The forest wraps the coast of Christchurch’s peninsula, carpets of pine needles giving way to a bright shard of green from the ocean. Nestled in the golden needles, Dylan Parker finds his prize: a cluster of dusty-brown slippery jack mushrooms, barely visible at first glance, hollow-sounding when tapped – perfect for eating. He gives them a quick slap to release the spores, trims them of their dirt, and slots them into his basket, where the ingredients of dinner are slowly accumulating.
In New Zealand, where inflation and price increases have sent food prices sky-high, increasing numbers of people are turning to foraging to supplement the contents of their pantries. Communities map out fruit and nut trees, alert one another to upcoming windfalls, develop a working knowledge of edible weeds, and teach themselves to distinguish a tasty birch bolete mushroom from a poisonous lookalike.
In some locations, the competition can grow fierce. Foragers reluctant to give away their prized porcini mushroom spots will rustle stealthily through the leaf litter, trying to conceal their intentions. “You’ll see these old guys, and they won’t even tell you what they’re doing,” laughs Parker, a basket of mushrooms slung over his arm. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve just lost a ring!’ holding a bag full of lumps.”
Foraging is popular in Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island, where devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 saw large chunks of the city demolished. A decade later, gaps remain, like knocked out teeth in the skyline’s smile. In some of those gaps, nature has taken over, and wild rabbits run through empty lots. The red zone, a sprawling expanse that ribbons from the coastline to the inner city, was designated too unstable to rebuild upon, and 8,000 houses were demolished or removed. They have left behind a surreal tangle of abandoned cul de sacs, cracking footpaths, expanding meadows and gardens left to go wild. Demolition teams opted to leave the trees, and now the zone plays host to thousands of fruiting trees and vines. It is a favourite for foragers.
“It started with us exploring the red zone, before the houses were pulled down,” says Sandi Bobkova, who has brought her three-year-old son Leon out food-gathering. “We realised how many fruit trees and things were being left behind, and it turned from urban exploring into fruit collection and nut collection.” They now gather apples, pears, grapes, feijoas, walnuts and the occasional lucky haul of apricots.
Beside her, Leon proudly brandishes a porcini mushroom. “Doesn’t smell poisonous,” he proclaims. (Bobkova, a horticulturist, advises caution eating wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely sure of their safety.) Over time, she says foraging has been a fun activity for their family, but also a way to keep food bills down. “If you have a toddler, you know they’re wee apple munchers,” she says. “I can’t believe the cost of apples.”
In February, New Zealand’s food prices were up 6.8% from the previous year, the largest increase in a decade. Fruit and vegetables have been particularly high – up 15% year-on-year in January. In March, shoppers were reporting that blocks of cheddar cheese had reached $20 a kilogram, and a head of cauliflower could set you back a cool $15. This week, a survey of 1,600 customers by Westpac NZ found 83% were worried about rising prices for food and other household essentials. The anxiety was particularly prevalent among younger New Zealanders, at nearly 90% for those under 35.
“There’s growing competition,” says Bobkova. “When we first started collecting stuff and foraging, you’d be lucky to see one person out doing the same thing – over the years, it’s just steadily become more popular.”
Joanna Wildish knows the red zone well by now: she began foraging in earnest around the time of earthquakes, and the abandonment of the red zone coincided with tight budgets for their household. “We were really keen on finding free sources of food and resources within the city – we were struggling financially and really wanted to just see what was out there,” she says. “So [we] started with things like collecting pine cones, and looking in local parks for pears and apples and walnuts and all kinds of things like that.”
Wildish founded Ōtautahi Urban Foraging group, where people exchange tips for ripe fruit crops, locations for productive trees, and recipes for foraged foods. She says it was “formed to help relieve the stress of poverty.” Over time, she’s seen numbers grow significantly – not only in the group itself, but also the number of people she sees out and about gathering food. “It’s amazing how much it’s grown – and I wonder whether that’s out of necessity for a lot of people,” she says.
As well as an economic necessity, foragers say gathering food is also a source of pleasure – a way to encounter fruits and vegetables in their natural stomping ground, to develop a stronger sense of connection to place and season. It’s also a way to reclaim food from the alienated states in which we often encounter it: chilled, clingfilmed, polystyrene wrapped or reconstituted beyond recognition. There’s pleasure and excitement in noticing the grassy flavour of a fresh, undried walnut, the dark, earthy odour of a mushroom pulled from under the birch leaves, the sweet aniseed taste of pollen from a wild fennel flower.
“Being in touch with the seasons, is a really powerful thing that you gain from foraging,” says Dylan. “Because you can’t go to the supermarket out here and pick tomatoes at any time of the year. Things are ripe when they’re ripe, and everything has a season.”
“High quality food is now quite inaccessible for most people, I think. But you can come out here and pick yourself the most nutrient dense salad.” After an hour walking around the peninsula, his basket is full: mushrooms, miner’s lettuce, mallow, wild parsley and fennel. Most meals that he eats now have foraged ingredients to them. “I think a lot of people are catching on to that,” he says. “I’m noticing the effect on spots where I do forage and seeing more traffic from more people – it’s something that I find really exciting. I love having more and more foragers out. I think there’s always enough for everyone.”
This article was amended on 13 April 2022, to add the married surname of Sandi Bobkova at her request - she was previously cited under her maiden name.