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Finding the food in the forest

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

It’s almost officially winter, not usually the time most of us turn our thoughts to growing things, but the season for foragers doesn’t necessarily follow the same timetable as that of farmers, even in the Northeast where we’ve already felt a few freezes and most farmers markets closed for the season more than a month ago.

New York-based forager and food preservation expert Leda Meredith launched a series in Mother Earth News on cold-weather foraging with a piece on finding and identifying chickweed, a wild-growing weed that works well in pestos and salads. On her blog, Meredith writes that planning in the warm months makes year-round foraging possible. She advises foragers to identify plants in the summer when they’re in full bloom.

“The takeaway here is that foraging is a year-round pursuit: what you learn in summer will serve you when there is snow on the ground,” she writes.

Weather becomes less important when you head west. In California, mushroom foraging is getting underway and the increasing popularity of the hobby seems to be a double-edge sword. Next month, the Big Sur Health Center will host its second foraging festival, a three-day celebration featuring wild mushroom walks and a cook-off between local chefs and a big dinner starring locally foraged fungi.

The party in Big Sur is a fundraiser for the community’s non-profit health center, but other foraging ventures are more profit-motivated, and as more foodies head to the forests and fields to find their food in nature, the businesses may sometimes be profiting at the expense of nature, as NPR’s The Salt blog reported this week.

At Salt Point State Park, foragers turn out in ever greater numbers, often led by tour guides who charge as much as $90 per person. The growing crowds are changing the face of the park, ranger Todd Farcau, as they carve out new trails in the forest, dig with illegal tools and trample small plants in their zeal to find the fungi.

While amateur foragers have been around for a long time, the practice gained international attention several years ago with the rise to prominence of Copenhagen restaurant Noma and its co-owner and chef Rene Redzepi. Now a decade old, Noma’s menu features only local, seasonal produce and all the chefs are trained in the art of foraging. “I believe that knowing your landscape, what is edible and not edible, is as important as technique,” he told The Economist last month.

Like Redzepi, award-winning Australian chef Ben Shewry’s childhood food lessons stayed with him. Shewry grew up on a New Zealand sheep and cattle farm where nothing went to waste and he learned basic foraging and survival skills from his father, he told Reuters. “[The ingredients] speak of the area which the restaurant is in. A lot of interesting native plants are available to us here, completely different to other parts of the world. When you eat at our restaurant and eat these less common plants, that’s what gives the food its unique flavor,” said Shewry, whose Melbourne restaurant Attica made the San Pelligrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants this year.

Redzepi’s example has been replicated at eateries around the world, including eight New York City restaurants recognized by Grub Street earlier this year for their truly foraged ingredients, including juniper and cherry bark at Aska and sassafras root and pine sap at Atera.

The growing popularity is starting to take a toll at foraging sites worldwide, The Salt reports, but many who teach the art of foraging also advocate taking only what you’ll use.

For chefs and home cooks interested in going out and picking wild ingredients, Mother Nature Network sent a team of six chefs into the north Georgia mountains last spring to forage for wild ingredients and share their expertise. The resulting list of dos and don’ts for novice foragers advises would-be foragers to consider growing wild plants at home to offset declining wild populations, and urges them to take only what they’ll use and never harvest protected plants.

Are any foraged ingredients on your restaurant’s menu? Tell us about it in the comments.

Image credit: iStockphoto