Monday, August 30, 2010

Hazelnut Addendum

So, shortly after visiting our hazelnut, Arena found them teeming in the understory of a nearby forested trail. We went with her to visit them, and there were at least 100 beaked hazelnut shrubs. We searched and searched for nuts. We found about six total. Arena distinctly remembered leaving a shrub with seven on it, but the squirrels had gotten them in the interum. Most of the six we found were shriveled and a bit dry, but a few were as fantastic as the one we tasted at home. It seems that though beaked hazelnuts can be found here, they produce very few nuts, and most of those go to the local squirrels.

Oh, and the amazing hazelnut bush, Thag's dad reports near his house--turns out it is a black walnut.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wild Rice--Part 2

My foraging friend, Ben, and I met early on Wednesday, mounted the canoe on my car, strapped to it a 16 foot pole, and drove nearly three hours north hoping to find a cornucopia of wild rice (Zizania aquatica). We checked into an overpriced RV campground and pitched our tent among the hulking pleasure palaces that Americans somehow call 'campers' with straight faces. "It's only a place to sleep," Ooga had reminded me. She was right, of course. (She'll tell you that being right is genetic among the women in her family.) We only stayed long enough to scarf down some hastily made sandwiches, and we were off to find our fortunes.

Lake Champlain is beautiful. The local Abenaki had a legend that when the Maker finished the world, he turned himself into a great stone edifice on Lake Champlain's shore so that he could forever admire his greatest masterpiece. But today most of its shoreline is privately owned, and a pair of guys trying to navigate its coastline by the strength of their own arms have precious few places to put their canoe in. I wonder what the Maker would say.

There is wild rice in Champlain, and in the olden days the rice beds must have grown nearly a mile out from shore. But today, the rice is relegated to the quiet coves where motorized boating is prohibited or impossible. I knew where the wild rice grew. Ben spotted it even as we pulled into the boat launch. The problem was that it lay behind a string of white buoys clearly forbidding hunting, fishing, or trespass. We paddled down that line hoping that some adventuresome rice would step its roots over the line into legal waters. Some did.

The beds were different than I imagined they would be. The rice grew thick, so thick that it seemed our canoe would surely get stuck among the tight clumps. We soldiered through anyway. Herons, American bitterns, and muskrats watched suspiciously and bolted when we paddled to close. Eventually, we could paddle no more, and I stood in the canoe as I had read, pole in hand, trying to push us along. The maple pole that I had cut that morning was too long and heavy. We made little headway. None of the wild rice around us would fall no matter how persuasively we tapped it. We were too early. The rice was not ripe.

The day was far from wasted. We spent the rest of the day paddling, watching turtles sun themselves on logs, exploring the lake shore, identifying flowers, watching birds, digging freshwater clams (and putting them back), and earnestly looking for signs of another rice bed. We paddled the rest of the day. We'd forgotten water (DOH!), so I used my filter to purify water from the lake and drank it from a bowl made out of a garbage bag. We found an uninhabited island and explored it, imagining what it might be like to survive in such a place were we marooned there.

We had nearly given up hope of finding another rice bed and were almost back to our launch when we pulled up on a sandy shore and caught sight of an unmistakable light green color. It was rice for sure. Ben tracked moose, raccoon, and weasels in the wet sand. I took pictures of wapato. At the far end of the beach we finally found some--rice plants whose female spikes (the upper part) had opened wide and whose seeds dropped into my hat with a gentle but forceful tap. There were only a handful of plants, and a handful of seed was all that we gathered. But that was enough to rekindle hope. We returned to our campsite dreaming of rice brimming over the gunwales. There will be a Wild Rice, Part 3.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wild Grapes

As a child, Thag's mother and several kids in her neighborhood had an ingeniuos idea. They would collect the freely growing and abundant wild grapes growing nearby, make them into jelly, sell them, and split the profits. These grapes were big. They spent the afternoon peeling them and mashing out the juice. After a while, they all started to itch, their skin burning. One boy was so swollen and in so much pain he went to the emergency room.

At a simlar time, a state away, Thag's father and the boys in his neighborhood thought to take the clusters of wild grapes and have a grape war, pelting them at each other and smooshing them down the others' backs. As they wiped their eyes with their grape juice covered hands, their eyes began to burn and swell up. One boy's eye was swollen shut. They all got to stay home from school the next day.

The burning, itching, and swelling were caused by tartrate, a chemical in wild grapes that is extremely bitter and painful after exposed contact. One can only eat a few wild grapes fresh or will be beseiged by the tartrate. So, to use them, you must juice them, and while juicing them, you must avoid contact with the juice. This was made more difficult for us because I could only find one rubber glove under the sink. So I made some wild grape juice one handed.

First I mashed the grapes with a mug and then, more succesfully, a potato masher in a large plastic bucket.

Secondly, I put the grapes a handful at at time into a jelly bag and then squeezed them (with my gloved hand) over a large plastic measuring cup.

I, then, poured the juice into a large mason jar.

