Into the Hailstorm – To Let Go and To Just Go Out Foraging

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Copyright Evey Kwong 2017

It seems I’ve neglected the Grunewald Foraging blog for some time. The truth is, my intention for this website is not to record or detail my foraging walks (though I might refer to them for some specific reason); the blog was started more to record my wild food way, my personal journey, and my attempt to navigate my life by way of wild plants and the gifts of the natural world.

If anyone was interested in Part II of the Islay Foragers blog post, I have to say that I lost all my data and photos about that week in a laptop core-meltdown, which means I only have the photos I posted on social media, which amounts to a photo of some seafoam-green sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum) and a doughty little patch of Scot’s lovage, (Ligusticum scoticum), the last of these being a first-find for me. Lost to the resting place of dead disk-space is the photo taken by Mark Williams of me holding my first ever foraged pignut – it wasn’t exactly a Fox Talbot but that photo meant a lot to me.

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Copyright Evey Kwong 2017

The only other extant original note I had time to write down during the Islay trip was the Middle Scots for this plant, luffage, which led me to find this absolutely filthy poem by the fifteenth-century poet Robert Henrysoun, for which I hazard a translation* at the end of this post. This recipe-poem, a cure for ‘a befouled bottom’, mocks the herbalism and quack-salvers of his day, but he seemed to know his wild and cultivated plants all the same:

Dia culcakit

Cape cuk maid, and crop the colleraige
Ane medecyne for the maw and ye cowth mak it
With sueit satlingis and sowrokis, the sop of the sege,
The crud of my culome, with your teith crakit,
Lawrean and linget seid and the luffage,
The hair of the hurcheoun nocht half deill hakkit,
With the snowt of ane selch, ane swelling to swage:
This cure is callit in our craft dia culcakkit.
Put all thir in ane pan with pepper and pik.
Syne sett in to this
The count of ane cow kis;
Is nocht bettir I wis,
For the collik.

After Islay and a visit to Tegernsee near to Munich I was back in Berlin without as much time as I’d have wanted to conduct wild food experiments. I was asked to work on a foraged food showcase dinner with chef Simone Schneeberger (Fritz Lambada, in Winterthur, Switzerland). When he has time, Simone forages for his own ingredients and it was great on the day, together with host Mark Pennock of Bon Bock Berlin, to be in the thick of it; seven o’clock early in late October wading barefoot in a stream gathering watercress, painstakingly selecting yarrow and ground-ivy leaves (the ‘bespoke-harvest method’), and snuffling like wild pigs through beech leaf mould for handfuls of few-flowered leek bulbs. Simone’s creations were fantastic and even transformed the drupes of guelder rose fruit (Viburnum opulus), ‘which is exceedingly hard to render palatable’, to quote Simone, into a fantastic jus.

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It seems that I only had time to expand on old knowledge and try new things towards the end of the season, but there were some exciting leads. Many of my earliest most coveted wild foods were the ones found in Richard Mabey’s Food For Free; the only problem being that – at least in the past seven years – many of them don’t tend to grow in the part of Germany where I live: Alexanders, sweet chestnut, crowberry, wild fennel, milk thistle, pignut, ramsons(!) and sweet cicely are all absent from my region (according to floraweb.de and in my general experience). For that reason I was especially happy last year to hunt down a specimen of the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), even if I had to resort to the local arboretum, which, on a rainy day in October, was completely empty and also provided me with a handful of non-ornamental quince (Cydonia sp.) quinces for the foraged dinner with Simone. But what is a handful after all? Well, a handful of quince stacked like juggling balls is about a good 2lbs of fruit; a handful of wild service berries, at least the ones I could reach without damaging the tree and the non-rotten ones on the ground, amounted to several ounces of wild service berries, whose tamarind-sweet pasty flesh were eaten one at a time.

