French botanist Francois Couplan has spent half a century travelling the globe searching for the lost culinary secrets of the plant world to record them for posterity.
“It is amazing the uses different people have found for plants, but also everything that has been lost in a bid to imitate Western lifestyles,” he said.
Southeast Asia – especially countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar – still remains perhaps the biggest “kitchen” for plants where development has not killed off traditional foods, he explained.
Couplan, who now lives in Switzerland, has written more than 30 books on his passion, recording edible plants, as well as those which are highly poisonous. And any specimens he collects end up in the cooking pot to be tasted and evaluated.
He also loves to pass down the recipes he has learned, organising cooking schools for small groups at a property he owns in Haute-Provence, south-eastern France. His unusual courses have even attracted some of top French chefs, such as Marc Veyrat and Michel Bras.
His aim is to refresh our memories of the way our ancestors used to live, when for millions of years man lived in symbiosis with plants which were their staple foods, as well as providing medicines, shelter and fire.
Couplan’s goal is to revive and complete this lost heritage, which represented a vast reservoir of collected knowledge.
Few people today would know that the humble nettle in fact contains “seven times more vitamin C than oranges”.
“Simply chopped up with butter, olive oil, salt and lemon juice, they are delicious,” he said.
This enthusiastic botanist, whose father had wanted him to become an engineer before he left for the United States at the age of 18, has criss-crossed the globe to unveil the secrets of plants.
Now he is working on an encyclopedia of edible plants, of which he estimates there could be as many as 400 000 species – discounting all the varieties of algae and mushrooms.
“For the last half century, my life has revolved around going to find plants. This will take me another 10 years, then I’ll hang up my apron.”