Food from the Forest

Food from the forest

Obtaining food from trees is the most sustainable form of agriculture. Compared to vegetable or grain crops for many years trees require very little input  - labour or resources -  only perhaps an annual pruning or clearing beneath for ease of harvesting. Unlike annual crops, such as wheat or tomatoes, which have to be restarted every year from seed, trees grow bigger or stronger every year for many years. I have found nursing vegetable plants from fragile seedlings into productive plants time consuming and frustrating when the snails decide they are also interested in the sweet and delicate leaves! Although young trees need care and attention while establishing themselves, in terms of watering and sometimes pest management, it is little compared to the daily or twice daily care required for young vegetable plants.

In a functioning forest system fertility is provided onsite by the recycling of dead organic matter, such as leaves or dead trees, which is converted to bioavailable nutrients by the healthy soil microorganisms and fungi.  There are also many nitrogen-fixing plants and trees that grow in forest systems and enrich the soil. Established trees do not require irrigation as their deep roots penetrate the soil to find sub surface moisture in times of drought.

And for yield? Think of the kilos of apples or almonds produced by healthy trees.  Serious weight and serious nutrition – vitamins, minerals, proteins, sugars and carbohydrates.  Many tree crops can be carefully stored for year round consumption. Others can be preserved by drying or jamming.

Chestnuts are one of the most exciting trees to grow for staple food production – though I may be biased because I love to eat them! In general it is hard to obtain starchy carbohydrate from trees or perennials, they are usually provided in our diets by grains and root vegetables. But chestnuts unlike most nuts are mostly carbohydrate, low in fat and high in starch and acre for acre as high yielding as a field of wheat. But, unlike wheat, a chestnut tree is also home to a myriad of wildlife, an integral part of a functioning water cycle – warming in summer, cooling in winter. A tree is part of a forest systems which bestows all of the associated benefits to man and wildlife rather than the drawbacks of a chemical monoculture.

This is some of the food we will harvest from our forest system:

Fruit : The most common and popular food produced from trees. We are planting fruit trees on the edges of our forest systems for example along tracks where they can easily be accessed for pruning and picking.  We are especially interested in trees with native rootstock such as cherries and heritage varieties of apple. We are also sowing and planting wild species of plum, cherry and peach all through the forest. Perhaps we will harvest some, perhaps the birds or the genets will have some or perhaps the fruit will simply rot and return nutrients to the soil microorganisms. One thing is for sure nothing will be wasted in this diverse system.

Nuts: Walnut trees have been traditionally grown in this area for centuries and we are growing them for nuts and for timber. We are also experimenting with almonds and researching the potential of other nuts from N. America such as Pecans, and Heartnuts.

Chestnuts: Chestnuts, happily, are an integral part of the native forest of this part of Portugal. Not only do they provide the fabulous chestnut in large quantities but they also provide amazing bee forage in the summer, which produces dark, nutritious, flavoursome honey. The timber is beautiful and hard and the tree can be coppiced to produce useful building wood (see more about coppicing in the timber section).

Acorns: There are many species of oak trees worldwide and all of the acorns are edible, BUT the acorns of most species are very high in tannins and require days of processing the remove the tannins for the acorn to be edible for humans. Here in Portugal we are really lucky to have the only two species of sweet acorn, containing very low tannin, that can be eaten straight away like a chestnut. Like chestnuts acorns are amazingly versatile and can be roasted and eaten whole, ground  into flour or roasted to produce a delicious, caffeine-free coffee. The two species of sweet acorns are the Cork oak (Quercus suber) though this produces few and small acorns, and a subspecies of the Holm Oak (Quercus Ilex) which according to different sources is either referred to as Quercus Ilex sub. Ballota or Quercus rotundifolia. This acorn producing oak known as Azinheira in Portuguese could be the perfect thing to grow on the dry, southern slopes which are too hot and dry for the chestnuts we are looking forward to experimenting.

Medronho: These are the fruit from Arbutus unedo or the Strawberry tree – ‘Medronheiro’ in Portuguese. The fruits only slightly resemble strawberries being small and red but are perfectly round. When ripe they are very sweet and rich in vitamin C. After ripening they quickly start to ferment and are used in this area to make a strong, sweet liquor or aguadente. The medronheiros grow wild in this part of Portugal and comprise a natural part of the native forest mix. They flower while they fruit in November/December and are provide nectar for bees. They are an obvious source of vitamins and sweetness during the winter.

Pine nuts: These are the seeds of pine trees but most are tiny and too much effort to harvest. There are about 20 species of pine worldwide that it is worth the effort to harvest from. Native to southern Europe is Pinus pinea, the Stone or Umbrella pine and we are hoping that these too will be a solution for the dry southern slopes.

Mushrooms: Mushrooms grow wild here and harvested sustainably are an excellent source of nutrition and diversity in our diets. We are also interested in cultivating them on the logs that we fell as we thin pine and eucalyptus. Many species could be grown and some win a valuable premium when sought after by shops and restaurants. These could be a valuable source of income. We have made some experiments and plan to do more soon.

Honey: Ah honey, the sweetest of them all. Traditionally a treasured food source the world over prized for its sweetness and calories. We too prize it highly. Bees are an intrinsic part of our forest ecosystem and can provide income not just from honey but from wax and propolis products and the sale of swarms and hives. See more in the bees section.

Wild greens: We are lucky to live in a humid climate where wild plants flourish. There are many species of wild greens that we eat both raw and cooked. From the familiar stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) to the less well known gallant soldier (Galinsoga parviflora), wild greens are available year round and are an important part of our nutrition. Without the need for cultivation or care these are an essential and resilient part of living sustainably anywhere. We run courses in identifying wild edible plants to empower people to forage in their own locality.

Bay leaves: The aromatic leaves from Laurel nobilis are a favourite kitchen staple throughout Europe, richly flavouring soups and stews. We are lucky to have this tree growing wild here and an important part of the species mix of the forest, often occupying shadier, moister niches in the valleys. Easy to dry this could also be a source of income, sustainably harvested and marketed to shops or cities.

Herbal teas and medicinal plants: There are many wild and cultivated plants that grow here that make wonderful teas and we can forage for our year round needs. From trees like the limes or lindens (Tilia spp.) or Olive (Olea europea), herbaceous plants like nettle (Urtiga dioica) and sage (Salvia officinalis), flowers like Malva (Malva sylvestris) and Elderflower (Sambucas nigra) and even the delicious black tea substitute from the humble bramble (Rubus fruticosus) to name a few, we are completely spoilt for choice! All of these and many more found locally have medicinal properties and we make teas and tinctures for healing and restorative purposes. Truly nature’s bounty.

Events

Benfeita, May 1st 2017
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Quinta da Floresta, Benfeita October 21st 10 - 5pm

I am very happy to announce another opportunity to begin to learn the art and science of foraging in our beautiful valley in the Serra do Açor.

Quinta da Floresta, Benfeita 12 - 15 Ocober 2017

In our times crafts such as green woodwork are something truly revolutionary. We find making a useful product with ones own hands straight from the forest is totally inspiring.  Not only is such work simply sustainable it is also deeply...

Quinta da Floresta, Benfeita - Date TBC 2018

People have retreated to wild places for millennia to find inner peace and a greater perspective on life. Nature, in it’s simplicity and beauty, supports a profound relaxation in body, mind and soul.

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