Monday 15 July 2013

Nature's Pantry

I'm kind of amused that foraging has become a "thing."  You know: one of those trends that is discussed by foodies and lauded by fancy-pantsy restaurants.

For most of our history, foraging is just what people have done.  It was how we ate. 

When did we become so distanced from the sources of our food that gathering wild foodstuffs took on the cachet of exoticism?

It's a fairly recent thing, you know. 

During hard years of the 1930's, and during the rationing of the war years, it was rare for a homemaker to leave the house without a sturdy bag or basket.  On walks to and from church, or trips to town, or visits with friends, the family food supply was augmented by whatever could be gathered along the way.  

Food was not the only thing gathered either.  Bits of useful firewood, materials that could be used for basket making, and medicinal herbs were also prized.

In the 1950's convenience and modernity became the watchwords of the day, with home economists singing the virtues of package foods and supermarkets.  Many households moved away from foraging during that decade, and more again during the boom and exuberance of the 1960's. 

Foraging was not lost entirely, even during the 60's and 70's.  The young folk who participated in the "back to the land" movement placed great importance on natural foods. First nations, farmers, and others who lived a more rural lifestyle also continued to eat wild foods as part of their traditional diet.

Perhaps it was during the greedy 1980's that we seemed to lose sight of foraging altogether.  Certainly we lost track of many other traditions as we focussed on unrestrained consumerism.

Whatever the cause or the timing, North Americans have, within just a few decades, fallen out of the habit of gathering natural foods. 

Enter the current foodie culture and the "discovery" that wild foods are much more flavourful than many of the items commonly available on the shelves of big box grocery stores.  Voila! A trend is born. 

I came of age in the late 70's, at the tail end of the hippie era, and was greatly influenced by the "back to the land" philosophy, so I've always gathered wild foods.  They've formed a regular part of my diet for all of my adult life.  I enjoy gathering wild food, love the diverse flavours, appreciate the nutrients it brings to our plate, and am grateful for the way it helps me to stretch our food budget.

It's prime time for foraging in our woods and meadows right now.  There's lots and lots of wild food available in our area.  Here's some of what I gathered this week:


Plums are not, strictly speaking, wild food.  The plums in our area are the result of planned planting.  Many, like the ones pictured above, grow on ornamental trees that are planted for their spring blossoms.  These plums are often very small but they are also quite flavorful. 

Because the trees in our public spaces are prized for their blossoms and not their fruit, the plums usually ripen, fall to the ground, and are left to rot.  I note the location of the trees along my walking route and, when the first plums begin to fall, I gather together some buckets and go picking. 

This weekend, I picked two five-gallon plastic buckets full of cherry sized, dark red plums.  Some I canned whole, in light syrup, some I juiced for jelly, and some I cooked and pureed.  I froze the puree for use in baking and to combine with apples in sauce later in the season.


I realize that the term "huckleberry" refers to different plants in different regions, but here on the southwest coast of British Columbia it means these tiny red relatives of the blueberry.  Huckleberries are slightly tart in flavour, with little acidity and almost no natural pectin.  They are rich in nutrients and, for a short time each year, grow abundantly in the dappled shade areas at the edges of our woodlands.

Because they don't have a lot of pectin, huckleberries aren't really practical for jam making nor, by themselves, do they make a good pie.  They pair brilliantly with citrus flavours though, and make a nice addition to baked goods. 

Huckleberries are just beginning to ripen so I'll be picking them for at least a couple of weeks more. 

I wash the picked berries, spread them on cookie sheets and freeze them.  I use the frozen berries in many recipes that call for blueberries, and also incorporate them into some of my winter batch of marmalade.


Fireweed grows profusely here on vacant lots, the edges of forest land, in well drained meadows, and in recently logged areas.  Besides stabilizing and feeding the soil, fireweed is beautiful, flavourful, and nutritious.  It is an excellent source of Vitamin C.

I cut fireweed when the flowers are at their peak, tie it into bundles, and hang it upside down to dry.  When the plants are dry, I remove and save the blooms, composting the rest of the plant.

Fireweed blossoms make an excellent herbal tea. An infusion of the dried flowers can also be cooked into a flavourful jelly.  The jelly is jewel-like, with a reddish purple hue and a delicate flavour that makes it excellent for gift giving.

The blooming season for fireweed varies, coming earlier in areas near the shore and later in areas higher up the mountains.  By choosing where we gather them, we can harvest fireweed blossoms for a full month or more.

Pearly Everlasting:

Pearly Everlasting is not harvested as food but is, instead, harvested for decorative use.  The flowers retain their shape and pristine white colour when dried, making them very useful for embellishing gift packages or making wreaths.

I try to gather Pearly Everlasting before they are completely opened, and before they look too weathered.  As with fireweed, I tie it in bunches and hang it upside down to dry.

The plants available for foraging in your area will, of course, differ from those mentioned here but, if you're interested in learning about wild foods in your area, many communities have courses available on gathering wild foods.  Courses can often be found through agricultural offices, local colleges, or through community groups focussing on ecological interests.  Wild plant books are usually available at public libraries and there's lots of information available on line too.  Enjoy the quest.