Local Food Knowledge — Wild Plants and Plants to Save the Planet

A herb and vegetable seller at the traditional food market in Ayvalık on Turkey’s north Aegean coast. The woman is selling fennel fronds, golden thistle and mixed herbs, which are generally used in the savoury pastries called böregi.

Bodrum, once known as Halicarnassus in the days of Herodotus, is surrounded by  hills and a promontory that juts into the Aegean Sea. Here the Bodrum peninsula of Muğla province becomes a wild place amidst the touristic scenery of beaches and cafes and hotels and yachts and other distractions. Six kilometres away in the covered market in the heart of the town the wild products of that promontory are coveted, just as they have always been, before and since Herodotus took his first steps in this land.

Bodrum and the local gatherer tradition is synonymous with ancient Anatolian life. Villagers from the surrounding area gather wild herbs and wild greens and bring their surplus to the markets. With the land parched by the hot sun we did not expect to find anything interesting after we had arrived on the promontory, yet the evidence was there. The indigenous produce of Anatolia is more than fruit and vegetables, meat and breads, pastry and confections, and elaborate preparations. More than anything it is about wild edibles that are more apparent than they seem.

The traditional food of the western Mediterranean, with its emphasis on cheese, fish and pasta, contrasted with the traditional food of the eastern Mediterranean, with its emphasis on fruit, sourdough bread, vegetables and greens. The modern diet across the region is as diverse as it is different. Some of the most popular ingredients in the Mediterranean diet, especially with non-Mediterraneans, are a reflection of the hyperbole, ignorance and myth-making of those without knowledge. In the 1950s when American researchers found the food of Crete ‘swimming in oil’ and ‘wine consumed morning, noon and night’ that ignorance could be forgiven. Today it is obvious there is more to it than that, those with the knowledge will be among the first to explain.

If the Mediterranean diet is based on anything specific, it is the foraging and gathering tradition of their ancestors, an eternal habit that was not changed by farming and horticulture, especially in Anatolia. Cyprus, Greece and Turkey continue to provide a range of indigenous ingredients to their traditional foods that are unknown to the wider world.

Füsun Ertuğ is an anthropologist. For thirty months after October 1999 into 2002 she was the lead researcher in a project to collect material on the useful plants of the Bodrum peninsula. With the help of 25 volunteers, her research team collected stories from the people of the peninsula, ‘on the traditional uses of plants for food, medicine, fodder, fuel, handicrafts and other purposes’. Surveys of weekly markets in Bodrum, Milas and Muğla were conducted to ‘check the availability of the locally known edibles’. There was a richness of aromatic plants in the Bodrum region that was consistent with the tradition. Ertuğ explained.

‘The people of the Aegean and the Mediterranean are well known for their gathering tradition, because they do not only eat maybe more greens, but they also appreciate them more. The green vegetables (wild or cultivated) treated in rich olive oil more or less constitute their main dishes. In east, south-east and central Anatolia, where animal husbandry is the main source of income, meat is highly valued, but is only consumed on feast days. In these areas rural people collect and consume wild greens, especially during winter, and bulbs, mushrooms and fruit during the spring and autumn; all of which play an important role in their carbohydrate-rich diet.’

Tijen İnaltong worked for the Bodrum Useful Plants Research Project and became acquainted with the magic of this gatherer world. ‘As fall approaches and the rains begin to bring the parched landscape back to life, wild greens gradually begin to appear in the markets of Bodrum. It takes a bit of knowledge to fully perceive the variety of greens, because the piles of greens on the tables, which seem fairly uniform at first glance, actually contain many different herbs. 

‘Collected by village women from gardens, fields, plains and mountains, they are priced according to their availability and where they were collected. For example, the hardalotu collected from around the base of trees in the mandarin orange orchards come cheap. As nettles and mallow are available almost year-round and come up in orchards and gardens everywhere, they are inexpensive as well. But others such as kenker, tilkisen and acıot are always expensive.’

Hardalotu is wild mustard. These greens are steamed and served with olive oil, lemon and salt. Kenker, from the thistle family, replaces vine leaves to make dolma. Tilkisen, wild asparagus shoots, are sautéed in olive oil and cooked with eggs, ‘as a kind of frittata,’ said Inaltong.

Every year the people of the coastal regions, from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic and the Aegean, go foraging for wild greens to replace domesticated greens in their favourite foods. In Turkey, where the gathering is done across the breadth of Anatolia, that means adding them into breads and pastries, stuffing them into vegetables such as aubergines and peppers, and generally cooking them with olive oil. The result is a diet that is rich in fibre, that contains antioxidants and fatty acids, essentials for a healthy diet.

Fish, fruit, nuts and seeds play a huge role in diets that reduce disease, so much that this combination has almost become a cliche. These ingredients are an integral aspect of the food culture of all the Mediterranean Basin countries. What the Croatians, Greeks, Italians and Spanish would do without their range of calamari and cuttlefish does not bear thinking about. In some ways stuffed squid epitomises the Mediterranean diet, especially if the ingredients include fruits, nuts, vegetables and wild greens.