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Having listed those species which are out of my reach here in Berlin-Brandenburg, things do change, and one plant I am very happy to see slowly gaining a foothold in my area is the wild arum (Arum maculatum), also known by a dozen other names including lords-and-ladies, jack-in-the-pulpit, cuckoo pint, snake root, naked-boys-and-girls, etc. If plant populations here increase or stabilize over the next few years I may be able to harvest and work with arum rhizomes here in my region. This is a wild food which takes a good deal of preparation to make edible, but is related to the taro root (Colocasia esculenta), a yam-like root grown all across the world from Brazil to South East Asia. More about the progress of wild arum harvesting in my area coming soon. I hope to get a photo of it flowering this year.

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Late last year I was invited to join the Association of Foragers, on the recommendation of two veteran UK members. Being basically alone here in Berlin-Brandenburg on the foraging scene (I’ve looked, I’ve tried to reach out; show yourselves, people!), this was a massive motivational push for me which came for me ironically at the beginning of the rapid slide into winter and therefore total foraging non-activity. Since then, I have had to debunk the false belief for several interviewers that I operate solely in the foraging business. The winter being long here in Berlin-Brandenburg, it is difficult to live from foraging-walks and foraging events alone, and I am forced for a major part of the year to earn a living doing a variety of non-foraging jobs. Cutting these ties when the foraging season begins is not the easiest thing, as until now I have had to depend on this income as soon as the weather turns bad. So the question: let go, and immerse myself in foraging, and trust that everything will be OK, trusting that nature will provide me with a means to live? Or play safe, but never enjoy or know the reality of binding my success and failure with the wild plants and things I love so much? What are these workdays all about, when they are not spent foraging?

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Suspecting that too many days between days spent foraging could be bad for one’s health, this year I wanted to try and get into the habit of obtaining foraged food as often as possible, even if it’s just in the form of a salad or a smoothie, just for the sake of the wild goodness itself. Therefore I am happy to find winter purslane or miner’s lettuce (Montia/Claytonia perfoliata) growing nearby in abundance right now, and though some patches had already flowered, I think I’ve managed to crop enough small areas to maintain a little ‘cut-and-come-again’ supply which could theoretically be harvested daily, given the amount of plants on the ground on this one plot. My recent favourite simple salad combination can be slightly modified to make a smoothie, with the addition of some pulpy fruit (banana, avocado and/or ripe pears work well):

Simple Wild Salad/Smoothie:

3 handful miner’s lettuce

2 handfuls lesser celandine (on its way out now, can be replaced with 1hf nettle & 1hf ground elder leaves)

1 handful sheep’s sorrel

1 handful cow parsley

½ handful very young tansy leaf

linseed oil

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On the mushroom front, my morel hunting grounds have produced nothing last year, and I was beginning to suspect the mycelium is brooding and biding its time for the long haul. A long-term gift was given to me this year by a Bavarian mushroom enthusiast who gave me this tip: ‘look on soil over shell limestone’, or, as he put it, Muschelkalkboden! This is a lead which has until now escaped my attention; I had already been informed that soil on chalk limestone can be a good spot to start looking for morels, but this is more specific; this particular shroomer seems to swear particularly by shellbearing limestone, which if I am right is much older, say, a good 150 million years older than chalk. And so just how much is going in to my chances of finding a dependable morel spot? Well, apparently, the presence of the pulverized casings of mussels which lived between 230 and 240 million years ago are going to help me locate what I need…

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…then today the sudden fall of hailstones found me thinking again of morels, and I was driven to check back on my own morel-find blog post of April 2014, and, in a weird half-expected way, found this line: ‘gathered the second half of this batch in a hailstorm!’ Riding out to my little tucked-away spot, I thought it would be a pretty long shot, but then, not impossible, right? Just let go and trust, perhaps? And so I was rewarded with ten handsome-looking M. elata specimens, and also now have the conviction that it’s not about limestone or chalk stone or whatever, it’s hailstones and heart-blood you need to go after if you want to find morels!

