Interview with Johanna Knox author of ‘A Forager’s Treasury’

forager_treasury_coverAs a keen forager myself, I was so excited to hear that my friend Johanna Knox was writing a foraging guide for New Zealand, but despite the fact I was pre-disposed to like it, I am truly impressed and in awe of what she has produced. It is a beautifully written, helpful and down-to-earth book with great illustrations and in a handy format for toting along on foraging expeditions. I talked to Johanna about foraging recently and here is what she said:

HL: Congratulations on your new book, Johanna! Can you tell me how you got into foraging? 

JK: Thanks Helen! I was always fascinated by all the uses of plants, and I experimented madly as a child and a teen. As an adult I got into it again after I had children. I saw the natural world anew – through a child’s eyes again. Plus I got interested in food activism, and foraging kept cropping up as part of that.

HL: Why do you think foraging is an important skill to have? 

JK: In the Western world we’ve grown so distant in our relationships with the plant kingdom. Obviously there are exceptions – all the amazing researchers and trampers and wanderers, and gatherers and growers like you, who are maintaining and developing give-and-take relationships with the plant world. But as a society in general we’ve become disconnected from the truth about how we need plants for our survival and wellbeing.

If we forget how all that works, we also forget what plants need from us in return. That way lies disaster. So foraging is a fun and productive way to help revive that relationship.

You can definitely save money foraging too! Plus it’s empowering to be able to look around you, wherever you are, and see the ingredients for food or medicine or perfume or dye. johanna_2 

HL: What have you learned from your foraging adventures? 

JK: To be patient about knowledge! To not try and identify everything and know all about every plant at once.  That’s just frustrating. You have to read and listen and think and observe, and gradually things dawn on you. You can short circuit parts of that process if you get someone to show you stuff directly, but you still have to do your own research and observation and thinking.

HL: Do you dumpster dive, too, or is your ‘foraging’ restricted to natural foods? What do you think of dumpster diving? 

JK: Dumpster diving is admirable. I haven’t been party to it since before I had kids. Maybe I’ll take it up seriously one day …  I like the idea of doing it as a 70 year old.

HL: What would your ‘Absolute Top Five List of Things To Forage (even if you are not a keen forager)’ be, and why? 

JK: This is hard! I reserve the right to change this list tomorrow.


Kawakawa: my first native plant friend, so easy to identify, so abundant, so useful in so many ways.

Fennel: I never used to like fennel – it gave me a stomach ache, but once I learned to use it more subtly in cooking and also found you could dye things almost fluoro yellow with it, I gained a new appreciation for it.

Nasturtium: Every part is edible – and nutritious – and medicinal in that mustardy old-time-remedy way … And it’s so decorative. Good for party foods.

Elderberry: Gather the flowers around November, and the berries late in summer and gather heaps. Make bulk syrup and freeze it and then use it in everything all year round. It’s so expensive in shops, and so cheap to make your own. And this tree is not endangered in the slightest.

New Zealand mint: I love it that New Zealand has a native mint. But like many New Zealanders it’s a bit reserved and self-deprecating. Tough though, with hidden depths … and it gets louder when you mix it with alcohol. If you can’t find it wild, grow it in your garden as a ground cover.

HL: How has foraging changed the way you see the world? 

JK: I think I have a much greater appreciation for New Zealand’s native plants now, what they need, and their enormous value in ecosystems, as well as all the amazing things you can do with them.

HL: Do your family & friends ever get embarrassed when you forage and collect windfalls when you are out with them? 

JK: Not so much embarrassed – just impatient! I always hope I can sweep them along in my own enthusiasm, but there are times when I have to accept they’ve got other things on their mind!

HL: Do you forage for mushrooms? Just how dangerous is it? 

JK: I have anxiety around fungi. I realise rationally that if you know what you’re doing it’s not dangerous. And I can identify certain fungi that are edible – like boletes and basket fungus… but I can’t bring myself to eat them.

