Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Of the Spring in Spring
The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for parts of northern Wisconsin a couple nights ago. That would not be a notable fact were this September, or mid-May; but the calendar insists that we're still a few days from the end of March, a month during which, in northern Wisconsin, the average low temperature is in the low 20s, i.e., well below freezing. In the average year, then, no warning would be necessary for a March freeze. Average, this spring is not.
The freakishly warm spell has held on for long enough that I think most of us have entered early May mode. The trees here in northern Dunn County are leafed out past where they often are at the opening of the trout season, first Saturday in May. Stinging nettles are up a good four inches in the Bide-A-Wee woods, and I'll be checking our wild asparagus patch, on its southerly slope, in the next few days. I just hope that the fruit trees don't bloom for at least a couple more weeks--it's hard to believe that we're going to get through April without a hard frost, which would be devastating for any fruit crops in flower. (As a side note, we completely missed the sugaring season this year, and we weren't alone; if you can grab some syrup at last year's prices, I'd advise you to do so.)
We'll just have to wait to see how it all shakes out, whether the other shoe's going to drop. I found it really disturbing, I have to say, that spell of days near 80 degrees before we'd even reached astronomical spring. One shouldn't have to worry about where to park with dogs in the car prior to the vernal equinox, unless it's to worry that they'll be cold. In the last few days of cool mornings and highs in the 60s, I've come around a bit. This time of year can be dismal, waiting for the dull brown landscape to snap to life after the snow has gone. We have fast-forwarded through that phase this year, for sure.
One big plus to the mild winter and early spring is an uncommonly early start to the foraging season. I happened upon this gorgeous watercress patch a couple of years ago on my typically meandering drive between Saint Paul and Bide-A-Wee. A dirt road led me along a winding way, squeezed to one lane under a railroad trestle, opened into a pretty little valley, followed a narrow, twisty stream, and just past where the road crossed the stream, off to the left I saw a broad ribbon of vibrant green. Stopped the car and saw a path, got out and followed it to its end--just forty or fifty feet off the road--where a spring sprang forth from the limestone. My heart sprang, too; there is something about a spring that buoys the spirit, always, something so hopeful there.
Something hopeful, and delicious: fresh, succulent cress, with its distinctive, peppery bite and earthy undertones, for all that it grows pretty much hydroponically. The pepperiness can be overwhelming by the time summer truly comes along; early in the year, as now, it is perfect, assertive without being overbearing.
As I was picking the cress I noticed a tiny commotion in the water at my feet, and came to see that the spring was teeming with scuds, very, very small freshwater crustaceans that are indicative of excellent water quality (and beloved by trout as one of their favorite foods; some theorize that pink-fleshed trout get that color from consuming these wee shwimpses, but I've pulled white- and salmon-fleshed browns from the very same stretch of water, so I wonder about that hypothesis).
Speaking of water quality, I should note that eating wild-foraged watercress is a bit of a controversial topic. A stream that flows through livestock (particularly sheep) grazing grounds may harbor the common liver fluke or sheep liver fluke, a parasite which uses freshwater snails as a host during part of its life cycle, and snails in turn favor watercress beds as habitat. How a liver fluke goes about its business is really, really gross. You would not want to find out through personal experience. This is one reason that it's best to harvest cress as close to the source of a spring as possible--the picture just above, that's the the spring flowing out at the base of a small limestone outcropping. I picked my cress no more than twenty feet from there. With reasonable care and common sense, you can enjoy wild watercress through the spring months. I've eaten plenty of it, and never suffered ill effects from it--or from any other wild foods, for that matter.
Also, I find it impossible to walk away from a spring like this without splashing my face with pure, cold water, and drinking a cupped handful of it.
We put the season's first portion of cress to use in the simplest possible way--raw and undressed as the bed for grilled pork that I glazed with a mixture of maple syrup, cider vinegar, garlic, and a bit of sambal. The juices from the meat and the sweet-spicy glaze wilted the cress as we ate. Just a lovely, flavorful start to the foraging season.
Whatever this uncommonly early spring portends, it's a delight to find wild greens back on our table. Now it's the cress, stinging nettles, dandelion greens. We be on the lookout for sheep sorrel, that wild asparagus, wood nettles (which I'll bet are already up in southern Minne'Sconsin), fiddleheads. I've even seen a report of morels starting already in southern Wisconsin. Crazy days....
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw