A Walk with Diego Bonetto: The Rediscovery of Food Foraging

Written by Abhati Tarkunde June 4, 2021

Feature Photograph by Hellene Algie

Diego Bonetto has been a guest mentor for FoodLab Sydney since 2019 and has constantly enraptured us through his immense knowledge and passion for plants and food foraging. His work as an environmental educator goes well beyond imparting skills, it empowers people with a mind conscious of resources and our impact on the environment. We are forever grateful to have such a fun, compassionate and responsible mentor in our community. The bottom line?  Chase your passion, no matter how crazy it may sound.

Today, we need to rethink how we engage with our environment, we need to reconsider how we use resources. We need to relearn the processes and cycles of the food that we eat every day, so that we can better understand our impact.

DIEGO BONETTO

Diego Bonetto, has been an environmental educator professionally for the past 20 years, but he has been teaching people about plants for over 25 years. He is known by some as “the weedy one.”

He moved to Australia in the mid 90s at the age of 24. Now, he has been here longer than he lived in Italy.

He is renowned for his workshops and events of food foraging – the practice of collecting edible plants from the landscape. It can be along a quiet street, at a park, at the beach, or even better, in your own backyard. 

Food foraging is a way to connect directly with food sources from the place where they grow. So no middlemen, no harvesters, no distributors, no shopping centers– just you, the place, and the food. 

DIEGO BONETTO

Diego is an advocate for food sustainability through his good food practices. 

“Foraging can be the most sustainable way to engage with food. Because it does not need any input– there is no need of water, there is no need of machinery, there is no need of labor. You just need to go out to harvest what you can get.”

Photograph by Aimee Crouch

Diego grew up in Northwest Italy, outside of Torino, on a dairy farm, where he was taught food foraging by his uncles, aunties and mum. In his locale, the kids were sent off in the fields to go and collect wild foods. 

Recognising edible plants and looking after resources is a skill that all humans had up to three generations ago. “It’s what we all did, all over the world, for centuries. It anchors back to who we are as a species.” 

It is now being rediscovered by a whole new generation, including the catering industry, as an excellent way to reconcile with food sustainability, seasonality, wild flavors and food that brings an interesting narrative to the plate. 

“These days, everyone wants to be a part of food foraging. Interestingly, when I grew up, only the poor people did it.”

DIEGO BONETTO

Diego grew up harvesting wild food. Most people around the world that grow up in a regional or in a farm setting tend to understand foods around them such as mulberries or blackberries, mushrooms from the fields. 

The turning point for him was when he studied Creative Arts at University of Western Sydney.

“I started to use the act of forging as a fascinating point of departure to discuss environmental identity and cultural belonging, and how we can create bridges between our disconnected lives and the nature around us. It was a great way to learn about the plants around us. It ties people to their surroundings. That inspired me to run workshops… and the rest is history.”

Diego’s Career in Foraging

When I started my first foraging workshop 20 years ago, no one was interested. Everyone was just laughing “you’re doing weeds?” “Don’t you have any money?” These days it’s a different story. Because now there’s a better understanding that wild foods are not new and crazy, they are old, ancient and useful.

DIEGO BONTETTO

Diego believes his success stemmed from being vocal about his knowledge. When working in orchards and garden centres, he realised not many possessed the knowledge he did and ended up wasting good produce. And so, he made it his mission to teach.

“I surprise people, I empower people. And give people tools so they can walk themselves in the landscape with a superior awareness of the abundance and fragilities in our surroundings.”

All his workshops are hosted outdoors in the midst of nature… something that is becoming a rarity.  

“I take people out, you know, the whole point is to take people out for walks.”

“I tell stories. I teach people how to connect with the place, how to remember plants, names, recipes; I also teach people taste so they can remember flavors and textures. I teach people by taking them out for a walk.”

Photograph by John Causley

How do novices start food foraging?

“You start by gaining knowledge, you start by comprehending what you have. The first step would be to just go and walk with someone to give you some information about what you are looking at.”

The process begins with learning how to recognize plants, learning how to name the plants in your backyard.

“Only if you have a name and a point of recognition for something, you can see it. It’s called pattern recognition. If you don’t know what an apple tree looks like, you can be sitting in front of it with no clue.” 

The second step is to observe further. 

“Notice the patterns. You can notice how much there is, when it is there, whether it’s a cycle, whether it comes out in one season, whether it dies off in another. And then you start to engage with the cycles.”

For novices, it is best to start with easier ones such as mulberries, apples, dragon fruit, bananas, and more. 

“Learning these skills is empowering, because you can harvest fruit for yourself. It’s a matter of creating, learning, cherishing knowledge and the slow accumulation of information. Soon enough, you understand the plant, and before you know it, you have enough knowledge to harvest plants all year round.”

How do businesses get involved?

The catering industry has been showing increased involvement in food foraging in the past decade. It is a great stepping stone for food businesses that are actively trying to get involved in good food practices.

It may also be financially beneficial. “It’s the easiest and the most cost effective way to engage with resources, because you don’t need to put any input, you just harvest.”

Diego extensively collaborates with chefs, herbalists, environmentalists and cultural workers to promote new understandings of what the environment has to offer. He also runs a wild food marketplace called Wildfood Store, connecting farmers to chefs, to upcycle byproducts of agricultural practices: weeds.

For a start, you can always go for a walk to learn about it all.

Mentoring at FoodLab

After all these years, Diego still perceives himself as a student because his journey has endless possibilities awaiting him. Mentoring at FoodLab Sydney is a way for him to inspire others who are on the threshold of their careers in food. 

“FoodLab is dedicated to teaching skills and empowering people with training, so that they can create a difference in our local food community. It is a key learning facility because it provides a community through teaching.” 

He is one of many mentors at FoodLab Sydney who nurture people aspiring to become food entrepreneurs.

“People are willing to make a difference in public communities by increasing food literacy. The students become self-reliant as well as create a system of sustainability that will reach well beyond that particular person. The reverberation is massive. All the effort that goes into this process is commendable.

Photograph by Archie Rose

Diego’s Advice to other food businesses

Diego, as a mentor, shares his story as an example of someone who went through the challenging steps of creating a food business from scratch- “craft a crazy idea, believe hard in it, and keep pushing.”

“Everyone has different journeys, but in essence business is about storytelling and endurance. Just continue to believe in your stories, keep pushing.  There’s a lot to be said about consistency and stoicism- keep pushing, and eventually someone will notice.”

What do I offer to FoodLab? I don’t know. It’s the story of a crazy guy who actually makes a living out of this!

DIEGO BONETTO