in the Carluccio book which enabled me to properly engage and connect with plants. So I’ve realised that actually the [inaudible 00:41:27] that exists between people and those nettles that they’re not gathering, that they never could and [inaudible 00:41:32], the gulf is basically the lack of good recipes and maybe it’s also slightly the lack of the initiative to just gather that nettle and bring it into their house because it’s a strange thing that they don’t have a routine for, it’s gonna sting them and they have to remember to take gloves and whatever. So we do that bit for them and I feel like we are basically … it’s like a match made in heaven. Here we matchmakers. You and nettles should get together, you’re born for each other, that sort of thing, but how does that need to happen? Well it needs to be a little process of that matchmaking and so we just weave people together with plants by giving them the plant, the recipe, there you go and also a little incentive, you just spend 20 quid on this, I know for myself having had a veg box, the last four or five years with a local organic farm which we’re keen to support because they let us pick their weeds and it’s just so annoying throwing that stuff away because you just think, man, I’ve got to get organised and learn to use this stuff.
So I’m just saying that when you actually pay for something, you’re more likely to use it than if you pick those nettles and didn’t get around to it, you’d think oh well, I’ve just picked some more but if you payed me for them you’re going to want to use them. So all round, we’re facilitating people actually getting round to cooking nettle soup or whatever other simple recipe we’ve given them and the feeling they get after that is so self reinforcing of the activity. I want to do it again, I feel so good and next time they want to pick them themselves. So either way, either because they’ve encountered a plant they didn’t realise was there because now they recognise it or they’ve encountered a plant that they knew was there all along, all of a sudden the wild box means that they’re gathering the stuff in the environment.
So I would think that the vast majority of people are going to start foraging for themselves and sooner or later they’ll just think they don’t need us anymore and that’s fine because there are, whatever it is, 70 million people in the UK, we’re not actually planning to do 70 million wild boxes, that means there’s a limit somewhere and I don’t know, at the moment we think it’s maybe a few thousand that we could do a few thousand people and then we’d have to cap it, so then we’d have a waiting list and we would have to be sort of sending emails out going come in number seven, your time is up, you’ve been a wild box customer for a year and a half now, we think it’s time you stood on your own two feet because there’s lot’s of other people waiting to subscribe to the wild box.
Robin Harford: Yeah. So it’s an interactive educational tool, extremely delicious because I’ve sampled some of your recipes and you put a lot of effort in and you’ve actually made them first. There’s so many blooming cookbooks out there where … I don’t know what the percentage is but some publisher approaches some celeb chef and he just reels off a load of recipes from his head, he’s imagining them, he hasn’t actually made them and so when everyone else starts trying to make them, they end up tasting revolting, looking revolting and just generally not doing what the book had promised.
Miles Irving: But they bank on a fact that nobody will. Most of those cookery books are just things to …
Robin Harford: Yeah, food porn, aren’t they.
Miles Irving: They’re coffee table books really, aren’t they?
Robin Harford: So we’re gonna have to wrap and pack this pretty soon, but has … I understand that you’ve been getting a few awards for this little …
Miles Irving: Well we got an award which is good enough for us. We’ve only been going for half a year and we entered the Good Food Awards which has … I mean, everybody does enter it, so they’ve got lots of industry folks, lots of chefs and other people that work in the industry judging all the different product categories and there was a box scheme category, a subscription box category and we won. So we were just bowled over by that. Bearing in mind that all of the big boys were in there, Gusto and [inaudible 00:45:30] and [inaudible 00:45:31], they were all in there and we won without …
Robin Harford: Who was that? Who gave the award?
Miles Irving: The Good Food Awards. The British Good Food Awards. Sorry, The Great British Food Awards, god blimey, I better get it right. Great British Food Awards. There we are. So you can go on their website and see that. So we’ve got this thing that we’ll do what we’re saying, it will initiate people into a wonderful world of wild plants and cooking them and eating them but I just want to say, it isn’t just for the general public because when you said earlier about like sending 75 files to somebody and they just wouldn’t know what to do, we’ve realised after years that we’ve kind of been doing that with chefs, especially since that initial reaction I got from one guy but bearing in mind, that one guy was only receiving one ingredient at a time.
We go [inaudible 00:46:33] to see new chefs or have done, naively sort of hurling 35 ingredients at them at once thinking that they’ll just love us for it and whilst there’s the odd one that is just for some reason lucky enough to have the time and setup but enables them to experiment, most people rather than doing them a favour, these chefs were just giving them a headache. Here’s a bunch of problems to solve, how to get Alexander’s into your menu, when it’s actually quite a challenging ingredient and it’s no good me saying do this, do that, because that’s not really … if I was in the kitchen as part of a team I could say do this and do that and show them or over the phone trying to explain [inaudible 00:47:20] Really, I’ve realised that by introducing new ingredients to chefs, we’re just giving them a problem but the wild box is the solution and it means we can introduce the new things without it being a problem because here we are, here’s this new thing and this is what to do with it.
So we’re also really wanting to engage chefs with this, especially … there’s a lot of interest among chefs these days in the wild ingredients, a lot of young guys especially are wanting to learn for themselves but there’s not really tools to learn, so people tend to use the ones that everybody else uses that already … and even then, the engagement might not be so thorough or might not really be exploring all the possibilities because … like chickweed, yes, we can just put that on as a garnish, but okay, what about a [inaudible 00:48:12]? What about the possibilities of [inaudible 00:48:15] leaf itself? The point is, I’m not a chef but I do cook with these things and I have cooked with these things for a long time and I’ve had interactions with chefs who maybe have had an afternoon or a day to experiment and we’ve made some progress with disentangling or cracking the code of what is this ingredient about and so on.
So, bit by bit by bit for 20 quid a week, any chef kitchen, [inaudible 00:48:45] kitchen or restaurant can take these seven ingredients and learn and the whole team can learn just based around these seven ingredients bit by bit, drip by drip by drip every week and think about it, in the course of a year, I don’t know what we’ll be up to but we’ve done 76 in 30 weeks, just over half a year. So I’m thinking we’ll definitely be over the hundred barrier, maybe 150, I don’t know but that’s a lot of plants or a lot of new ingredients for a chef to potentially get him, her and his, her entire team to know about. So, yeah, we’re quite excited about that and the latest development Robin is we’re about to launch a Patreon channel which we’ll be putting some more in-depth videos on there which people can also access those to get some excellent information.
Robin Harford: Yeah, great. So, just to wrap and pack, if people are interested in learning more about you and I do have to say to folks that I consider Miles to be kind of the philosopher forager, he has some extraordinary articles on his website under the blog section. Also you can find out more about the wild box and I assume everything is all under the same website is it Miles?
Miles Irving: Yeah, it’s all on forager.org.uk. The front page is perhaps a little busy but it does allow you to click through pretty much everything we do. So forager.org.uk.
Robin Harford: That’s great. Okay and obviously all the links to connect with you will be in the show notes under this episode. So it’s been as ever a real pleasure to chat with you. Thanks for coming on and we will …
Miles Irving: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to talk to you Robin as ever.
Robin Harford: We’ll talk soon.
Miles Irving: Yep, cheers Robin.