Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Impromptu Orchard Forage

This was not a serious outing to fill the larder or explore new territory. I had some business to attend to out near the orchard, so I stopped by our land to let the dogs run, pick a few berries, see how the apples were coming along. Down by The Troll Bridge (it's a big broken limb of a box elder tree that forms a sort of tunnel tall enough to walk under), I had dug a hole a few weeks back, to see if any water would seep in; hoping to be able to build a little pond there. I didn't strike water, but I did create a broken-ankle hazard, as Mary found out while berry-picking last weekend (no broken ankle, just a slight strain, thank you, trolls).

So I took the shovel over to fill in the hole. While I was there I gathered just about the last of the raspberries. Since I had the shovel, I decided to dig some burdock root. I've never tried burdock root. Burdock is in the rhubarb-sorrel-buckwheat family. Its leaves look very rhubarb-like. It's a biennial, and you dig the root from the first year plant, not the second-year, flowering plant that produces the titular burrs that are the bane of dogs and their people. The plants are tall, and the burrs grow all the way up. Just the slightest brush is enough for them to adhere to anything (hunting dogs a favorite target), and then the round burrs break into a million tiny seeds at a touch when you try to remove them. It's because of burdock that we always carry a comb when we go afield with the dogs in late summer and autumn--I have seen Annabel's head so covered in burdock burrs, it looked like she was wearing a mask. She did not like it.

Thus, digging a few burdock roots served the dual purpose of ridding our land of some nasty burrs and trying a new wild edible. According to books I've consulted, the Japanese use burdock in stews and such. You can also eat it raw. It has a mild carrot- or parsnip-ish flavor. I haven't tried cooking it yet. Based on a few tastes of it raw, I'm not won over. Maybe its flavor will be better after a frost, as with carrots.

I gathered me berries while I might, I filled the ankle-breaker hole, I dug some burdock. As I made my way back up the meadow I noticed some tall yellow flowers on a hill to my right, which I thought might be jerusalem artichokes, aka, sunchokes. Hello, I had a shovel in my hand. Might as well check it out. The yellow flowers were growing in a thick patch of blackberries. I was wearing shorts. I turned back at the first encounter with the canes, yet today I look like I got into a leg-wrasslin' match with a barbed-wire monster. I found one of the tall yellow flowers at the edge of the bramble patch, and dug it up. There was a bit of a swelling to the root, but nothing very substantial. It was a smallish plant, and I didn't persevere with other, larger ones, so the jury's still out.

But while I was there, I noticed on the steep slope above me the distinctive, delightful shape of green hazelnuts in their husks. Here they are, on the right, with a better look at the burdock, as well.I will have to be extremely vigilant in order to harvest any ripe nuts--all manner of woodland creatures find them as delicious as we do. Inside those husks you find fully formed hazelnuts, their shells pale green, and you can crack them open to extract a green nut, which is tasty but small.

The last thing in my forager's harvest wasn't wild fruit, but sour apples. We have a lot of these, and I'm trying to find uses for them. So far I've made sour apple juice which, sweetened with some honey from "neighbor"
Talking Oak Farm (Sandy and Rich Hall), has made the base for some excellent cocktails and aperitifs. I'm also thinking about chutney or a similar relish. Any ideas are most welcome. In a couple of weeks, when sweet apples are readily available, I'll show you how to make small batches of fresh apple cider at home, without a juicer. It's incredibly easy and gratifying.

Twenty acres isn't a lot of land by some standards, but it's more than 200 times as big as our lot in Saint Paul, which is usually a mess. Fortunately, no one expects 20 acres of woodland and meadow to be tidy.... Twenty acres is a universe when you start to explore it in fine. For a forager there's remarkable abundance in every acre. So far this year I've identified these edible plants: fiddleheads, nettles, dandelions, wintercress, wild ginger, garlic mustard, wood sorrel, lamb's-quarters, milkweed, raspberries, black cap raspberries, gooseberries, black currants, nannyberries, burdock, hazel nuts, plums, grapes, apples (!), crab apples. The oaks will yield nutritious acorns; we could get syrup from the maples and birches. I've found a few boletus mushrooms, but all either slug-or-bug-eaten or attacked by white fungus. Puffball mushrooms lie ahead, perhaps sulfur shelf and hen of the woods.

All that in due time. This impromptu forage report is just an early indication of the adundance ahead.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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