And so I choose to take this little coincidence as a good omen that I can find the courage and energy to dedicate much more of my time to foraging this year and to say no to other prospects which distract me from developing in this direction. All foraging events will be posted up on the Facebook Page, but I would like to invite everyone especially to the event on 30th April, where we will explore the beautiful alluvial forests of Spandau (yes, believe it or not!), hopefully with a visit from some foraging-enthusiasts from the people at Gentle Gin – beech leaf noyaus all round? For more information or to book private foraging events (anywhere I can get to by train), or just to say hello, write to grunewaldforaging@gmail.com. St Antony be with ye good mushroom-folk!

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And now, as promised, the rum-buggerdly promised poem:

Cure for a befouled bottom

Take shitwort (crypto-common plant name), and cut some arse-smart, (Persicaria hydropiper),
And whatever medicine you have to hand for the belly,
With sweet slops and sorrel (Rumex spp.?), the sap of the sage, (Teucrium scordonia/Salvia sp.)
The crud of my colon, cracked with your teeth.
Laurel (Laurus sp.) and linseed (Linum perenne) and the Scot’s lovage (Ligusticum scoticum)
The hair of the hedgehog, each taken whole.
With the snout of a seal for to assuage the swelling,
This is the cure in our trade called ‘culcakit’.
Put all this in a pan with pepper and pitch (perhaps birch tar from Betula pendula?)
Then giving the whole thing a while to sit.
And so doing now,
Kiss the cunt of a cow,
For I know nothing better for colic.

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Islay Summit (I): The Foragers

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As a few people might have realized I was invited this year (to my utmost surprise and joy) to participate in the Forager’s Summit on the Hebridean island of Islay, on the West Coast of Scotland. For five days we explored the faery coasts of the island, basing ourselves at Academy House at the Bruichladdich distillery, where The Botanist gin is refined and produced on the same site as some of the finest whisky the island has to offer. It is not easy to concentrate my writing about this experience, so I choose for now to discuss the people – not so much the plants – whom I encountered on the island.

Early on as I began to consciously study the art of plant identification (or orientation), it became apparent fairly quickly that, without a sense for plant families, it would be hard work finding my way around in the world of wild plants. It took a much longer time, exactly up until the Summit on Islay, to realize that, as a forager, I seem to have been working under unnecessarily lonely circumstances without the benefit of an extended community of any kind. I hope my time spent with these people will remedy that concern in the future.

Our group of foragers consisted of wild food experimentalists, teachers and enthusiasts whose geographical range spans three continents. Though it will probably read much like a contributor’s section of a publication, I think many people will benefit from reading into the activities of these dedicated foragers from around the world.

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Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods works closely with the Botanist Academy on Islay and has been foraging and hosting foraging events for over twenty years, ‘since [he] was an over-confident eighteen-year-old’. During our week stay, his enthusiasm for everything wild was ceaseless, and Mark is a forager who can get almost as excited about the presence of non-edible species as he can about a good crop of pepper dulse (Osmundia pinnatifida) (‘it’s not my favourite seaweed, not even my favourite wild edible; it’s more like my favourite thing, ever.’ Mark’s blog entry about this seaweed is the first of around 120,000 Google hits). His knowledge of and relationship with the flora celtica is deeply-involved, and he is both generous and unhurried in his manner of sharing what he has learned.

 

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Craig Worrall of Edible Leeds works all over the British Isles teaching and giving wild food workshops, and while he is enamoured with the West Coast of Scotland and its coastal abundance, he cares deeply about the wild spaces of West Yorkshire and its surrounding National Parks. As we foraged on Islay, Craig’s flights of recipe brain-storming were telling of his years of wild food experimentation.

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Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods works in Herefordshire where she produces her range of fine foraged products. Her understanding of scent and flavour were way beyond anything I could even detect with many of the things we encountered on Islay. She is passionate about integrating organic and wild food into our lives and is sensitive to the difficulties of doing either of these things with either economic restraints or the time restraints of running a family, or both.

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Roushanna Grey grew up in Cape Town, fell in love with the flora of coastal South Africa, and divides her life between her obsession with wild plants and seaweeds and also the cultivated plants grown at her Good Hope Gardens Nursery. She was in her element on the coastal walks on Islay, down in the rock crevices of a sheltering bay, showing us the variety of ‘sea vegetables’ to be found, some of which were native to her own Cape Point.

