Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Locusts are Here (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Oh sweet joy! Black locust flowers--another reason for living. We so look forward to this plague of locusts.

Yesterday, as we drove home from a swimming and ice cream excursion, we saw them--lovely white clusters hanging from these magestic and stately trees. Last year, we nearly missed them altogether. A late frost prevented all the locusts in our area from blooming. We hoped this year would not be the same.

Locust flowers are among our top ten favorite wild edibles. They are impressively fragrant and their frangrance runs through to their flavor. They only bloom for a week right around June 1. As soon as you notice their lovely petals littering the ground, they are no longer delicious. So you have to find them early--just after they bloom. Their brevity makes them all the more precious--so we expect to gorge this week on snowy white plumes.

Yub Yub loves them! This afternoon she and her good friend ate them like grapes off their clusters. "Mama, I need more of those tasty flowers!"

I put them into a salad of blueberries and spring greens and covered them with a light vinegarette made with the red clover vinegar I made last June. Yum. I can't wait for breakfast.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stinging Nettles that Don't Sting

Hot, steamy, overcast, and buggy--southern Vermont this week--other than the bugs, this weather is a welcome change from the long extended cold of the last several months. Yub Yub and I continue to collect sorrel, nettles, dandelion, and violets from our yard. Thag and I continue to lust for summer when we anticipate more time for foraging.

We seem to grow stinging nettles that don't sting! At first, I thought they were just low sting, but this week, I found a lovely new patch outside our house. Another patch of what seemed to be nettles grew in front of the ones I was certain were nettles. I have never been the plant ID person in our family. I tried. I found a few subtle differences, and I was fairly convinced that the "nettles" in front of the real nettles were not actually nettles. So, I touched them. No sting. I touched the real nettles. No sting. So much for a control.

When Thag got home from work, I asked for his assitance. I was right--the first plants were, the second plants weren't. I collected some of the real things to prepare a quiche. I really wanted to test their sting. I washed, snipped, and cut them with my bare hands. After about five full minutes of working with them, I had a slight tingle on the side of my left ring finger. Nothing else. I wasn't brave enough to try and eat them raw, but I wonder...

My father-in-law tells a story about his sister encountering stinging nettles and being swollen and in pain for a week. I know the degree of sting varies among location, but the lack of sting in our plants is kind of unbelieveable. But I am not complaining!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sheep Sorrel--Rumex acetosella

We love sheep sorrel--sweet and sour! But (like so many greens), we wonder why, in our reading, its culinary capacities are so understated. We read that it is an herb, or that it is a nice trail side nibble, or, occasionally that one can cook it up in a little butter as a side dish. Well, I don't know about you, but we've never been a family to eat a pile of mushy cooked greens on their own. Spinach and chard go in things--not along side them.

And, even large amounts of greens cook down to a very small quantity. You could pick sheep sorrel all day and only have enough for two servings of a side dish. But, its flavor is so intense and wonderful, it can be the main flavor of a meal.

So, after our fantastic success with sheep sorrel soup, I decided I needed to create my own recipes. Today, Yub Yub and I picked sorrel under a sky pregnant with thunder clouds and then came inside to cook up a feast as the storm broke outside.

Sheep Sorrel and White Bean Pasta--5!

about 4 cups sheep sorrel, washed and spun dry

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 can (15 oz) cannellini beans, rinsed

12 ounces pasta (3/4 box)--we used rotini


Cook pasta. Reserve 1 ladleful pasta water.

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add onion--cook until translucent. Add garlic--cook one minute. Add sheep sorrel. Sprinkle with salt. Cook until sheep sorrel loses its lovely bright green color and turns an ugly brownish green--about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add beans. Add pasta water. Add pasta. Serve with parmesan. Delightful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Yard Foraging: Violets, Dandelions, Sheep Sorrel, and Nettles

One of the tired themes on our blog is our busyness. Rather than go into our usual complaint list, I will just say (again) that we are too busy and it has been affecting our foraging lives.

However...our inability to get out and forage in the woods at large has made us much more aware of the plenty on our own land. And it has also made us look more closely at the plants that grow here too. The little one and I collected dandelions for this year's batch of dandelion marmelade, and I found myself seeing the nuances of the dandelion. Who looks closely at dandelions? But they have so many stages. When they first bloom, their petals are tight knit in the center--clustered and easy to remove in one bunch. At their peak, the flowers are in lovely, uniform circles. As they age (though still all yellow) their centers become fuzzy and soft and the outer petals curve downwards. And the whole flower closes at night--who knew?

