As the local harvest season is just ‘springing’, we think of early provisions such as asparagus, radishes, greens, rhubarb, etc. But what lies outside of the farm fields, markets and restaurants are wild foods considered by some to be the ‘early harvest’ at the time of year when gardens are just getting started. Foraging, or searching for wild food, has been a passion of mine for the better part of the last ten years and although I am by no means an expert, I love to learn and share new things from our rich land and culture as I find them.
My intrigue with foraging began when I worked through several local Berkshire restaurant kitchens and every spring the chefs would always be highlighting ramps on the menu. If you aren’t familiar or are new to the Berkshire food scene, a ramp is a wild allium that has the appearance of a scallion with a leafy top, a purplish colored shoot and a spicier garlic flavor. As soon as I found patches of ramps in the woods, I knew I had found a new passion with food.
One of my fondest memories as a child was picking raspberries and blackberries with my grandmother and eating the still warm sun-ripened berries right off the bushes. Clipping the leaf of my first of the year ramp and eating it in all of its odoriferous and pungent glory transports me back to those early years. Perhaps it’s a hunter/ gatherer instinct or just the sheer joy and wonder of nature. My family never kept a garden growing up and I never grew anything on my own, so being able to find and harvest my own produce nurtures my green thumb. The ramps are perhaps the beginning of the edible land and the start of a fresh and green new year.
I get carried away with finding and picking ramps and cooking them (I know I’m not alone) in favorite and experimental ways like ramp pesto, ramp kimchi, ramp goddess dressing and fresh ramp pasta. By the time the window of ramps (April-May) is over, trust me, I and all of my friends and family are ready to move on!
Here is where I’ll insert an important disclaimer: Please don’t eat any wild plant without first consulting a book or experienced person on the matter. I have never eaten anything growing in the wild without first asking a more knowledgeable friend of mine or consulting a guide. Foraging New England is my go-to book and can be picked up at a local bookstore.
Another favorite of mine is the wild watercress that grows in and around cold running streams. I love its peppery sweet taste and I don’t tend to alter it quite like the ramps. I merely enjoy it raw on its own in a salad or as a garnish on top of some vegetables or fish.
Fiddlehead ferns are fun to find and taste somewhat like asparagus with a slightly more bitter flavor. Sautéed or steamed is a simple method of preparation tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. Look for curled ferns with brown onion-like skin and not the fuzzy white covering.
As funny as it may sound, some of these edibles are only known as weeds to most. Take for instance dandelions or knotweed. Dandelion greens from those yellow flowers that decorate just about everyone’s yard in the spring and summer are great thrown into a salad mix or sautéed to give a bitter punch. Knotweed is another invasive plant that is in the buckwheat family and whose taste and applications can be very similar to rhubarb. Pick when the shoots are about a foot high for a sweet and tender bite. I’ve enjoyed knotweed in a cooked grain dish like farro and einkorn or as a chutney to serve with cheese or roasted meat.
By this time, all of my success with finding these spring wild greens gives me the confidence and hope to find the elusive spring morel mushrooms. And, to be perfectly honest, I fail miserably every year. The morel has such mysterious growing patterns that they may or may not grow in the same places one finds them in previous years. I try and I try but I am lucky to find one or two while friends of mine usually find pounds of them, sometimes while not even trying. Morels are a delicious wild mushroom specimen, indeed. These cone shaped ‘shrooms’ can be simply cut in half, sautéed in butter, and served over scrambled eggs or pasta to highlight their earthy and meaty flavor.
When we think of how to describe Berkshire cuisine, ‘Farm to Table’ is a commonly used description. I almost always allude to wild edibles as well. They are, in a way, the Berkshire soul food. Sure, we have our international influences but we often neglect the things that have always been here and will continue to be here for generations to come. Whether it be the maple syrup tapped from century-old maple trees, ramps, knotweed, dandelion greens, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns or countless others, foraging in the Berkshires is proof of our culture and vast resources that I feel many of us leave untapped. And this is just the spring! I’m glad I wasn’t asked to write about multiple seasons. There is a plethora of edibles out there!
Foraging connects us to the land in ways we might not see by farming. These are the wild and indigenous foods of our land that existed before a lot of the harvested crops that were introduced by the Europeans. To me it redefines ‘local’. It is the product of Mother Nature in the purest and most unadulterated form. This is perhaps why I celebrate wild food as I do. It really connects me to this beautiful area that I will always call home. I hope this inspires you to take a walk into Mother Natures’ farmers market this spring and throughout the year!
Austin Banach, a native of Great Barrington, produces delicious prose that blends his intertwined passions for food, health and culture. Like most food entrepreneurs, he keeps a hungry palate and indulges most opportunities that find him. Austin has cooked at several restaurants in the Berkshires and draws on this experience to flavor his freelance writing. Austin is a founding partner of Braise Worthy, a company the creates healthy stand-out, slow-cooked dishes with local ingredients for those short on time.
Follow him at: austinbanach.com