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Ellen Zachos has worked worldwide educating groups on wild plants and has a history of roof-top gardening in New York. Her knowledge of plants is truly encyclopaedic, and several times on Islay we nerded completely out about respective non-native species that were of special interest to us both. She is the author of several books on wild plants including Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, which includes species regularly found in the garden and even in city parks and open spaces.

As foragers are seemingly often generous with their treasures, there is a wealth of foraging literature to be had just from visiting the websites of these great people, and perhaps given the great geographic range they cover together, there will be lots of information about the flora of very specific ecosystems, especially in Roushanna and Mark’s writings.

That’s a little about the people. Coming next, some of the plants I was lucky enough to meet on Islay.

 

 

 

Gleaning for Resilience: A Lesson in Mermaid Economics

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Here in Berlin-Brandenburg I tend to judge the start of the foraging season proper by the arrival of the first tender shoots of our regionally-abundant wild leeks. Walking several new foraging routes this week it was clear that the time has come again, and as at the beginning of every new foraging year, I find myself taking stock of many of the experiences which I made last season trying to work and live mainly through foraging and its related activities.

For those of you who aren’t in the mood for long-winded reflections on the purpose and problems of foraging in today’s day and age, just know that foraging walks will be resuming as of March, and up-to-date information is available via the Facebook page. Furthermore, this year, Grunewald Foraging will be hosting a range of workshops, with guest co-ordinators from a host of different backgrounds, geared towards exploring wild food in the kitchen, and also experimenting with wild natural materials, an area that tends to get overlooked when concentrating only on the edibility and not the (at least from a humanistic point of view) holistic usefulness of plants. More information on foraging walks and workshops, cast an eye this way towards the end of the month.

***

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Painting of Haenyeo, with catch-nets and floats. Most modern Haenyo are considerably older than those depicted here

While visiting my friend the poet Dan Marshall late last year on Jeju Island (South Korea) I caught sight of a mermaid. When I say mermaid I am using the affectionate name for the Haenyeo or sea-women of Jeju, a kind of modern hunter-gatherer matriarchy persisting on a volcanic island having grown, in little over seventy years, into a beloved tourist hotspot replete with Western-style guest-houses amongst the leek and cabbage fields, 7-11s opposite the fishmongers, and several barista-style cafés and craft ale bars down by the waterfront.

The Haenyeo, as said, are the female sea-foraging people native to Jeju Island, specializing in diving for prized shellfish, sea-snails and seaweeds, both for the family’s benefit and for trade. Their incessant hard work (diving for six hours between subsistence farming) and the high price their goods (abalone, conch, oysters) fetch at market afford them now, as in earlier times, an elevated and contrary position in the traditionally patriarchal society of South Korean culture.

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An hour sat with a palm leaf, letting the form of a coastal foraging bag present itself to me

Quite a lot of research on the Haenyeo can be found easily online, so I don’t want to repeat ineptly what can be found with a quick search. What I want to say is that, even with the number of Haenyeo dwindling, the reluctance, as everywhere else, of new generations to take up the trade, the attempts by ethnophile photographers to fetishize the culture, their foraging model is still in itself a resilient one.

The Haenyeo have supported their families during times of unemployment for the usual bread-winning fishermen to whom they were often married. Instead of being manipulated or pushed out by the arrival of tourism to their island, they have secured trade co-operatives with restaurants to deter ‘cashing in’ on their cultural heritage. They have traditionally resisted the temptation, during the Japanese occupation, of becoming merchants and seafood farmers, instead choosing to remain essentially a highly-productive maritime peasantry (Gwon, Gwi-Sook (2015). “Changing labor processes of women’s work: the haenyo of Jeju Island”. Korean Studies.).

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Black bean paste soup with wild greens and foraged limpets

Though I am wary of romanticizing their undoubtedly laborious life, I feel a great sense of respect for the way the Haenyo ‘make their living’, in the truly creative sense of the phrase.  While I was on Jeju Island I dared to feel a connection to them: almost every day for a few hours, I foraged the land; they foraged the sea. What amazes me more than their ability to dive six-hours in the winter sea and hold their breath for three minutes, to invert the inevitable patriarchal model of their culture (which resembles ours), is the fact that their manner of living, where it matters, down at the marketplace and around the family dinner table, is still viable, regardless of how long that may or may not persist. They have chosen, albeit perhaps subconsciously, to be integral in providing the essential means for their existence.

When contemplating how my attempts to make a living from foraging may or may not parallel theirs, I see that they have at some point found a niche and, in the face of much outward influence, have clung to its essential boundaries: the uninviting but abundant depths of the sea. I don’t want to paint their lives as some triumph over globalization or project virtues and mind-sets upon them that stem from my lack of such, and do not belong to them. Still, what they share with the mermaids is that their very way of life seems to belong more to the world of myth than to the reality of South Korea’s most beloved tourist destination. It is difficult to find suitable and relevant comparisons with their foraging culture, and I have no desire to labour the point in trying to do so.

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Another wild green I never thought I’d see in situ: New Zealand spinach or tetragon

So as the year begins I try to remind myself of the niche of my native forager: the man or woman who trades in the wares of the woodland and the hedgerow and the knowledge of the whereabouts and the particulars of these goods. But he or she also charges a price for essentially foregoing the security of the day wage of the farmer/worker, in order to bring home something that will fetch a price at market, and something more: the work and the wares have in one sense already paid for themselves, in the pleasure and freedom of going out and gathering them in. I think somehow that pleasure and freedom is essentially what keeps a few mermaids still diving off the rocks of Jeju Island.

Widow Lake – Immersive Foraging in Deepest Brandenburg (Foraging and the Law)

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Last week I spent a week exploring the woods around Witwesee near Fürstenberg (Havel), an area of the lake region of north-west Brandenburg, to find out if it might be a suitable place to practise foraging in a more sustained, immersive level. I took with me:

  • three different knives (one for wood-carving, one for foraging, one for tinder and fire-lighting work)
  • an axe
  • a folding saw
  • fire-lighting equipment (firesteel, dry birch bark, pine resin, etc)
  • a 3.5×3.5m tarp
  • a titanium cup modified to work also as a cooking pot
  • several pouches for collecting foraged items
  • a torch, a notebook, waterproofs and some maintenance stuff for the tools (grindstone, oil, etc)

To read about what I found there, skip the philiosophical preamble and look for the *.


Though I am not sure I have succeeded in doing so, I have tried hard, on each of my foraging walks (and even solo ventures) to ask two things: what does wild food mean for us sedentary, agriculturalized people, and secondly, what might it have meant to our ancestors who had never ploughed the soil?

Admittedly the latter question is more difficult to get to grips with in a short space of time; we can easily imagine a farm-worker taking a Sunday stroll into a remote bit of favoured woodland, picking some seasonal specialities (let’s say, yellow leg mushrooms) to sell at market before heading home for the evening, turning the day-off into an enjoyable earner. When we try to picture the decision-choices of our ante-agricultural forebears, the scene becomes a lot more complicated:

As hunter-gatherers, we might have asked ourselves questions such as: do I have enough calories (feel I have enough strength) to make it to the far-off woods and back to get the choice edibles? What other things will I be able to find/hunt on the way? What equipment can I afford to take to exploit these resources? To what extent will this choice affect the first question? I find the first of these concerns especially difficult for us to appreciate given our current manner of experiencing the world.

While both examples (the farm-worker the hunter-gatherer) have the same core need – that is, to maintain the metabolism essential for life – we have to admit that the farm-worker (who might as well be you and me, for this comparison) has the upper hand; what does has he lost if the favoured spot is too dry and the mushrooms aren’t there? He comes home to the farmstead in time for a consoling supper, whereas the hunter-gatherer returns hungry and exhausted if his luck isn’t with him. His very existence is bound with the successes and failures of the natural world and, to some extent, his own decision making in it.

