April

INTERVIEW: DIEGO BONETTO

The Slowpoke: DIEGO BONETTO INTERVIEW

With a nickname like ‘the weedy one’ you can expect Diego Bonetto to know a thing or few about weeds. In fact he’s built a career around foraging for them, and can often be found traipsing around Sydney and its outskirts grazing on, and collecting, the many edible species of plants that so many of us would often either overlook or pull unwanted from our gardens.

We deem them weeds (as Diego says, “for want of a better word”), nuisances in our otherwise fostered green spaces of parks and backyard veggie patches. Diego deems them food and medicine, and with a solid background of foraging, readily shares his knowledge in the very charming and happy-go-lucky nature he possesses.

Having hailed from Italy two decades ago, foraging for wild food is what Diego does because it is what he knows. It is a common occurrence ingrained in many European cultures. And while the original inhabitants of Australia have long done the same, it is something not so ingrained into our modern multicultural society, until a rise of interest in recent years.

So Diego is busying himself teaching us what to do. Whether traipsing around Sydney’s parks and riverbanks looking for weeds or heading to our state parks to forage mushrooms as the cool wet season kicks in, he’s ensuring the skills of foraging are shared and spread as wide as possible. When he’s not running one of his many popular workshops you’ll find Diego working on his two other projects; Wild Food Map, an interactive social media-driven map allowing users to tag and share foraging locations and information, and Big Fag Press, an artist-run printing collective.

We caught up with Diego for a chat and forage near Big Fag Press in Glebe, Sydney, and also ventured out to Belanglo State Forest on a recent mushroom foraging and feasting tour co-hosted by Diego with the boys from Studio Neon (keep your eyes over this way for that story tomorrow).

Can you tell us about your wild food projects, and what led to you foraging as a career?

“I guess we start from the beginning, I’m Italian and moved over here 20 years ago. I grew up on a farm, I grew up foraging wild produce because that’s what happened there. So I grew up with the native knowledge of the place. When I moved to Australia 20 years ago I just started to do exactly the same, go out for dandelions, nettle, mulberries, mushrooms and so forth.

“Eventually I moved on to do a fine art degree and that brought me to use this actual foraging practice as a point of departure to investigate cultural belonging and environmental identity – the way we relate to the environment through plants, through species, and how that relationship is indicative of how we feel about the environment. We feel at home if we find something that we relate to. Not just visually but also sentimentally and through folk tales. There is a lot to be said about how much we respect an environment once we relate to it intimately, once we actually engage with the species.

“I started to do foraging tours as an art project, and various installations, and my first foraging tours were about 15 years ago. It was a sound tour done in an abandoned garden. People started to get interested in what I had to offer because it’s knowledge that everyone had just started to reawaken to. And so I started to offer workshops and tours to friends and extended networks and soon enough I started to run more tours and this is where I am today. I run tours and workshops throughout the year. Every season has something else to offer.”

What does a typical week involve?

“It’s a combination of all sorts. This time of the year with the workshops and tours, every weekend there’s something on. Last weekend I was doing a workshop on the Saturday and one on the Sunday. This weekend only the Sunday. Lots of administration, there’s an enormous amount of administration to run and coordinate these kind of events as a freelance self-starting cultural worker, it means that I spend most of the day on email and spreadsheets and blogging and media drumming and all of that.

“I have several projects, my weeks are never the same – I go by projects. A big project coming up is Wild Food Map. We released the alpha version and now we are onto version two, we deployed a new backhand, a new UI design and strong apps behind it to release it in June. So that’s lots of work as you can imagine – lots of work with no cash whatsoever. We did all of that out of one Pozible campaign and an enormous amount of work and commitment from a core crew of people.

“I’m also one of the core partners of Big Fag Press so two days a week I’m over here doing all sorts of projects. I am also still an artist. At the moment I’m in collaboration with two other artists and we are being commissioned by the Brisbane City Council for an artwork in Brisbane. So, many bits and pieces. And I carry on. I carry on with following on my passion, what I care about and doing it cheaply.”

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Can you tell us why you forage and why that’s important to you?