This process is quite messy. (Check out the picture of grape carnage above.) And cleaning it up is a bit of a challenge as you can't touch the juice and I only had one plastic glove. I ended up with a lovely purple stain on my table leg. Fortunately it matches perfectly the shade of purple marker Baby Yub Yub used to decorated the kitchen chair earlier this week.

This mason jar is now in the fridge. The tartrate should settle to the bottom in an unappetizing sludge. Tomorrow or the next day, we will pour off the juice on top which should be tartrate free. Then we can use the juice for jelly or mix it with a sweeter juice as it is supposedly very sour.

Beaked Hazelnut

Despite the fact that hazelnuts supposedly grow throughout our area, we rarely see them. Perhaps we aren’t looking hard enough. Perhaps we live in an odd microcosm without many. But we do have one lovely beaked hazelnut growing by our shed. We have watched this lovely little shrub all season. It produced exactly 3 nuts.

We took our precious cargo home, peeled the lovely green cover, and cracked them with a rock. One was empty. One was rotten. And one was perfect. And delicious.

My in-laws in Connecticut report an extremely productive single tree near their home. Arena, who spends tons of time in the woods surrounding our area, saw her first hazelnut the other day—the one at our house. Subsequently, she reports finding a stand. Where are the fields of hazelnut bushes we should be finding? What a treasure we will find when we discover them!

Rating Scale

For those new to our blog, here is our scale for wild foods, admittedly subjective, we'd love to hear your experience with the same foods:

1 = Inedible--could not finish it
2 = Edible--had no problem finishing it, but wouldn't make it again
3 = Palatable--compares comparably with a benchmark processed everyday meal (Annie's Macaroni and Cheese)
4 = Good--will be disappointed if we don't eat it again next year
5 = Wow--this is a dish we would use to introduce neophytes to the wonders of eating wild

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Visit from the Mushroom Fairy

Although she reports that it is a dismal mushroom year, Arena keeps bringing us more delights. Today she delivered 5 different mushrooms to cook up and 1 to make into tea.

We feel a bit like cheaters when it comes to mushrooms. I can’t even fathom how one would go about classifying these mysteries. Thag, our family identification expert, is almost as far off as I am. But I suppose that’s how we learn everything. As a kindergarten teacher, I show my kids how to hold a book, “read” the pictures, and flip through the pages from left to right, well before they can put together the letters into words. Pretend reading puts them on the path to real reading. But they need a guide, and so do we. (Thank you, Arena, for guiding us.)

So today, with mushrooms covering our kitchen table, we read through guidebooks and wrote down Latin names and listed Arena’s experiences. And tonight, we cooked them up and had a mushroom taste test.

Chicken of the woods: Laetiporus sulphureus: A mushroom we knew of and Thag thinks he’s seen before. Our housemate has eaten them. Bright orange. And…delicious. Actually tastes like chicken. Clear 5.

Lacaria ochropurpurea—a lovely purple mushroom—(yes, purple!)—mild, but not nearly as good as the chicken of the woods—3

Lacterius hygrophoroides—Arena calls the Lacterius mushroom milkies and they are also called milk caps because they exude a milky liquid when picked—this mushroom had wide spaced gills. Arena reports it as a favorite. Thag and I didn’t it love it. It had a true mushroom taste to it, and I expect that if you love mushrooms this mushroom would very much appeal to you. It is very pretty when cooked—fluffy and light brown—3

Lacterius vulemus—a cousin to the mushroom above, this one was darker in color and had a fishy odor. The flavor was nutty and, oddly, dark. Neither Thag nor I cared for it—2

Slippery caps—Suillius granulatus—a mushroom known for its slimy texture—Arena reports it being soft and slimy when cooked and recommended peeling off the slimy film on the mushroom cap and removing the soft underside if possible which I did—apparently these mushrooms are often used in broth or for flavoring food—I fully expected to dislike these mushrooms, especially after peeling off the slimy skin, but they were surprisingly pleasant. Of course, it is entirely possible that I used too much butter. Not only am I a novice at mushroom ID, but I also have weak mushroom cooking skills—they rate a 4 with lots of butter, but I reserve the right to change all ratings upon tasting edibles when prepared by someone with more experience!


Last week, we vacationed with my family on Old Orchard Beach in Maine. The low tide there is extensive and stretches out long and flat. One evening, while walking along the rivulets that lead out to the water, my father and I both found tiny (1-2 inch) clams floating in the water. Baby Yub Yub delighted in watching the seagulls carry them up high and drop them to break them open and eat the tender clams. Soon after we found a family digging up these huge 5 to 6 inch clams and filling their sand pails with them. They showed us how to spot the small sucking down of air in the sand that the clams make, then dig down 8 inches or so and uncover the clams. We got pretty good. This led us to wonder about clamming rules. (All the family's clams went back into the water and we covered ours back up in the sand.)

Thag chased down one of the beach patrol women on her sand jeep. She did not know any of the rules. The extent of our knowledge was that you probably need a licence and many areas are closed due to red tide or sewage overflow. However, after realizing how easy clamming is, we wanted to know more about how we could do it.

