GUEST POST: Gathering food (and thoughts) from the earth

This week we’ve got a fantastic guest post from Alice Tarbuck on the importance of having hobbies outside you PhD and the exciting world of holistic food gathering. Alice is a final year PhD student at the University of Dundee and the Scottish Poetry Library. You can usually find her buried in a hedge.

Its always good to have a hobby, I think – although perhaps, as we come to the final months of my PhD, my supervisor might disagree. Not only do hobbies fulfill us in ways our research can’t, they also reinforce that we have other skills that challenge and empower us in a variety of ways. From knitting bees to workout classes, and everything in between, hobbies also offer researchers a chance to be social.

I’m a singer, and I like the gym, and I occasionally make craft projects so awful I couldn’t give them away if I wanted to, but far and away my favourite hobby is cooking. Not merely cooking, it must be said – I’ve very little time for Masterchef and the Bake Off. What particularly interests me is a holistic experience of food production or gathering, and preparation. That sounds unwieldy and pretentious, but what I really mean is this: I like to grow things, or pick things, or forage for things, and then I like to cook them.

This year, I’ve made pesto with wild garlic from the Inner Hebrides (which I had to take home on the ferry in a plastic bag…); gathered berries for hedgerow jam; rescued a neighbour’s unloved plums, another’s unloved apples; helped on my parent’s allotment for a share of the spoils; fought off competitors for blackberries on the cycle paths, and I’ve still got sea buckthorn and rosehip gatherings to look forward to.

The nicest thing, for me, is the seasonality of foraging. You have to wait for berries on paths and in parks, for elderflowers for cordial or chamomile for tea. It marks the year off in a beautiful, distinct way, and I find myself paying a great deal more attention amanita_muscaria_fly_agaricto the changes in the natural world than I did before.

Another perk is learning about the natural world generally. To pick anything wild and eat it, it goes without saying: do your research! Do you know an elderberry from something more sinister? Know your limitations: at the moment, I don’t go mushrooming for anything but chanterelles, because I am confident in identifying them. Anything else, I’d be worried about making a mistake and poisoning myself.

(Image: fly agaric – v poisonous, do not eat! >>)

Picking fruit or vegetables, or tending to them and watching them grow is low cost, brain-engaging, and often fairly active. It is a total change from sitting at a desk all day, and carries with it the advantage of producing something to eat at the end of the day. It also helps to reduce my carbon footprint: going on the bus to a good rosehip patch is far better than popping out to buy Peruvian strawberries in December. Having preserved fruit, either on hand or in the freezer, stops me being tempted to buy exotic fruit out of season.

There’s also something to be said for the enormously capable feeling that a freezer full of foraged or grown foods gives you. You did that! Your footnotes might be in a state, the thought of more days squinting over manuscripts or fighting with undergraduates for library space might fill you with gloom, but a jar of blackberry jam is an undeniably cheerful object.


Go forth and make jam!

I’ve written about the reasons I believe that this kind of process might be usefully referred to as ‘kitchen magic’ over at the Dangerous Women project run by Edinburgh University. There’s a link to that article here: – hope you enjoy it!

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