René Redzepi Wants to Teach Teenagers How to Forage
We put his new Wild Food project to a tough test.
Naturvejleder Mads Ellegaard plukker vilde planter sammen med elever fra Strandgårdskolen.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
Ida, a tall 13-year-old girl, stands and points at the hogweed that Mads Ellegaard has just pointed out. Ellegaard, the nature guide, has just explained that the hogweed is an invasive species which must be eradicated.
"You can't die from it, no. But it can give you a really annoying rash," he explains.
We stand by a field where some Scottish Highland cattle are grazing. Back in the classroom, Ellegaard had asked how many of the students had ever gathered wild plants before. None of them had. One student had picked apples, and someone else had once picked strawberries.
"Great," Ellegaard says. "In fact, the difference between picking strawberries and apples and picking the herbs, as we'll find out today, isn't a very big one. It's just some new plants you'll become acquainted with. It'll be wicked good."
We are in Ishøj, a town in the southwestern suburbs of Copenhagen, Denmark. Some know it mostly for its gray concrete buildings, social challenges, and the Vejleåparken neighborhood, which in recent years has been an area of political focus because of its crime and unemployment rates. The municipality is among the top ten poorest in Denmark. It is home to the country's largest population of immigrants, and it's had a long reputation of being troubled.
But there's something else here, too: Rich nature, located just on the other side of the school's area. A lush and diverse landscape that offers garlic mustard as well as meadowsweet, nettles, wild parsnips, rose hips, and water mint. Here you can find dandelions, horseradish, elderflower, and other wild plants, that are free to the public—or at least to anyone who bothers to come pick them and use them in their home cooking.
Which is why the 7th graders at Strandgårdsskolen are here today. Everything here is at the behest of René Redzepi, chef of the world-renowned restaurant Noma, and whose Wild Food project (called Vild Mad) aims to open young people's eyes to the wild ingredients that can be found in the Danish wilderness. The project is now being rolled out across the country by the non-profit organization Food (or Mad), which Redzepi founded in 2011.
"It tastes bad, man. Are you sure you can eat this?"
We're at the first stop on the route. Ellegaard explained in advance that we're going to walk a maximum of 1.25 miles—"like from here to the grocery store and back again"—and he's already spotted the first plant that the students will pick: Dandelions, tucked in between a strip of long blades of grass right on the other side of the school's property. Ellegaard asks each student to pick one dandelion leaf and try tasting it.
"You want us to taste them? There's probably dogs that have peed on them," says 15-year-old Gracia incredulously.
Another one of the boys, Shafe, who is 13 years old, picks a small leaf and puts it between his teeth.
"It's a little strange," he notes, grimacing. "It just tastes so... green. "
Ellegaard whistles and calls for assembly: "It's really good. Dandelions can be used for many things. The larger the blade, the more bitter they are—so if you can find some that are small, crisp, and delicious, they taste even better than the big ones. Now, I'd like each of you to find 10 small dandelion leaves, which we can put in the bag and take home," he says, before we move along.
Several years ago, Redzepi became known as the master chef who put Nordic food on the world map. Since then, the acclaimed Noma chef has—among other things—created the non-profit organization that's behind a large chef symposium in Refshaleøen, Copenhagen, and which aims to be a "global cooking community with a social conscience and an appetite for change."
Redzepi launched the Wild Food project in cooperation with a number of other organizations, such as Byhøst, and in doing so, he's making adults and young people alike better at foraging—better at seeking out and gathering raw materials in the Danish wilderness, and then using them as ingredients in their home kitchens.
"Imagine if our kids had this basic knowledge, that enables them to pick things in nature with just as much certainty as when they pick things off the shelves in a supermarket," says Redzepi. "If they knew about commodities like wild mustard plants from our beaches, wild chamomile that blooms between sidewalk pavers, or ants that taste like lemon. If our children are enriched by nature and learn to love it, we believe that they'll also fight to protect it."
There are several components to Wild Food, including a website and a free app you can use to educate yourself on nature and the plants found within it. With the app's compass mode, you can learn about ten different foraging landscapes in the Danish countryside. It features detailed descriptions for over 100 wild plants and herbs, as well as a large database of recipes developed specifically to highlight wild produce, created by the likes of chefs such as Thorsten Schmidt and David de Silva. The organization also offers comprehensive teaching material which can be implemented into various elementary school subjects, and collaborations with 50 nature tutors throughout the country—including Ellegaard, from Ishøj—who arrange foraging tours for school groups and individuals.
"We believe we're boiling 14 years of experience down to something that everyone can take part in," says Redzepi. "We simply can't wait to share it all."
The asphalt and the yellow brick buildings gradually disappear, giving way to nature. Ellegaard stops at a row of tall plants with big, curly leaves that are close to the Baldersbæk creek that runs through the area. He points to the plants and asks if anyone can tell him what they are.
On the way to the site, the students were busier joking with each other, talking about football, catching up about their weekends, and discussing whether or not you must be fifteen years old to work at McDonald's. Ellegaard knows it can be challenging to get young people interested in all that nature has to offer. He believes that a project like Wild Food makes plenty of sense—especially in Vestegnen, a suburb district west of Copenhagen, where many young people have never tried collecting plants before.
"For lots of them, this is new. It's important that young people see nature as a resource. It's not just something you can look at—you can also taste it, smell it, and use it. If we teach young people how great nature is, maybe they'll also take more ownership of it," says Ellegaard, adding: "I took a 7th grade class out to pick garlic mustard, and one of the students told us that he has these plants growing in front of his door and that he'd go talk with his grandma, so that she could go out and use them. He made the connection that his grandma does all the cooking and that these plants are right outside [his house]. That's just great."
After walking for an hour and a half, we reach Ishøj Lake. On a small patch of grass nearby, the students have foraged elderflower and goutweed, and also sealed up some garlic mustard and rose hips into Ziploc bags. Now it's time for the students to pick the last plant: Water mint. Ellegaard warns that it has a "very, very strong taste." He bends down and unroots a small plant from the moist soil.
"So, I'd like you to take a leaf and squeeze it between your fingers, and then try to smell it," he says, handing out some leaves.
He previously explained to the students that, when foraging, it's important to never take more than one third of the plant's natural supply, and never to take the only or last plant left. Otherwise, there'd be nothing left for the next foragers who come to that spot and no new plants will grow there.
Many of the students have long since lost their concentration (for several of them, they'd lost it 30 minutes earlier), but nevertheless, they do as they're told. Even those who were playing around with a meadowsweet earlier grab hold of a leaf. One by one, they become more animated. "Oh man, the smell!" squeals one of the girls.
"It's crazy!" adds another.
"Is it okay to taste it?" one of the boys asks.
"What can you use this for?" asks a fourth.
Ellegaard leans over to whisper something in my ear. I can almost feel his smile: "It's great to hear, isn't it?"
Back at the school, Ellegaard is quite satisfied with the day's result. The bags are filled to the brim with wild plants, and although not every student has tried a plant, many of them have tried to touch, smell, and taste the ones they were told to find today.
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He tells the class they need to remember to talk about all that they've learned once they've gone home. "It's important that you remember how to use everything you've learned today. That way you can make a lot of delicious things."
Afterwards, the students head to the cafeteria, where they'll cook with the plants they've picked today. For some of them, this is the first time they've cooked with wild matter; it may not be the last.
What did they create? The final result was goutweed pesto; a salad with finely chopped dandelion leaves, garnished with rose petals; and meatballs with diced plantains and elderflower juice.
It's the school version of Noma. And it's actually amazing.