We have a lot of nettles on our property. Along the edge of the woods to the north, we have noticed our nettles have tons of tiny holes, making the leaves almost lacy with insect foraging. These nettles (as you would think) don't sting very much. Thag and I pick them without gloves. And the other day, as Yub Yub tried to help me forage, she walked right through a patch without any reaction at all. But, on the other side of our house, grows a smaller patch of nettles, with no insect bites that are much pricklier to the skin. How cool to know two patches so well--and see differences living so close together.

Despite the crazyness, I have managed to make two batches of violet jelly, two batches of dandelion marmelade, and make sheep sorrel soup for company who raved about it. So we continue on, but forgive us if our recipes and posts don't feature a large variety of edibles.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hunting and Gathering: Is it still possible?

My ancestors were professional foragers. So were yours. Before 10,000 years ago all of our ancestors were. There is no doubt that hunting and gathering food has been a viable profession for humans. But is it still? In 21st century New England can a family reasonably (and legally) subsist on wild foods gathered by their own hands?

I know of some wilderness survival teachers who have made dubious claims to have done this. Their stories are vague about the details. I don't believe many of their tales. I read the blog of a guy in the British Isles who attempted to live a full year on wild foods. He had to quit after a few months because he found that foraging was a full time job and that it took a paying job to earn enough money to live in his apartment (or house). He could not do both.

Samuel Thayer outlines a month of living on wild foods in his book Nature's Garden. It is the most thorough description of how someone might become a professional forager that I have seen. Yet it was only a month, and Sam used a lot of stored foods from his well-stocked larder of gathered foods. I don't mean to diminish the accomplishment, but what I want is to someday be able to live with the land the way my ancestors did ages ago before glass canning jars and pressure cookers.

It would be far more difficult to live as a forager in my time and place than it would have been even only 300 years ago. I've had people tell me my whole life that, "You can't go back." The reason they usually give is the staggering population increase and corresponding decrease in wild places in which to forage. But I am convinced that this problem can be overcome. I'm not really competing with anybody for wild foods (as long as oil is cheap). People just aren't interested enough. And wilderness areas while important, are not the best places to forage anyway. My best foraging is in the pastoral patchwork of farmland and woodland that comprises much of rural America. As I see it the real impediments to modern foraging as a way of life are not about population or loss of the wilds at all. Instead I think there are five things that stand in the way are things that most people never think about.

  1. The foods are gone. Chestnuts are gone. Wild rice is gone from much of its former range. The fish runs of shad are gone (or so diminished as to be practically gone). Anadromous fish, in general, are no longer abundant enough to be a staple. Gamebirds like the passenger pigeon are gone. We have certainly gained some new edible plants from Europe. In fact, much of what we experiment with on the foraging family are invasive plants that the professional foragers wouldn't have had. However, most of them are greens and herbs. They are nutritious, but low in calories. Compared to the calorie rich food sources that we have lost, these shoots, leaves, and buds hardly make up for the food sources we have lost.

  2. Access to the foods is reduced. It is a myth that native people would have had unfettered foraging access. Families, clans, and nations laid claim to land, claims that they defended against trespassers. At contact times, the native people of southern Vermont lived as semi-nomadic forager-gardeners. Family units had hunting territories of close to a five mile radius. Taboos restricted which places could be hunted at which time. Some resources, like the best fishing spots on the big rivers, were shared among larger groups. Also shared among larger groups were the best farmlands where they would grow corn. Access to land and food was limited for professional hunters as it is today. But even so, the modern day forager is restricted to significantly fewer places. Today, commonly held lands are much smaller, much farther apart, and much more restricted. Hunting seasons, bag limits, and gathering laws are our society's way of safeguarding these resources for the future. But do these restriction make professional hunting and gathering a legal impossibility?

