This week, I had the opportunity to forage with a group, as part of a class offered through Fox Haven Farm & Retreat Center. They run a series of foraging classes throughout the year, and people can sign up for the entire series or just individual classes. I happened to learn about this past week’s class via a Facebook event – possibly the only good thing that has come from Facebook all year – and I had to sign up when I saw the class name: Pawpaw Haul!
Fox Haven is “a farm, non-profit ecological retreat, and learning center”. They practice organic gardening, offer retreats and classes on a variety of subjects, run an herb-specific CSA, and provide our local coop with produce. Most important for foraging, they participate in the “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program” which allows them to leave land for native species in the local area. The land set aside for conserving natural resources is where we we spent the day hunting for fall wild edibles.
Thankfully, the blistering heat and humidity of the previous week had finally ended. The morning was cool and overcast, perfect for hiking through the woods. Lacey, the foraging instructor, led us to the area where the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) could be found. She taught us that if you shake the tree, any ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Unfortunately, this time the only fruit which fell was small and rock hard. The weird weather we’ve had all year may have been a factor in how small and late to ripen the fruit were. She said you can try roasting them if they are almost ripe to soften them up enough to eat, so we kept the handful we collected to try. I was particularly curious about this suggestion, since in Eating Appalachia they had specifically warned against overheating pawpaw when cooking; but Lacey said they had used that technique successfully at a local restaurant where she used to work.
Next on our class “to-find” list was autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is a very invasive species, but it also provides food for wildlife and humans. The berries contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes do, and the seeds are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. The seeds are so large, compared to the overall fruit size, it is easiest just to eat them along with the flesh. One shrub can apparently produce almost eight pounds of fruit, which is good and bad: it’s a lot of food, but a lot of seeds that can be easily dispersed and allow the shrub to spread even further.
I learned that each individual shrub tends to have its own flavor; some will bear more sour fruit, and some sweeter. You can harvest fruit from different plants for different uses. The first shrub we visited had very astringent fruit (like an unripe persimmon, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing that). The second shrub had berries so tart they made my mouth pucker. (That one was my favorite.) Since we were planning to make Autumn Olive Ketchup, we wanted sweet fruit. At the third shrub – the sweetest so far – it began to rain. We ended the gathering early due, and only ended up with about 1.5 cups of the berries.
We also harvested some goldenrod (Solidago spp.) for tea. Please note this beautiful yellow spray of flowers is NOT what is causing your fall allergies! Goldenrod often gets blamed for what is ragweed’s fault, because goldenrod is easier to identify. But the pollen too heavy to be spread by the wind, and needs insects like bees to carry it.
We went back to the farm for lunch early, hoping the rain would end so we could forage more in the early afternoon. We were supposed to go harvest spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries but the rain never let up so we remained trapped near the buildings. Dried ground spicebush can be used as a substituent for allspice in most recipes. However the oils in spicebush fruit go rancid quickly (even after drying), so it should be stored in the freezer for the longest useful life.
The other plant planned for harvest during the class was Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The Jerusalem artichokes thankfully were in the garden near the buildings and barn where we tried waiting out the rain. Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family with edible tubers. The tubers apparently form as nodules along the plants roots as they grow during the summer.
The tubers are very high in inulin, which is prebiotic fiber that feeds the intestinal flora and fauna. This is another great example of a food that should be sampled in small quantities the first time, or maybe even several times. If you are unused to that level of inulin, it can result in a very “fragrant” experience. They are even sometimes jokingly referred to as “fartichokes”. The inulin can be reduced by roasting, cooking with lemon juice, or waiting until after several frosts to harvest the tubers. Or you can build up your tolerance gradually by increasing the amount of Jerusalem artichoke you eat over time. Don’t eat it the evening before anything important, like a major presentation at work, an interview, or any other time you have to be serious. Trust me on this one. I don’t care if you are a grown up; farts are funny.
However, the plants we dug up had no significant growth on their roots at all. We tucked them back into the mud, hoping they would grow more. Jerusalem artichokes are practically weeds, and any part of their tubers that get left in the ground results in even more Jerusalem artichokes the next year.
While we were in the garden, Lacey pointed out different herbs and invited us to pick a few to make infused vinegar. I chose yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and a few pieces of cayenne pepper(Capsicum anuum) for mine, and added goldenrod to it as well. I have no idea how it will turn out after a few weeks of steeping, but that is part of the adventure!
At the end of the class, we hadn’t harvested much to cook together! The small, unripe pawpaws were roasted at 350F, but they came out gray-fleshed and mushy looking. I wasn’t brave enough to try them! We also didn’t have Jerusalem artichokes to roast and sample with the autumn olive ketchup. Fortunately, another of the Fox Haven staff members had found some chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) while on a separate trip, and he shared his find with our class.
While Lacey sliced and sauteed the mushrooms, we made a small batch of Autumn Olive Ketchup since we weren’t able to gather enough berries for a full batch. The recipe we used was similar to this one although we used ground spicebush that Lacey had gathered a previous year in place of the allspice. The mushrooms were delicious dipped in the “ketchup”. And yes, the flavor and texture of the mushrooms eerily resembles chicken.
I really enjoyed the class, despite the disappointing harvest. It was a very different experience to go into the woods with other people, rather than my usual solitary excursions. It would have been nice to find more edibles, and at one point, Lacey mentioned that if we were only eating what we could forage, today would have been a day that we went hungry.
However, I think there is a different mindset between a class and foraging for survival. The only things we tried to forage were the specific items we were looking for as part of the class: pawpaws, autumn olive, goldenrod, spicebush, and Jerusalem artichokes. If we really focused on survival, on the other hand, we would have harvested everything we found, such as dandelion greens, chickory, and the earliest hickory nuts. Additionally, if this had been our only food, we also wouldn’t have let the rain discourage us because hunger is a powerful motivator!