By Jan Hudson Krueger
The concept of being one with your surroundings is a worthy goal. Mountain climbers and hermits take it to its zenith, but for the rest of us, we can glory in what’s around us, and perhaps see what’s good to eat.
Knowing what to pick is vital. I learned at an early age not to mix purple flowering raspberries in with the regular raspberries that I was sent to go pick. Mom was not amused. Grandma told me the fuzzy fruit looks more like the hats she knitted and that solved my youthful confusion.
We gathered chokecherries from the bushes and pin cherries from the spindly trees in the Third Field for jams and jellies, as well. Again, not to be mixed together... And Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrots, but you’d have to dig up a bunch of plants to get more than a mouthful.
We have driven out on the Gooderham Rd. and picked wild crab-apples for making schnapps. Our lad came in the other day with some wild basil and mint for our food and there is even bergamot to be foraged for making Earl Grey tea, as well as so many plants to forage to make various teas. Even mini-milkweed pods are being pickled and sold in stores!
I also learned not to touch wild mushrooms, no matter how tempting they look. Generally, a healthy idea. However, our son is quite confident with identifying the King Bolete and preparing it for us. And one summer, after a rainfall and before the squirrels found them, Opa found a respectable patch of chanterelles in a clearing behind the shed. With his assurances, we picked and cleaned them, and loved them sautéed and then added to our dinner plates that evening. They tasted like they were braised in brandy! Did we ever find them again? No, they are fickle and particular.
Our family has, for several decades now, happily harvested wild leeks in the Spring. Usually a very buggy adventure, this year was great because the black flies weren’t out yet. Woohoo! With the bulbs, I made our annual “May Two-Four Potato and Wild Leek Soup”, and for the first time ever, this week, I made wild leek pesto with the leaves. That was exciting despite the fact that we’re not really big on pesto. Needs pine nuts.
I have read much about sustainability concerns about too many people picking them and selling them in farm markets. The current literature advises against taking the bulbs (to which I responded, “Well, then, what’s the point?”) and picking the leaves sparingly. Common sense, and my mother, dictate that you pick what you need over a large area, never wiping out an entire patch. A tip I learned this year said that, once you dig up the bulbs, snip off a bit of the root end of the bulb along with the roots and pop that part back into the ground. Makes sense to me. Mass harvesting of them for sale at a market makes no sense.
Some of my fondest memories come from our family outings to pick whatever it was that was needed for preserves or pies. In the sixties, we found an ancient apple tree in the Second Field, likely a remnant from the old homestead out there. Wild apples make the best jelly! And you could reach UP for the fruit. Picking wild strawberries is backbreaking work unless you’re a dachshund who is already close to the ground. We caught her, red-muzzled from snuffling her way through the patch, eating as she went. She was unceremoniously barred from future excursions.
Raspberries are a delicious thirst-quencher when out for a hike, back when we didn’t walk about with a water bottle clenched in our fists. Apparently, bears feel the same way. They love the berries so much; they will even make their bed in the middle of the patch! This fact always added a shiver and some alarm to our frequent forays in newly-discovered spots. And Mom was forever seeking new patches to pick! She said to make lots of noise so the bears knew we were coming and could scamper into the forest. I often wondered what she would do if we met a stubborn beast, reluctant to relinquish its goldmine.
Raspberry canes are thorny and would leave us spotted with wee specks of blood when we were done. Black raspberry canes, however, will cut and slash you with their sharp-edged swords! One Labour Day weekend, our son and I decided to go pick some from the heavily laden bushes we’d seen out by McGillivray Rd. He was covered properly, as we had taught him; I had on only shorts and a T-shirt. Two days later, I was welcoming my new students back to school with hideous scratches all over my legs and arms. Probably a bit of a gruesome welcome to some of the kids, I imagine. One mother said I looked like I’d been caught up in a fight between two very angry cats!
Elderberries...to pick or not to pick, that is the question. Mom would look all nostalgic when remembering the elderberry pies her mom made out in the prairies. On the other hand, He Who Knows This Kind of Stuff, stayed my hand and strongly advised against my picking the elderberries out by the culvert on Inlet Bay Rd. Anybody who would care to be a tiebreaker for this issue, please step up and let me know. They look so inviting out there!
The animals in and around Paudash hunt, fish and forage and we can join them in our turn. Toddlers with blue or crimson stains on their fingers, mouths and curls love berry-picking but don’t expect much in their little berry pails. We hunt for pristine glades full of treats from the forest or along the shorelines for Sweet Gale and Labrador Tea leaves. And as for foraging, I take my cue from the master foragers, red squirrels. When they grow weary of splaying themselves across the screen doors, begging for peanuts, they return to their more natural activity of gathering and storing anything and everything that’s tasty to them. They climb up into the great pines and launch barrages of pine cones onto our roof and deck, terrifying the dog and interrupting an afternoon snooze. But they’ve given me an idea. I’d like to find out if the pine nuts from our white pines are as delicious as the over-priced ones for sale in the grocery stores. Besides, I need them for my wild leek pesto!