Get Started with These 7 Tips
The treasure hunt for fresh, local food sources can literally be as “local” as your own yard. Dandelion jelly, puffball mushrooms, clover for your tea, and so the list continues. Delicious foods that pack a nutritious punch may be common “weeds” or might be found in a neighbor’s field or a local park. A treasure hunt indeed–there is a thrill to finding and identifying early springtime wild asparagus or an onion blossom (ooh, yummy “fritters”). Your mind races with all of the plans you have for the delicacy that only reveals itself for a brief season. This is food that requires living in the moment, and can serve as your trophy from a day out in the bright sunshine.
There are some things you must know before you get started. First and foremost, you must know the land, know the owner and something about it. Has it been sprayed with any chemicals? One of my favorite foraged herbs (Mullein) is deliberately sprayed by our county because it is considered a noxious weed–this means that I can only forage it from my land or from that of a friend who verifies it safe.
Secondly, only pick a few things you want to forage. Get a great guide like this one and learn only a few items well. Once you decide what you want to try to forage, look up the food in alternate books and guides; sometimes the difference in artwork can help you clarify what it is that you are searching. Plan on no more than three foods to start this season, and every year you will add to your repertoire. This keeps foraging safe for you; you are not guessing or getting confused. You can also use good books to learn the fakes and look-alikes. Some edible plants have poisonous counterfeits. Know them both by heart.
Thirdly, get talking! Someone in your area loves to forage, no matter how unlikely it seems for your neighborhood. I have found many kindred spirits at my Farmer’s Market and through the local food co-op, so these are great (and natural) places to strike up the conversation. They’ll give you suggestions as to where to look, the effect recent weather has had on the crop, and anything else you should know. One piece of advice given to me when first moving to Montana was by two older women that I would guess to be in their late seventies: “Always wear bells on your clothes; it helps scare the bears away.” Your newfound foraging friends may offer to take you along to show you a trick or two! If they do not offer, do not hesitate to ask; this might help you make positive plant identification and will ease any concerns you have about it. If you live in a community with a cultural center for an immigrant population, this might be a starting place. I once took Russian language lessons from a Russian cultural center that taught everything from ballroom dancing to chess, to—mushroom hunting!
My fourth tip might be controversial to some, but follow me out. If you are starting, skip the mushrooms altogether. There are about 10,000 known species of mushrooms out there–dizzying, isn’t it? Out of those, only approximately 1,000 species are edible (edible, not necessarily delicious). Mushroom hunting is a wonderful skill and a very rewarding one, but not for the beginner. There is a Russian saying: “There are Brave mushroom hunters and Old mushroom hunters, but not Brave, Old mushroom hunters.” Try something easier first, then spend this next winter attending your local mushroom hunting club to gear up for Spring when you have the expertise and companionship of Old mushroom hunters.
Did tip #4 make you mad? For those who understand that a world of opportunity lay at your feet with mushroom hunting, understand that the fear of poisoning is what keeps most people from ever attempting food foraging! By eliminating mushrooms altogether for the newbie, we have opened up a world of delicacies from the forest floor and eliminated the initial fears that would inhibit them from these delicious discoveries. We need to be careful with all foraged foods, but mushrooming is the one area I say should be reserved for hands-on instruction with a veteran.
Make a day of it! Plan on hiking. Invite a friend. Take good maps, a change of clothes in the car, lunch and snacks, tell others where to find you. Carry a bucket or bag for the food you collect. Let me recommend the Roo apron; it will keep your clothes clean, your cell phone handy for emergencies, and eliminates the need for a bucket when you traipse through the woods.
Wait until you get home to taste test. This is another safety tip. It might be exactly what you think it is, but if you personally have an allergic reaction, the side of a hill is not where to discover it. Just wait until you get home, cross examine the food item with your other books and resources, and then nibble. Wait a half hour. By then, you will know that you positively identified a nourishing food on your hike.
Finally, experiment in the kitchen. Your books will recommend the best way to eat a food item, and you can learn some great recipes through resources like this book. Play, eat, and enjoy!
Staying Safe, Sun-kissed, and Satisfied,
Proviso: Nothing in this blog constitutes medical or legal advice. You should consult your own physician before making any dietary changes. Statements in this blog may or may not be congruent with current USDA or FDA guidance.