I was born ready for our July Level II forager’s program: making tasty treats. My interest in foraging grew from a “food-focused” existence centered on gardening, cooking and chowing down. I’ve learned to try to think about the planetary food web as a beautifully complex, interconnected network in which humans are but a strand, rather than the world being a big buffet for humankind alone. But we are driven to care for the things we love, and the sensory experience of wild foods is a gateway to appreciate the flora, fauna and fungi in our midst.
Program co-lead Lacey Walker kicked off the day preparing a simple bread from foraged curly dock seed and local millet blended with a little oil, salt and honey. I was already a fan of curly dock’s leaves, whose oxalic acid gave it a lemon flavor and olive color when cooked, but I hadn’t ever bothered collecting its dark brown seeds. The resultant loaves looked like baby boulders; we’d find out if it tasted like rocks once it emerged from the dehydrator.
As we watched Lacey work, we chatted about what we had been observing in our necks of the woods, from early-blooming crepe myrtles to disappointingly watery figs and sparse mushroom patches. Patterns can take many seasons to discern, and with so many variables at play, it can be impossible to suss out why there was a great morel season one year and not the next. Practicing phenology can at least help connect dots and hone observational skills.
We next took berry-picking bowls to Fox Haven’s fields, a mix of wild and cultivated plants like fennel, chestnut, grape and milkweed growing in harmony. As we rummaged through the brambles for the darkest, ripest fruit, the satisfying plonk of berries hitting the bowl punctuated our free-ranging conversations.
Our pickings got co-mingled for jam, a mix of wineberry, blackberry, chokeberry and currant sweetened with honey. While the jam cooked down into a delectable goo, I led a short skillshare on spore prints and mushroom identification. Mushroom ID is a science, but feels at times like an art, given that mushrooms within the same species can look remarkably different depending on their age, environment and other factors. The methodical mushroom hunter can, however, usually arrive at a definitive identification by ticking through a list of characteristics, including cap color and shape, stem thickness, smell, habitat and time of year, and whether or not it bruises, has gills or pores or ring stems or a bulbous base among many features. Spore color can be critical when trying to differentiate between a delicious blewit (pinkish spores) and a deadly Cortinarius (rust-colored spores). In such cases, only a spore print can confirm or deny whether you’ll have mushroom pizza for dinner.
Spore printing is as simple as snipping off the stem and putting a mushroom’s cap gill side down on paper for some hours undisturbed, while the spores release themselves on the paper. Spores come in a surprising array of colors, including white, pink, olive, black and brown. Very young or old specimens as well as non-gilled species can be hard to print sometimes, however, and few of our specimens actually made their mark, but led to a great discussion nonetheless.
Next we skipped over to the forager’s patch, honing in on a spot at the perimeter Taylor Roman had cleared before our arrival. Here we raked in leaf compost and scattered the seed of a wild Virginia ryegrass to test whether it could outcompete the Japanese stiltgrass tearing through the patch. Taylor pointed out a nearby Bradford pear tree that had been grafted with a native variety. The native leaves had been nibbled on, whereas the Bradford pear leaves on the same tree remained untouched. We talked about the food preferences and requirements of insects and other critters that had evolved over millennia and would take many years to adjust to new conditions and surrounding species.
Our day’s work done, we reconvened in the barn to celebrate the fruits of our labor with dock seed bread and berry jam, a perfect pairing of savory, tart and sweet. Lacey had planned for us to make a pickled black walnut ketchup akin to A1 sauce, but as we ran short of time, I got to take the ingredients home to experiment with. The recipe was a simple blend of malt vinegar, onion, ginger, spices and black walnuts pickled the prior year, cooked down and blended into a rich complexly flavored puree. It is amazing how humans have learned to transform natural inputs like the hard-shelled black walnut into something as divine as this umami bomb of a sauce.
As we had discussed earlier, life forms can take centuries to adapt to new food sources. Today’s humans are blessed to have already discovered hundreds of foods available to us on Earth. We are all benefitting from centuries of culinary experimentation to determine not only what is edible but downright delicious, like the berries in our bellies this very
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC based writer, gardener, foodie and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.