I gathered field mushrooms once, cooked them up, and ate them. I knew beyond reasonable doubt that they were field mushrooms. But for a couple of hours afterwards I was still hyper-aware of my body, and every odd twinge, wondering if I’d poisoned myself.

I’ve been wondering if this goes back to reading the Babar books as a child.

Do you remember that bit where the old king elephant eats a ‘bad mushroom’ and dies? There’s this awful picture of him lying on the ground all green and wobbly. That’s one of my most vivid book memories from my preschool years – staring and staring at that picture in horrified fascination, trying to comprehend it … Now I wonder if that book set me up for a lifetime of anxiety around wild mushrooms!

Whatever the reason, A Forager’s Treasury takes a botanical approach rather than a mycological one.

HL: Is there a foraged food you eat almost every day? 

JK: There’s no one foraged food, but definitely a recipe I pull out more regularly than most others – that’s weed pakoras. It’s such an easy, substantial, satisfying way to use any edible weeds you can find near your house, and whip up a meal or a side dish when you’re running short of stuff in the pantry

HL: What is your best discovery in terms of our native plants? (Recently, I had delicious tea at a cafe which had Kawakawa in it, and now I’m keen to try that.)

JK: Perhaps harakeke. There are so many varieties, and you never stop learning about it. It’s just this most incredible multi-purpose plant – the nectar as a sweetener, the pollen as a nutritious condiment, the seedpods as a rich chocolate-brown dye (and I love the smell of them), the sap as a healing gel … and that’s not counting all the uses of the leaves as fibre.

HL: Does foraging have a spiritual element to it for you, or is it strictly pragmatic? 

JK: I’m not a very spiritual person I’m afraid. I was brought up in a family of geeky atheists. But I think science has served some of the same purposes for me as a spiritual or religious path might for some others.

It’s given me a sense of awe and wonder about nature and the universe, a feeling of being just a small part of something grand and mysterious, and a reassuring sense of my own insignificance. It also helps provide the co-ordinates for a moral compass (however hard it is to follow that compass sometimes).

I can’t say it’s helped me fully come to terms with human mortality – I’m still working on that one! But I have the impression many people on spiritual or religious paths struggle with that one too.

When you’re out gathering, all those feelings and ideas certainly come into play.

Thanks so much, Johanna! Over the next couple of weeks I intend to post a review of ‘A Forager’s Treasury’ and Johanna has also given me a recipe to share with you all as well.

If you want to learn a little more about Johanna – look HERE. HERE is a recent review of the book, and there is a website which goes along with the book HERE.

Happy foraging!




Pioneer cooking for energy efficiency


In an effort to be more energy efficient, save money on bills and be more organised with food practices, for the last few years I have gotten into viewing a warm oven like a pioneer woman would. What do I mean by that? Well, as anyone who has read ‘Little House On The Prairie’ will know, pre-electricity, getting an oven hot took a lot of human and resource energy, so people would do all sorts of things with the oven while it was hot, and even cooling – making the most of it.

Of course these days I can have a hot oven at the flick of a dial, but I try to respect the energy it took to heat the oven, and save money on my gas bill by using the heat for multiple things and trying to avoid heating it just for one purpose.

This takes a little bit of organisation, lateral thinking and time, but once you get into the swing of it, it becomes second nature.

Once the oven is turned off – it stays hot for a long time! Think up ways to use the warm but cooling oven. I have a few suggestions below but would like more…

Here are some of the ways I maximise a hot oven – if you have other suggestions, please let me know in the comments!

-when baking, if I’m baking a cake, or biscuits or muffins – I often bake a double mixture, freezing excess for school-lunches or whatever, so I’m not heating the oven to make one thing

-bake multiple things at once…a cake, a loaf of bread, some muffins…

-when baking, think ahead to dinner – could you use the heat of the oven to roast or bake something for dinner so you don’t have to later?