The same can be said about the Turks and that fondness for wild herbs and wild greens. In the eastern and southern Mediterranean the mint family (hyssop, melissa, peppermint, rosemary, sage, spearmint and much more) has various uses, in meat and pastry preparations, and as teas and tisanes – cold and hot. Purslane, with its exceptional health benefits, is used in salads and desserts. Shepherd‘s Purse continues to be used in food despite its popularity as a medicine. Tarhana is an essential ingredient in the fermented vegetable, spice and yoghurt concoction of the same name, found in the cuisine of Armenia and Turkey. Yoghurt flavoured with assorted leaves remains one of the most popular desserts in the eastern Mediterranean countries. 

Authors of a 2008 study of wild plant use in 12 villages in Anatolia said it was ‘very pleasing to know that some valuable plants still maintain their vitality and existence and take their place in traditional cuisine‘ when they discovered that 40 plants were used for nutritional purposes.

Ertuğ and İnaltong are also pleased about this, but they shared a warning. The fact that the gatherer tradition existed did not indicate continuity between generations. There was an interruption between local knowledge and public knowledge and no apparatus in place to provide the general public with the information, despite a raised awareness about the dietary and health benefits.

It has not been for the want of trying. Artemis P. Simopoulos concluded that the Mediterranean diet is special because of the bioprotective nutrients available in these foods. 

‘… high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, b-carotene, glutathione, resveratrol, selenium, phytoestrogens, folate, and other phytochemicals from green leafy vegetables; phenolic compounds from wine and olive oil; high intakes of tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, especially oregano, mint, rosemary, parsley and dill, which contain lycopene, allyl thiosulfinates, salicylates, carotenoids, indoles, monoterpenes, polyphenols, flavonoids and other phytochemicals used in cooking vegetables, meat and fish.’

Wild plants also remain an essential component of the traditional food cultures of the continent. Angelica, aniseed, blackthorn, blueberry, centaury, chickweed, chicory, cow vetch, dandelion, elderberry, garlic mustard, goosefoot, ground elder, juniper, marshmallow, meadowsweet, mugwort, rosefoot, rowan, stinging nettle, sweet cicely, tansy, violet, watercress, white horehound, wild carrot, wild cherry, wild garlic, wild onion, wild parsnip, wood sorrel, yarrow are all wild plants used in traditional foods across Anatolia, the Caucasus and Europe.

There was a time when every meal would contain the berries, flowers, leaves, roots, seeds and stems of plants gathered from the wild, and used fresh or dried, cooked or uncooked in sauces, soups, stews and salads primarily but also to make cold drinks and hot tisanes, and to decorate and flavour breads, confections and pastries.

Wild sage in Bodrum, Turkey

Contrarily, the cultivated herbs we know as basil, bay, borage, chive, cilantro, comfrey, dill, fennel, hyssop, lovage, marjoram, melissa, parsley, rocket, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel, tarragon and thyme still grow profusely in the wild, and remain essential to traditional cooking, but only, it would appear, to the chosen few. On that Bodrum promontory we sampled a wild sage with an outrageous depth of flavour.

In northern and western Europe and especially along the Atlantic fringe, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme take on different characteristics from their cousins on Mediterranean hillsides, and are not used to the same extent as they are in the Balkans, Greece, Italy and Turkey. France is the exception, with herbs remaining essential to French traditional food. Angelica thrives in the colder climates of the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – and for countless centuries was at the heart of the traditional food cultures of these countries before falling out of favour.

Caraway, centaury, chamomile, chervil and marshmallow have made their impact on traditional food in northern and central Europe, caraway as an essential ingredient in cabbage and potato dishes, in cheese and in rye bread, chamomile, centaury and marshmallow as tisanes, and chervil in salads, sauces and soups. That only centaury, chamomile, marshmallow, melissa and spearmint continue to remain popular as tissanes in some countries is an indication how far the integrity of wild plants has fallen.

Borage head

Despite an interest in hardy herbs like dandelion, nettle and wild garlic in western Europe during the 1990s and the advent of a new sensibility toward indigenous sustainable food in the Nordic countries during the 2000s, wild plants continue to be the preserve of the same people who have always known their benefits.

And while some sea vegetables, such as dulce, kelp, samphire and sea kale, are finding their way into the kitchens of clever chefs, there are many other varieties that are being ignored.

Wild plants remain an essential component of the traditional food cultures of the world. The long lives of coastal people, forest people, island people and steppe people are associated with their dependence on forager food, which, as we shall see, remain integral to food security and the whole-of-community concept to restoration and sustainability in this era of mass extinction. The medicinal properties of wild plants have never been in dispute, it is the failure to implement systems that highlight their nutritional benefits, and the lack of knowledge among the general population about these benefits.

Back in Bodrum and across the Anatolian plateau that feeling is endemic. Ertuğ summed it up when she said it was the ‘duty of experts to assess which of the plants and information identified in the Bodrum Survey can be a really useful, economic resource for the future’ and stressed that ‘the information is also endemic and is more short-lived and in need of protection than most endemic plants’. 

This is where the ethnobotanist enters the picture.