  3. Distribution of the foods has changed. A lot of people seem to imagine the landscape of our ancestors was similar to the forests of today. This is not really so. Today's forests are different. They are the product of human disturbance of the landscape. The forests of 500 years ago, so far as can be told, were dominated by different trees, had different ecologies, and featured an abundance of different creatures. The forests of centuries past had a greater variety of species and a greater mix of trees of all different ages. There were some unique habitats that no longer exist like the New England prarie. (I'm not making this up. Check out Tom Wessels's Reading the Forested Landscape.)

  4. Traditions of food have been lost. We learn most quickly from a mixture of good teachers and lots of practice. Today's forager had few of both. My ambition to be a professional hunter-gatherer or at least a hunter-gatherer of professional level skill is stymied because of a dearth of role-models. There are folks, like us, who enjoy using wild foods to make our civilized foods more interesting. But our foods are still civilized. There is so much knowledge that is needed to live off the land. A lot of the pieces of this knowlege are readily out there. But I have not yet seen an example of anyone living with all of those peices put together in a single unified whole. The responsibilities of life in our society leave most of us with little time to make foraging anything but a hobby. The professionals of ages past would have learned from master foragers who were part of millenium-long traditions. They would have devoted many hours to the mastery of those skills. Most modern foragers are starting their traditions more-or-less from scratch.

  5. Foraging is no longer a collaborative process. What made foraging work for humans was the tribe. Foraging with a small group of compatriots in a kind of foraging co-operative was the most efficient and most productive approach to meeting foraging needs. Ooga and I have thought of this often. Two people are more than twice as productive as one. Three or four people can cover more ground and increase the odds of bringing in high yield but less reliable foods. The tribe was a kind of insurance policy. If you spent all day hunting and came home empty-handed, someone else had probably had success fishing. This, I think, is the most critical missing piece.

Whew! It's easy to get discouraged in the face of this daunting list. But I have great hope that I will someday realize my dream of being professional forager. Despite all these strikes against the would-be modern forager, there are many foraging advantages that we have today that our ancestors did not have. Stay tuned for a future post on things that our foraging ancestors would envy.

I have no answer to the question that began this post. I really don't know if hunting and gathering is a viable occupation in 21st century New England. I deeply hope that it is, and I dream of the day when someone proves that it is so--not just as some survivalists tall tale, but as a real and replicable model of the modern foraging life.

Is that dream possible?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Garden foraging: Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Spring has arrived here in Vermont, and it, as always, is glorious. The little one and I have watched the maple leaves unfold each day as I push her swing under its branches.

We have read about people finding obscene amounts of tasty edible weeds growing in their gardens, but we generally just have plantain (which we really dislike).

This year, however, as Yub Yub and I turned over the garden, we found a lovely batch of sheep sorrel growing among our strawberries. She and I collected them (though I know it looks like we are collecting violets!) and made a simple and delicious soup which all three of us devoured.

Her foraging skills have blossomed over the year. At two and a half, she can identify many plants and is well aware that we can eat some. Today, she stopped by some small ferns unfurling and said, "Mama, we can pick these? They are fiddleheads?" But she never picks or eats without asking. I am so happy with her development as a forager. As a teacher, I know children learn what they are exposed to. Put them in a room full of letters and books and people talking about letters and books and they will learn to read. But it is so fun to see my own child learning (so young!) to identify bird calls and raspberry plants ("Those have prickers, but not on the leaves.") and animal signs. Every day when Thag comes home she has a nature question for him. Yesterday she asked, "Papa, turkeys make nests in trees or on the ground?" Today she rushed to show him the fox scat we had found by the shed. I am so excited that foraging and eating wild foods will be so natural to her--it wasn't one of my goals when I started this project, but her wild food skills are, by far, the best thing that have come out of our work as the foraging family.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Treat: Baked Brie with Dandelion Marmelade and toasted Black Walnuts

I recently ran across a recipe for baked brie in one of my mother's magazines that I decided to try with some of our wild foods in place of other ingredients. Since brie is expensive, we tried it out on a mini wheel first and were blown away.

So, for Mother's Day, I made a big one for my mother (and all the other family members gathered at her house). It was easy and delicious. I took a bowlful of the dandelion marmelade I made last spring and mixed it with a small amount of honey to make it easily spreadable. I covered the brie with a thick layer of marmelade. Then I covered the top with toasted black walnuts. I baked the brie for 25 minutes until it was nice and melty and served it with toasted slices of French baguette. So yummy! We'll add a picture soon!