-when baking, wrap potatoes in foil and tuck them around the baking trays, then take them to work for an easy lunch

-when baking, pour two inches of rice into a casserole dish, cover with stock until stock is about two inches above rice. Put lid on, put in oven. Check occasionally to make sure there is enough liquid. The rice will absorb the stock, cook, and you will end up with yummy flavoured baked rice for re-heating at dinner time or for a salad base.

-when baking, why not also whip up something for lunch? Beat eggs, add greens and cheese. Grease muffin trays, pour in eggy mixture and you have a dozen baseless ‘quiches’ for lunch with minimal effort!

-put a mixture of dried fruit into a small oven dish (apricots, dates, figs, prunes, sultanas, whatever), add a couple of teaspoons of spices (cinnamon, ginger – whatever flavours you are fond of), cover with warm water, put lid on, put in oven. You will end up with delicious macerated fruit – yummy on cereal, ice-cream or by itself with whipped cream.

-bake fresh fruit using same method as above…

-put oats in an oven tray and toast the oats for muesli. You can add sweetners and oil to the oats, but you don’t have to – even toasting the oats without sweetners adds a lot of flavour

-thinly spread roughly dessicated coconut on a pizza tray and toast. Toasted coconut is delicious spread over desserts, yoghurt or curries. (You have to watch it though – whip it out as soon as it goes lightly brown. It burns easily.)

-toast nuts, or seeds. A yummy snack is stirring a tablespoon of tamari into one cup each of pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Then toast. Delicious by itself or sprinkled over salads. Also adds a yummy crunch to sandwhiches.

-in tomato season, if you have a tomato glut, or if they are really cheap and you buy a box or whatever, cut in half, brush with olive oil and put in turned off oven to make ‘sun-dried’ tomatoes. You will have to do this a few times to get entirely dry tomatoes, but even semi-dried tomatoes are delicious and intense in flavour, you will just have to use them up faster than dried.

-if you have people over and you have used the oven to make dinner, put some kalamata olives in a about half a cup of olive oil, add finely grated lemon peel, herbs of your choosing and black pepper. Warm in the cooling oven and serve with bread. Olives are delicious at room temperature, but slightly warmed with these additions? SUBLIME.

-turn elderly bread into croutons – cut into small squares, brush with oil using a pastry brush, bake

-rice crackers gone stale? Don’t throw them out – put them on a pizza tray and put them into the oven after you’ve finished baking and oven is turned off. It brings them back to life. Works for wheat crackers, also.

-if you are a gardener, keep your eggshells. Put them into the turned off, cooling oven. They will go dry and brittle, making them easy to crush up with a mortar and pestle (or just use a bottle!) for sprinkling onto your vege garden. They add calcium and trace elements to the soil. You can also sprinkle rings of egg-shell around brassicas and salad vegetables to deter slugs. (Of course the egg-shells will break down by themselves if you throw them whole into the compost, but this way they will break down much much faster and you can put them directly on the garden, skipping the compost heap.)

-if you have a herb garden, use the turned off/cooling oven to dry herbs for cooking or herbal tea. Pick herbs, wash, dry very thoroughly with a tea-towel, spread thinly on an oven tray, put into oven. (I do this with lavender and it fills the house with a heady lavender smell.)

-thinly grate lemon peel on the fine side of your grater, spread thinly on a pizza tray, put into a cooling/turned off oven. Then you have dried lemon peel for adding to cooking or making lemon salt.

-use the turn off/cooling oven to dry dishes! If you are hand washing dishes, put some of the large, space-taking items like pots and pans into the warm oven to dry. Gets them off the bench, out of the way and drying so there is room for the rest of the dishes.

OK! I hope that gives you some ideas, anyway. Now that I’ve been doing this a few years, I get all twitchy when I see people heat their ovens just to bake a dozen muffins! There will no doubt come a time when we have to return to some pioneering ways because of the world’s diminshing resources, so I am getting into the swing of it now. I hope I might have inspired you too, as well, if you weren’t already.