If you’ve never carried home a clump of kelp from the beach, walked through a park without picking a few sprigs of shepherd’s purse, or paused a road trip to pull some wild fennel from the side of the road, foraging expert Diego Bonetto wants to change the way you look at the world.
The Italian native, who has called Australia home since the mid-1990s, has spent much of that time guiding eager novices – and top Australian chefs and bartenders – through Sydney’s parks, beaches and backyards in pursuit of edible plants. He’s now aiming to preach his wild food gospel even more widely with the release of his first book, Eat Weeds, a field guide to foraging. How to identify, harvest and use wild plants.
Bonetto wants his book to teach us how to find food “within three metres of your front door”, and make you see your neighbourhood as a source of edible snacks. It includes a foreword by Australia’s most famous plant whisperer, Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis, and he expresses what everyone who has met Bonetto knows: that if anyone is going to get us to think differently about wild foods, it’s him.
“Diego speaks the language of wild nature. It is part of the very DNA he grew up with on the land, and this book is an invitation to observe the world around us with a whole new set of goggles,” Georgiadis writes.
Eat Weeds is a practical, real-world guide to identifying Australia’s incredible edibles. It’s broken into chapters entitled “Backyard”, “Urban Streets and Parklands”, “Sea”, “River” and “Forest”, and includes Bonetto’s thoughtful musings on the nature of wild food, and our connection to it. There are recipes to turn these foraged things into meals, snacks and condiments, such as a pine mushroom and sorrel risotto, stinging nettle focaccia or seaweed pickle. It also holds important information on the ethics, legality, environmental and health considerations of foraging.
“There is a staggering amount of untapped cultural knowledge related to weeds in Australia,” Bonetto says, adding that the dominance of supermarket culture means the art of foraging has mostly been lost. He reckons that given the increasing environmental pressures, a rise in the cost of living and issues such as the pandemic, a book that reacquaints us to the forgotten art has never been more important.
“We feel disenfranchised and powerless against these unpredictable forces; now is a good time to bring back these skills, honouring the ancient, ongoing practices of indigenous people from all over the world while paying respect to the gifts of nature.”
Whether it’s introducing the nutritional benefits of dandelions, helping identify a wild-olive tree to create a tea, or offering a recipe for a three-weed salsa verde, it’s a book the self-professed “weedy one” hopes will unlock what the world of weeds holds.
“I wanted to present a book that would be easy to understand,” Bonetto says, “with clear instructions, images and illustrations that would provide a series of windows into what you will likely find in a particular environment.”
There are pretty botanical illustrations and photos, crafted by celebrated Sydney-based artist Mirra Whale and photographer Hellene Algie (both long-term collaborators of Bonetto), designed to make the plants easier to identify and “evoke a sensory experience by drawing you into the environment”.
Bonetto knows that pulling a dandelion from the backyard and turning it into pesto might be a forgotten skill for most of us, but he believes the art of finding and enjoying wild food is still one most of us are connected to via gateway wild foods.
“A great example is mulberries. It is a common experience of many Australians to learn about mulberries at a young age. The response is universal: you taste a mulberry and the day after you map your neighbourhood to find out where the best trees are. You become a stakeholder of the tree, to the level of caretaker.
“We learn how to look after our ecologies via the triggering experience of free, yummy, food.”
Bonetto offers a suggestion of how to take the wisdom of the book and transfer it to the real world: by simply taking it three weeds at a time.
“Take the book out into the garden and find the dandelions, flatweed and sowthistles. Once you learn three you will develop the observation skills that will allow you to see the differences among other plants. Then learn three more. Slow down and enjoy the journey. Nature will reward you with free gifts,” he says.
Eat Weeds, a field guide to foraging. How to identify, harvest and use wild plants, by Diego Bonetto, is published by Thames & Hudson Australia and is out now for $49,99. Buy it here.
Bonetto hosts regular foraging workshops and events in and around Sydney’s beaches and parks. Find them here.