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Tasting Earth

A week of rain, after which everything in the forest murmured. In between crevices, pale hatted fungi clustered like students. “I wonder if those are edible?” I whispered. “Brown cap boletus,” my companion answered, bending low over the glowing knot, “great with risotto, but these are young. They need to grow.” “Huh…weird to think something we pass on our hike is a food source.” “Before we farmed, this was our collective memory.” A chubby chipmunk snuffled across our path, brown nut clamped between teeth. Mist dripped from the lichen-covered boughs onto my shoulders. “Think the only wild thing I’ve had was strawberries. They grew in the woods behind our house. What about you?” “Mmm…acorns…nettle…oak moss…” “Huh…you can eat that?” “Everything has a purpose.” The landscape called to my hunger. I made some calculations. “Is it something I could learn?” “Come,” the guide invited, “come with me on my next foraging expedition.”

We met at what I thought was a fallow field neighboring a disused lumber yard. “Where are the plants,” I said, eyeing the plastic debris, the upturned dirt clods. “Here,” the guide replied, kneeling before a fluorescing rosette. “Oh, right…dandelions…heard those make good salads.” “Ever had them fried or in soup?” “N…no,” I said, toeing the crackled earth. “Look, black mustard,” the guide indicated. I eyed the drooping buttercup florets, suspicious. “Like the condiment?” “Yeah, from the seeds. But, the leaves can be blanched like spinach, the root roasted.” The guide moved to a batch of three-lobed leaves. “Um, that’s clover,” I corrected. “Right…the blossoms make for a great vanilla tea. We’ll leave these for the bees, though.” “Huh…turns out a lot of plants I ignore are edible.” My companion shrugged. “It’s easy to narrow our vision.” They heaped a bunch of bedraggled greenery into my arms. I thought of all the laundered produce wrapped in plastic under the supermarket lights. 

“Don’t be fooled,” the guide said, pointing to what appeared to be Queen Anne’s lace, “this is hemlock…not parsnip. Highly poisonous.” “Useless, then?” I asked. “Just not meant for us. That doesn’t devalue it.” Our scavenger hunt shuffled us in awkward patterns across the sward. Sometimes my guide uprooted a plant, or cut a stem, or plucked a flower. Often, they left things untouched. “Wow, you really know this piece of land,” I said. “I spend a lot of time here. A space is like a person, the more you get to know them, the richer they become.” I regretted having passed moral judgement on abandoned lots, weeds scrabbling out of asphalt fissures, and naughty brambles.

We met again in the community garden across from where the guide lived — a tangled exploration of roots and branches without border paths. There were no hothouse blooms, no identifying tags, no gloves, no tools. “How do you find anything in here?” I asked. “Don’t rely on your eyes,” my mentor advised, “use all your senses.” I prodded the soil gingerly, wary of what lay in the undergrowth. “Feel the texture of the purslane.” I squished its plumpness between my fingers. “Smell the oxalis.” I sniffed powdered lemon from the sorrel. “Can you hear that?” I bent towards a tall stalk to listen to the rasp of fingernails against tiny hairs. “I’ve made a pie for our lunch.” I scoffed. “Pshh…out of what?” “Let’s eat,” the guide said.

The pie tasted of banana and citrus and forgotten summers. I got greedy. “Let’s fetch more. Make oodles of pies,” I suggested. “No. I only take what is necessary. Never the first. Never the last.” I licked my lips, clutching onto that fleeting flavor. “Well. I’ll never forget this dish. Thank you.” “You should also thank the garden.” I felt foolish standing before the vegetation. But, “thank you for your gifts,” I said aloud to the plants. “I wish I knew as much about what to pick and how to make it delicious as you do.” The guide cupped my hands and placed a few sod clumps in them. “Start by tending these.” 

I mothered my fledgling cotyledons, reevaluating my commodification of food systems, public terrains, and ancestral knowledge. The buds, they were so fragile…and my appetites so substantial. How would I manage to steward these comestibles? How would I learn to share them? How could I walk the woods again in intimacy with lichen, berry, and prickly vine now the wolf in my stomach had learned to drool for them? 


TRAVEL NOTE:

Foraging is one of the oldest traditions, kept alive by oral transference. Regulations in many areas deny indigenous, migrant, and food impoverished communities from learning and practicing their wisdom. I-Collective is working to return food sovereignty to these cultures.


Have you foraged and if so what foods have you gathered and prepared? What foraging guides are available for your area?


60 replies »

  1. I use The Boreal Herbal (Wild food and medicine plants of the North) by Beverley Gray. I discovered it when I was in the Yukon and have used it to identify—chickweed, goldenrod, alder etc. It also helped when I was in Newfoundland where I picked loads of Labrador tea. If you’re in North America, I highly recommend it as the excellent photos help identify the plant correctly and there’s recipes for both edible dishes and medicines with a helpful chart at the back for the herb and its remedies.

