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Techniques for gathering food

Food gathering takes place in the wild or on cultivated land. However, gathering food from cultivated land, or ‘harvesting’, is nowadays mainly a mechanised, industrialised production process, while gathering food in the wild has hardly evolved since prehistoric times. Nowadays practised as a leisure activity in industrialised countries, it is governed by legal directives regulating the quantities that may be gathered and the tools that may be used, in order to protect biodiversity.
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© Getty images / CAP / Roger ViolletLooking for truffles in Périgord, France, circa 1900

Gathering food by foraging and cultivation: the basic principles

There are generally two ways of gathering food: in the wild, known as ‘foraging’ and regulated gathering on cultivated land, also known as ‘harvesting’ depending on the agricultural products in question.

Gathering food in the wild is now mainly practised as a popular leisure activity in industrialised countries. In forests, in fields and even in the urban environment, some plants may be gathered and consumed straight away. Gathering food as a leisure activity partly reflects the desire to get closer to nature and enjoy local flavour. Above all it requires experience and a thorough knowledge of the techniques and tools relative to the plants to be gathered. In order to preserve biodiversity, there are regulations governing the species that can be harvested, the quantity collected, and the areas and periods in which gathering can take place. Awareness-raising programmes are also set up to inform enthusiasts about the growth cycle of plants, to prevent young shoots from being gathered, for example.

The type of gathering known as ‘harvesting’ is one of the tasks of the amateur gardener and of all producers once fruit and vegetables reach maturity. Although there is a consensus on the functions of the various tools used to gather food, opinion varies regarding the gestures involved when gathering by hand: To harvest fruit, for example, some twist it while others pull it off.

Tools provide a helping hand

Machines and other mechanised tools are reserved for agricultural production. In most cases, food is gathered with bare hands. However, some tools and accessories, such as the kit for gathering mushrooms, can make it easier and more pleasant.

Gloves protect hands when harvesting or weeding out plants that may cause skin irritation (nettles), are thorny (hawthorn, blackberries) or are buried underground and offer little resistance (weeds).

Other plants require cutting instruments such as the sickle, secateurs or machete.

Some animals have a more developed sense of smell and can be trained to spot edible treasures buried in the earth. An example of this are the dogs and pigs that help find truffles.

Last but not least, a bag is used to preserve and transport the ‘fruit’ of gatherers’ labours for later consumption.

However, some tools that are still commercially available have been prohibited because of the damage they incur to the plant. The Rake for blueberry picking is one such example.