The Europeans have their ancient, charming hedgerows, and New Englanders their stone walls to divvy up the countryside, but it's barbed wire that tamed and partitioned the American west--and that includes western Wisconsin. Those fencelines that follow the town and county roads can be a northern forager's last resort to gather some wild foods before the weather gods realize we're staring hard at the winter solstice, and
Ploughs and ditch-cutters both must leave a little leeway along the wavering barbed wire fences, and that small margin gives hope and a chance to a variety of wild food plants--asparagus, plum, grape vines, hazelnuts, jerusalem artichokes, black cherry, elderberry, and nannyberry, to mention a few. It was an unexpected glut of nannyberries that caught my eye last weekend along a Dunn County road. Clusters of black fruit still remained on several shrubby trees that I passed on the way back to Bide-A-Wee from picking up a newspaper in town (said paper contained a really nice account of Lily's and my recent hunt with Saint Paul Pioneer Press outdoors writer Dave Orrick).
|Nannyberries, with a vine that is probably...|
I pulled over and slopped through several inches of dirty snow to have a look, and a taste. This far into December, I didn't expect that the berries would be good for much, so I was surprised at how sweet and flavorful the flesh was. There's a reason, I guess, that another common name for them is "wild raisin." I filled a small sack and took them back to the cabin to see what I could do with them.
At another spot I was fooled by a nannyberry look-alike:
|...a type of smilax; edible but, according to one wild foods expert "probably icky."|
I wasn't sure what this was--thought it might be Carolina moonvine (a wild guess), but couldn't find corroborating evidence on that. That's when it's nice to have a true wild food expert in the address book: my friend Teresa Marrone wrote back right away, nailing the ID as a type of smilax, or greenbrier . (If I had had Teresa's excellent Wild Berries and Fruits Field Guide close to hand, I wouldn't have had to bother her, but it's nice to break up the day with a little email banter.) Teresa described the smilax berries as "edible but rubbery and distasteful when fresh." Ever the scrupulous researcher, she went on to speculate that in their desscated state they were "Probably icky." Now my curiosity is piqued, and I'll have to give them a taste if I come across them again. She also said that in spring the young shoots were edible and enjoyable, and noted that Sam Thayer writes about smilax in one of his books; I have those books, of course, but everything is in Wisconsin, while I write from Saint Paul.
Each year as the foraging season winds down to its last dribs and drabs, just before everything becomes well and truly frozen or buried in snow, I like to find some unlikely remnant, a little something to see out the
|The beak-y protrusion at the ends of nannyberry branches are distinctive.|
season on an up note--a few dried prickly ash berries to flavor a fruit sauce for duck; some blackberry leaves or late sprouting nettles to steep into tea; dandelions or sheep sorrel that green up in a December rain, as we're seeing now. This year the nannyberries were my last best hope, it seemed.
I started by sorting through them and separating berries from stems, discarding especially gnarly looking berries, or ones the birds had pooped on. I wound up with a generous cup of berries from my small harvest, and those I placed in a small saucepan with water to cover, covered the pan, and set it on the woodstove to simmer. I didn't really time it. I checked on it every now and then, added a bit of water as the level cooked down. As they cooked they gave off a layered aroma, of fruit, of tea, of bramble leaves--reminiscent of haw berries simmering.
When it seemed that they were soft-ish I poured them into a sieve, keeping the water, and mashed at the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon. I wasn't able to get too much pulp out this way, so back in the pan the mashed nannies went, more water to cover, and back on the Haggis to simmer. In another 15 to 20 minutes I gave it another go--much better this time. All that remained in the sieve were the skins and the large flat seeds, much like a watermelon seed, that come one to a berry.
I chopped a few slices of dried apple and added these to the nannyberry...slurry, I guess it was, thicker than juice, thinner than a paste. I wanted the apple for texture, and also for tartness to balance the nannies' sweet, rather bland taste. When fresh and just ripened, nannyberries have an appealing date-like texture and a flavor that reminds me of dates and banana. The dried ones were less subtle, some nuance lost as they dried along the fencelines. I hoped the apple would perk up and round out the flavor of the concoction as a whole.
I just happened to have a chunk of sweet and salty, dense and crumbly ten-year-old Wisconsin white cheddar in the cooler. I was thinking of quince paste, or a mild chutney, that would complement but not upstage the cheese. I considered a bit of spice, or heat, or an allium element, shallot or garlic. In the end I let it be, just the nannyberries, apple, and a pinch of salt.
|The compote did not want to be photographed; something about the glossy sheen confounded the focus every time.|
I considered it a quiet triumph. The cheese and my nanny-apple compote got along very nicely. The no-name cheese--a "commodity cheese," it might be called, but what a ludicrous misnomer--came from Bolen-Vale, for around $12 a pound. And now, it's not that I think the $20-plus-per-pound farmstead cheddars are over-priced, it's just that, having tried a few, I find that none please me as much as this modest over-achiever.
I've said enough. A slice of grilled sourdough and a glass of wine, raised in a solitary toast to what may have been (or may not be) the end of the foraging season, made a very satisfactory Bide-A-Wee bachelor supper, and pleased me very much.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw