Thursday, August 21, 2008


Not, indeed, that Texas tea, the bubblin' crude that Jed Clampett came upon while shootin' at some food. Rather, the morning and afternoon of a fortunate forager.

When we purchased our Wisconsin land we knew we were getting several dozen long-neglected apple trees, and maybe a couple of plums. We didn't know quite how generally fruitful the land would turn out to be. The raspberries and black caps were delicious though not especially abundant. We're watching grapes slowly ripen on the vine, lots of those. There's a nannyberry bush (also called "wild raisin" and black haw) which will provide a new wild treat next month--if the birds don't get to them first. The birds are welcome to whatever they can find: they are one of the great delights of the land, and they consume a lot of potentially troublesome bugs, as well.

But what we have in spades right now (befitting their inky hue), is blackberries. Big, fat, juicy, sweet blackberries. One morning this week, in the midst of preparing to return to the city, I discovered a burgeoning patch just down the hill from where our new cabin sits. They'd been hiding in plain sight, and we had walked right past them, somehow, on our way to pick berries on another hillside, berries that went into a breakfast of french toast and apple syrup.

I planned to stop at a favorite foraging spot on the way home (that's where the gold comes in) so I didn't want to let the morning slip by in the berry patch. I set the timer on my watch for fifteen minutes, and I made my leisurely way through a section of the patch, plucking the biggest berries from the tops of the canes, enjoying a few in the process. When I got home I found that my fifteen minute harvest was nearly a pound-and-a-half of berries.

I closed up the cabin and drove to my favorite mushroom woods. This is chanterelle time, if the mushrooms decide to cooperate. Two years ago I found pounds of chanterelles in these woods; last year I found not a one. I was a little late to the woods this year, and found quite a few mushrooms a bit dried, mud-splashed, or bug-bit. I pick them all, regardless, and make the best of them. If we get some much-needed rain there may be another burst of them--I've found them into October in past years.

Chanterelles are my favorite mushroom, and one of my favorite foods, period. Part of it goes back to my sheer joy and amazement at first discovering them in a local woods, four years ago, I think it was. Seeing those glimpes of gold in the leaf duff induces a sort of "forager's high," an exhilaration hard to describe. And then the hunt is on, and you rarely find just one chanterelle, their habits being generally "gregarious," as mycologists put it, which makes them seem not just abundant but fun and sociable, as well.

And part of it is the aroma of freshly picked chanterelles, which is often described as being like that of apricots, but which also reminds me of raw squash or pumpkin, of sweet corn meal, of berries, a bit. But what they really smell like is chanterelles, an aroma I find so enticing that I have to lift each and every chanterelle I pick up to my nose, to take in that scent at its most potent. For this reason, and others, it takes a long time to pick a modest portion of chanterelles.

And part of it, of course, is that they are delicious. Better than morels, to me, more subtle and yet more potent at the same time. I've tasted truffles and fresh cepes, but I would take chanterelles over either of those esteemed, expensive fungi. Simple is best in preparing them (though in that abundant year I recall a dish of lobster and chanterelles in espelette cream sauce that went down pretty nicely). Saute gently in butter and serve with a plain omelet of good fresh eggs. A splash of cream at the end won't hurt them, and then you nap that over toast points and indulge. A nice light burgundy like a mercurey, or another pinot noir wine on the fruity side, that would be my choice to accompany them. In a white I might go for a dry vouvray, a pouilly-fume, or a pinot gris. That's a little academic: the 'shrooms are the thing.

I love foraging. I have always loved just wandering around in the woods, and when one is able to bring home rare and exquisite things to eat in the process, I wonder why everyone isn't doing it. At the same time, it can be really hard work, and until you're lucky enough to find a chanterelle woods, or a haunt of morels, or a stand of hen-of-the-woods-harboring oaks, you need to enjoy walking around in the woods finding nothing whatever of note or delectation.

Even the blackberries, obvious and abundant as they are, extract a price. Their thorns are the most wicked of all the brambly berries, like pointy razors, and no matter how careful you are, you are going to get a little torn up picking blackberries. My dogs are wirehaired hunters built for just this sort of terrain--grouse and woodcock favor thick and thorny coverts--and I have heard them yelp in pain when a blackberry thorn caught a nose or ear.