  2. Quel merveilleux billet Bespoke. Que de plaisir à lire toutes ces recherches alimentaires dans la nature, c’est fascinant. Les forêts sont remplies de trésors mais faut-il encore connaître les champignons, les baies, les herbes, ce qui n’es pas mon cas. Je devrais apprendre car ton récit m’a fait très envie.
    Merci pour ces merveilles et je te souhaite un bel automne riche en découvertes 🙂 ♥

    • Merci mon amie pour tes gentils mots. Cela a été une éducation tellement amusante de voir les forêts dans lesquelles je me promène d’une nouvelle manière. Je te souhaite le meilleur. ♥

  3. I was lucky to grew up near the forest. Most my childchood memories are tightly connected with it. Foraging was a normal part of my life back then. I never learned what mushrooms are eatable but fruits and nuts was part of my everyday diet. Now… sadly not so much anymore.

    • Sounds like you had a wonderful location in which to grow up. Before my foraging lessons I had no idea so many nuts and fruits and leaves were edible. Thanks for sharing your experience and for reading my post!

  4. So often you expose me to new worlds with your posts. This one was no exception.
    Thank you for your beautiful pictures and wonderful prose.

  5. I grew up doing a lot of foraging, although I didn’t look at it that way; it was just what people did. My mother grew a lot of berries, vegetables and herbs, but the foraging was a large part of what we ate, as well, carefully preserved and cherished. We have really become detached from what made us.

    • It’s funny that so many things that used to be a way of life at some point return to us as fashionable hobbies with commodified names. We are rediscovering our paths back to gardening and eating home grown produce and learning from the plants that take care of us.

  6. I’ve been intrigued by food foraging since I learned how some of the world’s top chefs do this and serve whatever they find to customers at their restaurants. Where I live, I often think of vegetables that were commonly eaten decades ago but are now rarely found at supermarkets. I can’t help but feel sad for the lack of diversity people nowadays are confronted with. Thanks to this post, now I feel inspired to look for a place where I can get reconnected with nature the way you did.

    • Oh, what a wonderful compliment! Thank you. Yes, I also feel sad about how monotonous our collective diets have become. Traveling once opened my palate and my ideas of what food could be, and now as I explore closer to my current home I’m learning again ways our ancestors once knew. It’s been so very exciting.

  7. Who knew there was an association of foragers? Thanks for that link and for this beautiful post. The advice about never taking the first or last is great; I appreciate that you included the note about food sovereignty. My foraging has been mostly limited to lots of berries, some mushrooms, and rarely greens. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book is a gem, isn’t it?

    • Thank you and yes, Kimmerer is such a wonderful thinker. I find myself returning to the ways in which she thinks about words and language and science ever since my first reading of her. Wishing you well!

  8. This is brilliant. I’ve begun to forage in my wilderness, starting with morels and lion’s mane mushrooms. Wild berries and wintergreen and wild rose hips. I’m learning a little at a time so as to not get overwhelmed. It’s fascinating. Hope all is well with you, dear one. Happy Autumn. 🧡

    • Happy Autumn to you as well, dearest! How marvelous that we are both entering the world of foraging in the wilds at the same time. While the miles separate us, it feels like a live-wire connection to be sharing this practice with you. I too am learning in fits and starts, forgetting and then going back to ask again and again my patient teachers. Enjoy the season’s gifts. 🧡

  9. Magical … and I have just read the intro and the first photos … looks like an absorbing read – no, a journey – tonight … more comments will surely follow

    • Hello Jane. Thank you for your lovely compliment and for stopping by to read my post. I hope this season is treating you and your photography practice well. Have a wonderful week!

  10. This was beautifully written and a cause close to my heart. I’ve gone to a short lesson on Australian desert food but heard another traveller tell of being taken on a bush food exploration by indigenous relatives. I can seek these out in travel, I think. I grow various herbs, but most of these are introduced species. You’ve got me interested in finding out more about our native foods. Thank you.

    • Oh, I’m so glad I peaked your interest in Australia’s native foods! I’d love to hear about any future lessons you take with indigenous leaders around foraging. My forays with an expert have been eye and heart and mind-opening. Thank you for your lovely comment. Hoping this finds you well.

  11. Oh yes, this is the future and we better make it present. Never the first, never the last, though. How true.

    Not in Italy – you need a pass for hunting mushrooms – but in Slovenia we did it often: porcini mushrooms, umbrella mushrooms, those little yellow ones that I forget the English word for them, chestnuts, hazelnuts, blackberries, blueberries, wild strawberries, elderberry flowers which dad fried in a sort of tempura, wild asparagus, dandelion leaves for salad (with potatoes and boiled eggs, yum). We never called it foraging. We never took more than we could eat. We thought everybody was doing it.

    • Haha, yes, as you said, in many parts of the world “foraging” is simply a way to live. And what a lot of ingredients you’ve parsed from nature! I am just beginning to discover the varied and delicious world of mushrooms. Hoping this finds you safe and happy.

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