So, back home, we went online and we would like to applaud the town of Freeport for its awesome information and shellfishing hotline. They even have a shellfish warden (perhaps other towns do, too). Freeport's information was much more accessible and user friendly than the state of Maine's government site which led me to a 197 page document geared toward lawyers and commercial shellfish collectors.

What I gather is this (and I would love corrections or clarification here!): one cannot gather clams under 2 inches; there is a red tide hotline; you can gather in state parks without a licence; you are limited in the number of shellfish you can gather. I think when we return to Maine this September, we will call the town we are visiting and ask about their regulations. Perhaps wild clams are in our future...


Sunday we picked elderberries. The bushes here are in varying stages of ripeness from very ripe to not ripe at all. Sometimes this seems to depend on how much sun they are getting, but other times two bushes growing next to each other have fruits on either end of the gathering season.

Before this summer, I only knew of two elderberry bushes in our area. Now I see them everywhere; it is amazing what this project has done for our ability to identify plants from a distance. You get the knack for seeing the shape of a plant. What before was just a horizon of green leaves is now a canvas of rose bushes with elderberry peaking out from behind and grape vines hanging above.

Yesterday, as Thag ran, he noticed a whole hedge of ripe elderberries. So this afternoon, with Baby Yub Yub sleeping in the car, I drove slowly along the road as he scouted them out. They are easy to collect; usually the whole head is ripe at once, so we just clipped them with garden shears into our grocery bags.

Back home, we froze the clusters, then, later, pulled the frozen berries off their stems. Apparently raw elderberries make some people feel nauseated and don’t taste terribly good. We didn’t mind the few we tried. But tonight I made the elderberry and peach cake from Ronna Mogelon’s Wild in the Kitchen, and it is fantastic.

Later this week, I plan to make elderberry jam or jelly. Some people say they are too seedy for jam. Anyone out there tried it? Is it similar in seediness to raspberry jam (I love that texture.)?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wild Rice--Part 1

For those who don't already know, wild rice (Zizania spp.) is a tall aquatic grass that provided a staple for the native peoples of the Great Lakes and is one of the few wild foods (along with maple syrup) that is sold today on a large scale in North America. But despite the importance of this plant as a food, I have never seen a single leaf of it--a sorry fact that I am determined to change.

I spent the better part of a recent summer morning tracking down the elusive , wild rice. First, I used the range maps in my handy copy of Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, a guide to the ecological communities of Vermont, to pinpoint places where wild rice might grow. In all of our state, it seems there were only three large bodies of water where wild rice marshes remain--Lake Memphremagog, Lake Champlain, and the Connecticut River. Within those general regions, our guide listed three public lands where wild rice marshes could be found. I used my DeLorme Vermont Guide and Gazetteer to track these down. Two were on Champlain. One was on Memphremagog. All were a good drive away. It looked like this wild edible would require an expedition.

In the Midwest, wild ricing is still an important food tradition for many people and is conducted commercially. It seemed like the type of thing that might be more heavily regulated than just picking dandelion greens or elderberries from the roadside. So, to make sure that we were doing things within the bounds of the law, I called the government. But who to call? I started with Fish and Wildlife, but apparently wildlife refers only to vertebrate animals. The folks there had no idea how to answer my question. They sent me on to the Department of Agriculture which seemed logical to me. Wild rice is, after all, a major food crop. I don't think the woman who answered my call had ever heard of it though. She would have sent me to Fish and Wildlife, but, of course, I had already called there. Hmmm. Next I tried calling the National Wildlife Refuge where one of the rice marshes was supposed to be. "That's funny," said the director, "Can you tell me why you're asking. Before this year, I'd never received a request like this, but within the past few months I've gotten three." Apparently there were some folks from Connecticut who wanted to set up a commercial ricing venture on Lake Champlain. I assured him that I certainly wasn't going commercial and that I was merely a wild food enthusiast looking for a new food adventure. He politely refused my request pointing out that the mandate of the refuge system is to safeguard habitat for wild creatures.

While I am grateful that our society has been wise enough to set aside lands like this, I was still at a loss for a wild rice destination. Next I tried calling the folks who manage the state-owned land on Lake Memphremagog. The guy there convinced me that 1.) their wild rice community was too small to be worth my trip and 2.) that it was a really cool place to visit with some intriguing ecological history. He was very friendly (as were all the folks I spoke with) and seemed genuinely interested in my project. He gave me the number for his boss who he thought could answer my questions about ricing laws. So I called him next. After more than 90 minutes on the phone with all these various agencies, I finally got my answer. Yes, wild rice is technically legal to gather on any state land in Vermont (as well as other foraging for personal use so long as the plant is not protected). However, he recommended that I should contact the administrator of the particular place in which I'd like to forage. So, one more phone call . . . turned into three as I could seem to get this last guy on the phone.

I still have not heard back, but seeing as everything this year is ready for an early harvest, I am worried that further delay may cause me to miss the season. So, I am planning an expedition for this week to the only place in all of Vermont where I think I can gather wild rice legally and will just have to use my judgement about whether it is ethical to gather there. I'll let you all know how it goes.