“I forage because that’s what I know. I forage because I care. I forage, and teach foraging, because I believe people should just re-empower themselves with knowledge and respect. Foraging is easy – rather than just going around and putting down poison on weeds you actually look at the land in different eyes and think ‘oh wow, maybe I don’t poison my food. Oh, that’s actually food and medicine!’ So you just take a different approach.

“I forage because I like it, because some beautiful things are out there. I love the seasonality, the magic of mushrooms, the magic of going out in the forest in the right time of the year, after you wait and wait and wait, then… ‘they’re on, lets go!’ Come back with kilos of it and preserve it. Engage with the bounty of nature and respect that, and collect while it’s ready.

“It brings back things that we humans need to relearn. To move away from the ready-made asparagus in the middle of winter, coming all the way from Argentina. That’s ridiculous. We need to rethink that. I forage because me, along with everyone else, I feel the bite of environmental guilt. We feel sorry for what we’ve done, so I’m taking action.”

What are some of your favourite things to forage for?

“Mushrooms. I love olives. Dandelions – the flower. More than a forager, I’m a grazer. So more than go out and collect and take home, I go out and eat on the spot. So dandelion flowers quite often, pick it and eat it. And true also of many other things. Obviously when there is a big bulk of something I take it home and preserve.

“I love mulberries. Back home, plantain, I like that one, a beautiful nutty taste. I like warrigal greens to take home and cook. My garden is full of weeds for lack of better definition, so quite often I ‘forage’ in my garden. Many of the things that I really love are growing in my garden – I foster them. So fennel, farmers friends, dock, chickweed is coming.”

What wild foods should we be looking out for at the moment?

“It’s coming into colder months, there’s plenty on. Mushrooms. Wild olives are out there at the moment. Fennel seeds. People quite often make the mistake of relating to the garden’s seasons using imported seasonal cycles, only reversed. It kind of doesn’t work, it’s not just reversed it’s a totally different story over here. The die-out period over here in Sydney is summer, when everything dries out. In winter when we get the rain everything is green and booming.

“In winter, chickweed is coming up. I was out with the Trolley’d guys this morning and we were looking at potato weed. It’s just booming at the moment. African olives are booming too. The Trolley’d guys are picking African olives and making fantastic martinis with it. We’ve just finished off the feral apples, crab apples and pears. There were quite a lot especially if you get out of Sydney, because it’s colder out there when someone chucks an apple core out their window it just grows.”

What do you love about what you do?

“This. People are interested. Validation. I’m not just some kooky funny guy with a funny accent coming along and just coming up with these kooky ideas. Actually there’s validation in what I do. If there wasn’t I don’t think I would still be here doing it. Because there’s just no money in it, I’m only just surviving out of this. And yet I work every day. So validation is quite important.

“The curiosity of people, people are interested to know, and there is value in what I can offer. Me and lots of others… people think I’m the man with the knowledge, [but] knowledge is everywhere. If you talk to any old Greek lady I wouldn’t need to teach her where the weeds are, she’d teach me the weeds. I learnt a lot from old Greek ladies, from old Lebanese ladies, old Italian ladies… they have lots to offer. This kind of information needs to be brought out.

“Ten years ago nobody knew about pine mushrooms. Fifteen years ago it was just the close knowledge of the Polish community. There are kids, families with kids that have been doing it with their parents and the parents before them, and it’s always been quite an important cultural activity for them.

“I love that through food you learn language. Through the action of processing food, culture gets passed along. In an osmotic kind of way, it’s not even the words that you learn it’s the actions, the jokes, the songs, the spices, the movements, the pots. All of these things they’re key cultural grounding elements that you connect and you know and then when you go back to ‘country’ you understand why they had such a funny pot, you understand why they use such a stupid spoon. You realise everyone uses that stupid spoon.”

What’s next for yourself and your projects?

“Next is now, next is happening, you’re looking at it. This year is going to be pay attention and put lots of effort behind Big Fag Press and Wild Food Map. That’s now, that’s happening right now because it needs attention.”

To find out more about Diego’s tours or to book yourself in for one, visit www.diegobonetto.com. You can also follow Diego’s happenings on his Wild Stories Facebook page and his Instagram @theweedyone.

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