And as for the mushrooms: It would take any number of plates of lobster and chanterelles in cream sauce to replace the calories I burn off trudging up and down the hills of my favorite chanterelle woods. I'm in long pants and long sleeves for this outing, as well, since I have to go through thorn bushes and nettles on the way, and it's August. I am sweating profusely, and twisting my ankles on steep and rocky terrain, straining my foggy eyes for a glimpe of yellow in the oak leaves. There is a lake down below me, and I can hear the slap-slap-slap of motorboats bouncing over the waves. From the swimming beach I hear splashing and laughing; the voices of the children sound like happy geese from this distance. I stop on the rocky slope and think: What is wrong with you, slogging around this dismal dark woods, drenched in sweat, exhausted, looking for bizarre organisms that live underground and feed on decaying leaves and wood? Why can't you be a sane and normal person, out there enjoying the sun and breeze and water on a beautiful summer's day, getting a tan, taking a cool dip when you please?

Then looking up the hill I see something glimmer gold: could be a leaf, or just a trick of the light, but no, that tone, that density of yellow is unmistakable. Who needs beaches when you've got chanterelles?

Text and photos copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008

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

Monday, August 4, 2008

Berry Berry Good to Me

While we wait for the apples to ripen at our Wisconsin "orchard," there are other fruits to enjoy in the meantime. In a shady low spot by the falling-down big old willow, near a charming feature we call "The Troll Bridge," we found a nice patch of raspberries, both black and red. We came out to camp for the weekend last month, planning on pancakes for breakfast, with maple syrup and a garnish of fresh berries picked before the dew was dry.

We weren't even across the river from Minnesota into Wisconsin when we realized we had forgotten to pack the maple syrup. We had to stop for gas and ice en route, so we picked a gas station/convenience store that I knew stocked a certain amount of local products (mainly beer). But when I asked the friendly man behind the counter if they had maple syrup, he wasn't sure. He asked a young woman who was stocking shelves about it, and she said, yes, they sure did, and she pointed out a shelf where proudly there stood the rotund, iconic figure of...Aunt Jemima. In plastic.

It only took me a second to realize how insulated one can become in the world of real, local foods, that I could almost forget that that sort of product still exists--forget that for many, many people, maple syrup and "pancake syrup" are synonymous. From

So I don't really think I was being awfully snobby when I decided to skip the Aunt Jemima's and think of another way to sweeten and moisten our 'cakes. (Oh, and by the way, the ingredients of maple syrup are...never mind.)

About as quickly as the Aunt Jemima anti-epiphany occurred to me, I also knew how to save our breakfast. So after a kind of a crazy Saturday night, during which our normally quiet neighbors down the valley enlivened the evening with a family reunion that included a full-on fireworks display and all-night volleyball tournament (no kidding), we arose in the still and quiet morning, had a quick cup of coffee and went a-berrying.

The red raspberries were at their peak, but not terribly abundant. The more prolific "black caps" were just starting to come in, but we managed to pick a pint or so, and then it was back to
camp to make syrup. I had never made berry syrup before, but from past jam-making experience I knew how to make berry juice, which I figured we could boil down to not-quite-jam and have a lovely syrup. With no strainer on hand, dealing with the seeds presented the only major obstacle, but Mary came up with the solution--a sturdy paper-towel-like product that made an ideal jelly bag.

So we took a little more than a cup of berries, I suppose, added water just to cover, and cooked it over low heat until the berries were broken down, around eight minutes, I imagine. We poured the cooked berries into the cloth and squeezed out the juice--ouch, it was hot, I should have let it cool a while, but we were hungry. To that juice I added a couple of tablespoons of sugar and cooked that gently until it started to thicken and coated the back of a spoon.

If you wanted to do a little backwoods tattooing or tie-dying, you could do worse than raspberry juice.

We were able to resurrect the fire from the previous night's ashes, and we sliced up some of our
home-smoked bacon and cooked it slowly in the cast-iron skillet. Mary made up her excellent pancake batter. We were ravenous by the time the first batch of pancakes came out of the skillet, so no food styling here, just good food as local as it gets.

The red raspberries were tart but incredibly fragrant, the black caps sweeter but less intense; together they made a beautiful, delicious syrup. The ingredients of our raspberry syrup: Raspberries, water, sugar. That's a little more complicated than maple syrup, but less time-consuming to make. We're don't usually tend to repeat meals, but we had the same thing for breakfast the next morning. It was just as good, even without an all-night volleyball match as prelude.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw