Ever feast on the tender asparagus flavored stalks of Solomon’s seal; the exalted and elusive morel mushroom, or the succulent coiled fronds of the woodland fern? It’s time to remind your senses why the traditional wild ingredients of Appalachian cuisine are now the hallmark of culinary innovation in restaurants across the country – and even around the world.
But, be forewarned, foraging for wild foods is thorny, itchy, muddy, prickly, sticky, snaky and sometimes toxic work. As early hominids did their homework on foraging they learned the hard way about the laxative properties of the senna plant, and to only eat poke weed that is cooked and then only in the early spring. Through this trial and the occasional fatal error, our ancestors sorted the edible from the inedible, the useful from the harmful.
My father owned restaurants as I grew-up, and was a forager. On one trip to New Mexico he identified mushrooms that he was certain his mother gathered when he was a boy, so he harvested a bunch for soup. My Mom and I passed on the soup. They turned out to be Psilocybin Mushrooms full of psychoactive indole alkaloids – magic mushrooms. You only need a nibble for a trip and my Dad ate a bowl – so he took a voyage.
I had my own brush with snaky while I was gathering elderberries; something wacked me on the back of my calf while I was wading through chest high seriously thorny blackberries and brambles. My thought was thorns back-lashed me. By the time I got back home it was swelling and hot, and Gayle confirmed two puncture wounds, so I made my way to our ER. The doctor judged it a baby copperhead based on the close proximity of the punctures.
It was after World War II, that American agriculture was taken over by industry. Corporate farms proliferated and supermarkets full of frozen foods multiplied like weeds. And fast food restaurants were springing-up on every corner. At this same time foraging became viewed as no longer necessary, probably a little risky, and just out of step. Now, people could eat quickly and cheaply without regard to food sources.
But wild foraged foods are making a comeback. At Noma in Copenhagen, the number 1 rated restaurant in the world the past three years, (http://www.theworlds50best.com/ ) Chef René Redzepi is known as the master scavenger of the Nordic Coast. He says “Foraging is treasure hunting; you’ll find the treasure if you believe it’s there. It’s also homework.” When he began foraging in Denmark, he stayed up nights reading. He bought botany books and field guides.
One can dine from to Charleston to New York City and find feral plants with names like cornelian cherries, lambs’ quarter, toothwort, sweet cicely, brown jug, creasy greens, pineapple weed and licorice fern dotting the menus of upscale restaurants. At McGrady’s, one of Charleston’s finest restaurants James Beard Award Chef Sean Brock serves up battered and fried Queen Anne’s Lace Blossoms. So why is it we are once again reaching out for these wild foods? I think the renewed interest in foraging is at least partly due to the increasing sophistication of the diners’ palate.
Many people are looking for new food experiences, they want food that’s fresh, picked at peak flavor, with new tastes and grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Wild foods are interesting, offer unusual flavors and textures and they are organic. I think that’s what excites foodies nowadays, and that’s why wild foods are becoming popular again.
And the other part of this equation is that the number of Chefs interested in using feral plants is increasing as they look for ways to differentiate their cooking and to add new flavors. Having one thing on my menu that I can get and you can’t makes dining at Beechwood Inn “Exclusive.” I have talked to chefs who recall that moment of unguarded wonder when they were introduced to a wild food. Chef Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi Restaurant in San Francisco, had that aha moment when a friend first introduced him to Douglas fir. He now uses the shoots at his restaurant, and says. “It was a green and citrusy flavor that I totally recognized. It was unbelievable, and even though I knew this flavor because I smelled it before, it never occurred to me to eat it. It was powerfully evocative, but more than that, it was just delicious.” Reported in the New York Times, November 24, 2010, on page D1 of the New York edition.
At Beechwood Inn we have offered “Wild Foods Foraging Weekends” for a number of years. Part of the experience includes a foraging walk through our Appalachian Cove forests where we identify and gather edible and medicinal plants. Afterwards students return to Beechwood Inn and are served a fresh and local wild foods dinner in the Inn’s comfortable dining-room. Seasonal dinners may include elderflower fritters, walnut and wild mushroom hand-pies, potato ramp soup, gathered greens salad with elderberry vinaigrette, sassafras sorbet, fresh trout on sautéed wild greens with wild cherry coulis, and wild spice cake served with roasted dandelion ice cream. Beverages include sumac and raspberry leaf teas and local Georgia wines.
But foraging in the wild requires a level of responsibility to our habitat. I have seen patches of wild ramps decimated by over- harvesting. Ramps are a type of wild leek with a pungent, garlicky taste and smell. They shoot up in early spring in damp woodland areas of the Eastern U.S. It takes years for the slow growing ramp to spread again. So how do we prevent hordes of foragers from eradicating entire species like we have almost done with Ginseng? It kind of depends on whether you are gathering the root, berry or leaf. If you are taking the root as in ramps, more discretion needs to be exercised. Just because it’s there in the wild free for your gathering does not mean it is sustainable.
Kelly Kindsher, a scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey says, “You need to leave enough leaf material so the plant can produce more. Take too much, and the population dies off.” Kindscher is the author of a number of books and articles on foraging; he offers five principles for safe and responsible foraging:
1. Do Botanical Homework. Appropriate identification and correct food preparation are the primary forager concerns. Take some classes and always have a useful plant identification guide so that you can positively identify what you propose to gather and eat. Wild carrot, known commonly as Queen Anne’s Lace, looks very similar to poison hemlock. Identification is especially important when gathering mushrooms. I feel confident in identifying Chanterelles, but leave others to the mycologist as many poisonous mushrooms look very much like the edible ones.
2. Know Where to Collect Wild Foods. Just be practical on where you gather foods from the wild. Fresh watercress is really tempting but trace the source of your stream. If it drains a cow pasture, then don’t bother. If it bubbles-up nearby from a natural spring, then happy gathering. Don’t collect plants down-hill from the city landfill; avoid plants next to the Interstate; and avoid land on the margins of large farms that likely use pesticides. Don’t poach on privately owned land; it gives other foragers a bad image. Take the path less traveled; it will likely reap more rewards. And anything you gather should be thoroughly washed and cleaned.
3. Know the Best Times to Gather Foods in the Wild. Well schooled foragers keep a calendar and know the season for ramps, morels, chanterelles, stinging nettles, elder-flowers, fruits, nuts, seeds and berries. For many plants the harvest window is very short and the window can suddenly change if the rain stops and the temperatures increase. Sometimes you just get lucky; sometimes it’s practiced skill. Finding a treasure trove of 3 inch high morels can be as exciting as, well, it can be very exciting.
4. Leave Plenty of Healthy Plants. Please don’t over harvest. Kindschler’s rule is “Take half, leave half.” Learn about and avoid plants that are threatened or endangered. It’s also good to keep in mind that harvesting endangered plants is a crime. Some populations like ramps can be harmed for years by overharvesting, while you can pick a mountain of chickweed with little impact to it or its habitat.
5. Learn How to Sort and Prepare Wild Foods Safely. Before you dine on foraged foods make sure you know which part is edible and which part is not. For instance, eat only the stems of rhubarb and not the poisonous leaves. Pokeweed is very nutritious and one of the first greens to pop-up in the spring, but it is also highly toxic. It must only be harvested when it is young and then it must be cooked in several changes of water. The same is true of acorns; they must be leached several times to remove bitter tannins. Just learn to use your senses and a good botanical guide.
As a forager I know that our population is now far too large to feed a diet of wild foods. But as a chef I know that wild plants offer an insight for our diners into the foods our ancestors ate. Wild foods also add seasonal flavors and textures to our menus that cannot be obtained at the grocery store or from restaurant supply companies.
As an educator I understand that when we lead a foraging walk students return with a heightened connection to place and season; this connection feeds the soul. Students appreciate how hard it was to forage to sustain one life. And I trust that those who make the connection to time, season and place will live a more sustainable lifestyle and be better caretakers of our environment.
Chef David Darugh, Beechwood Inn. The Inn is Georgia’s Premier Wine Country Inn and Northeast Georgia’s only Wine Spectator Award of Excellence restaurant. www.beechwoodinn.ws