David Holzer considers embracing a plant-based locally sourced diet and speaks to Uta Gritschke of My Wild Greens about her love of foraging for wild plants and herbs in Mallorca.
Members of the Charles Marlow team, including co-founding brothers Charlie and Patrick Hill, are committed to plant-based diets and eating locally grown food.
As Charlie told me, ‘When I was eating animal products, I was completely disconnected from where my food came from. Now I’m healthier and more compassionate towards myself, the people I love and our planet. My brother and I have had a plant-based diet for five years. It’s given me so much.’
While I admire Charlie and Patrick’s commitment, the main thing that has stopped me from adopting an entirely plant-based diet is my love of seafood.
Up until now, I associated fresh fish and seafood with living in Mallorca and thought of the fishing industry as somehow benign.
You know: funky little fishing boats chugging out to sea at dawn, catch of the day in a fine restaurant, heaped bowls of pescaditos fritos (tiny fried fish) or chipirones (baby squid or cuttlefish) in tapas bars, old geezers fishing off the rocks at sunset.
What I didn’t realise until I saw the mindblowing Neflix documentary Seaspiracy is that commercial fishing and seafood gathering are the biggest unacknowledged threat to our oceans.
I haven’t eaten seafood since. It ain’t easy and I hope my resolve doesn’t weaken.
Recently, it occurred to me that learning how to forage for wild vegetables and herbs on Mallorca might be the most authentic way of committing to a plant-based local diet there is.
I got in touch with my friend Uta.
Uta, who trained as an art historian and studied cultural science in her native Germany, used to run the terrific Interseccio art gallery and wine bar in one of the ancient streets in the Old Town behind the cathedral.
Interseccio morphed into the marvellous, genuinely bohemian Sifoneria bar which is sorely missed. Uta described it as ‘a little bit pioneering, very down to earth with people sitting on boxes and cheap but good wine.’
Sadly, in the end, the concept didn’t fit with the way the Old Town is changing and Sifoneria closed.
After a couple of years of running a little deli that offered mostly products from Asturias in north-west Spain, Uta decided to turn her love of foraging into a way of life.
‘I became fascinated by foraging around 14 years ago,’ Uta told me, ‘because my then partner’s parents, who are from the Spanish mainland, regularly walked out to gather wild plants for their food without thinking anything of it.’
The first tortillas Uta shared with the family were made with sow thistle. Her partner’s parents made soups and salads with wild herbs as a matter of course.
Spanish people had cooked with these wild plants for centuries but for Uta using them was something completely new. ‘I was “wow”, very curious,’ she said. ‘It was also a really nice way to connect to my partner’s parents because we were strangers, and I was from another country. They were so happy to show me these plants.’
From there, Uta began to dig deeper (sorry) and her knowledge now extends to around 60 to 70 plants growing wild in Mallorca. Around a quarter of everything she eats daily is wild.
‘I eat everything from the herbs we use for flavouring like rosemary, sage and thyme to edible chrysanthemum which you can use in quiches and pizzas, amaranth – which was brought here from Latin America – wild spinach and swiss chard, for instance. You can find all these in the fields of Mallorca. And you don’t have to do something as difficult as climb a particular mountain at full moon and look behind a particular pine tree.’
Last year, when Mallorca was really under lockdown and the public green areas weren’t being tended so much, Uta noticed swiss chard and the herb curly dog growing in front of the big El Cort Ingles on the Avenidas.
Nine years ago at Easter, Uta gave her first guided foraging tour to her friends. Now she regularly takes groups foraging.
She also educates people to the place wild vegetables and herbs occupy in the island’s different ecosystems. ‘You’re not going to find salad ingredients in the forest where the soil’s not rich enough and there’s too much shade,’ she explained. ‘Most wild vegetables are near to where people have lived for centuries. They cultivated and used the vegetables and then forgot about them.’
What about mushrooms, which are extremely popular in Mallorca?
‘I’m very careful what I tell people about them,’ Uta said. ‘Learning which fungi are edible and which are toxic takes years of study. I leave this to the mushroom experts.’
Posidonia, AKA Neptune’s Grass, is the seagrass that grows in the Med around Mallorca. I recently read that posidonia has a sort of grain that’s edible and was curious to know what Uta thought about cooking with it.
‘There are all kinds of samphire, seaweeds – underwater and growing on rocks – that we can eat,’ she told me. ‘We can harvest posidonia leaves when they touch the surface of the water and go a little brown. I tried a soup made from the upper parts of the leaves. You boil it and take out the leaves which leaves fishy-tasting stock without having to kill any fish. It tasted really great.’
‘But,’ Uta was keen to stress, ‘I don’t believe we should harvest posidonia because this is an extremely valuable ecosystem that’s seriously under threat. Generally, I tell groups that forage with me not to take protected plants and always to make sure there’s a sufficient amount of any plant they want to take growing. I only ever harvest wild plants for my use, no more.’
A normal foraging expedition with Uta will start in the countryside, somewhere like Consell or Binissalem it’s easy to get to by train. As Uta says, ‘I tell people not to gather plants where the cars are because of pollution so I can’t exactly encourage them to use cars.’
Uta and her group will walk for between two and three hours. If the weather’s good, they’ll finish with a picnic, including the wild vegetables and herbs they’ve foraged.
Apart from the foraging, Uta is keen that people get to know each other, appreciate nature and, most of all ‘connect to the environment to feed body and soul.’
Increasingly, she’s also being asked to visit fincas and help owners learn about the wild vegetables and herbs growing on their land. She visits during the growing season which is now and ends around the beginning of June, shows owners what wild plants they have, prepares a map of where everything is and suggests some recipes.
As she says, ‘I often see people cultivating swiss chard when it’s not necessary because there’s a whole patch growing wild nearby. Mallorca’s fertility is such a gift. Turn over a tiny bit of soil, leave it some months and you’re likely to have all kinds of vegetables and herbs growing. They’ll mostly be higher in vitamins and minerals than commercially grown alternatives and naturally beautiful and delicious.’
Wild amaranth soup
Bring the soup stock to boil in a pot. In another one, sauté the chopped wild leeks and the garlic in the olive oil for 3 min until they are softened. Add the potato chunks stir fry them another 3 minutes. They should roast a little bit but without burning them.
Add the hot stock to the potatoes, leek and garlic and let everything cook for 10 min. Season with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and muscat nut.
Next add the amaranth leaves, and let everything boil on a low heat for 15 min more. When the potatoes are cooked, blend everything and let it cool down a bit. Now add the plant milk and more seasoning, if you like. Fry the leek bulbs and the amaranth leaves.
Serve the soup with a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice, roasted sesame seeds, the fried leek and the amaranth leaves on top.
Increasingly, the people who Charles Marlow helps find homes in Mallorca are keen to live in harmony with the island’s ecosystem and actively help preserve it. For some, embracing a diet that’s more plant-based and incorporates wild vegetables and herbs might be a natural next step.
As Charlie Hill says, ‘I found it easy to change to a plant-based diet here because the produce is good and abundant. It comes straight out of the ground and doesn’t involve taking lives. And it’s so interesting to know where your food comes from and how it comes to you. I truly believe this is a direct path to a more contented life.’
If you’d like to go on one of Uta’s walks, or invite her to map the wild vegetables and herbs in your garden or on your land, get in touch with her here.