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Germany has, by comparitive standards, an excellent tradition of woodland conservation and nature conservation as a whole. The grandfather of forestry as a separate scientific institution is generally accredited to Wilhelm Pfeil, who in 1830 founded a school dedicated to silviculture, here in Brandenburg. That said, although it is certainly dedicated to perserving a certain standard of woodland quality, German woodland (and nature conservation) is neither a participative nor a democratic affair; it is something done for us by specific institutions serparate from us.

Our ancestral hunter-gatherer, as far as we can imagine, was party to some freedoms most of us have never known; he moved in a landscape whose limits were the limits of his own ability – before speculating on the details of tribal territory or sacred and forbidden lands (about which we know very little), he knew only the physical and elemental borders: great distance, treacherous routes, water-courses and impasses of rock. But there are 28 (twenty-eight) Forest Departments in Berlin alone, whose rules and regulations, while normally very sensible, must be respected. Though the modern hunter-gatherer may pass through these on a Sunday afternoon, very special permission must be acquired if he intended, for instance, to lay down overnight on any given territory, even without the luxury of any kind of fire (more about that later).

In the example we entertained the possibility that our hunter-gatherer ancestor might have made use of other possibilities on the way to or from the mushroom spot; in his place, were we to come acoss a particularly abundant lake, we might have taken the chance to try a spot of fishing. But this would involve a lot of preliminary work: for 12€ we could have applied for an angling license to be used on certain permitted ponds for the purpose of catching non-predatory fish only. If we had the intention of catching predatory fish we would have to first have completed a Fishery License, involving several days’ practical examination and a multiple-choice test with a question-pool some 42 pages long covering all elements of the fishing industry, the biological make-up of aquatic animals, waterway rights, and much more. Given that we are prepared to take the time in advance to go through this process (as I for one am) and to pay the essential fees, we are still bound by land-ownership and departmental laws, and have no essential ‘right’ to fish at a given lake.

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So we opt to make the provision of an angling license and forego the Fishery stuff until later, and have caught ourselves a common rudd in order to have a full belly on the return walk home. We are miles from any habitation. A fire, except on a designated campsite, is of course completely forbidden, even outside the forest-fire months, on all land types, and there is no license or permission we can attain to solve this problem, even if cost were not in any way a factor. Choosing to ignore this edict or to feign ignorance of it, we risk serious fines and even court action, a price beyond all proportion of our intended wilderness outing.

I have thought long and hard about the dilemma of our limited freedoms as would-be new-born wildlings, and the only conclusion seems to be that we have surrendered more liberties than have been actively taken from us, whether we were aware of it or not. The reason that a concept of the Commons (Allmende in German) does not extend to our natural environment as it does, say, in Sweden (Allmänning) is ultimately because there was not enough need for it. It is a frustrating situation where we can agree with the stringent laws put in place to protect nature, while at the same time feel utterly excluded from it as a simple matter of course. The outcome of our collective ‘setting aside’ of nature is that we may now experience it in a manner ultimately proscribed, diluted, and bureaucratized. For better or worse, this is the situation we find ourselves in when beginning in earnest the search for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.


*

For some time now I have been attempting to find a place and permission to explore this very vital manner of living, and it seems that the immediate assumption of the farm-worker’s upper-hand might have been presumptuous. In order to experience that life which was once so unforgivingly natural we have to first satisfy these legal issues: how are we ever to feel anything like what it is to be be a free agent in the boundless natural world spreading out before us, if we have to worry about these things? If achieving this on a humanitarian scale seems daunting without the proper experience to form an argument, we need at least a haven, a place to practise the whole in part.

For now at least, I think I have found that place. From a farmer and landowner living near Rheinsberg, Brandenburg, I have been given the unique opportunity and the freedom to pursue an immersive foraging lifestyle. And so can you. Witwesee is a beautifully clean lake surrounded by mile after mile of pristine forest, meadow and moorland. As my new base of operations it is going to be something like a Foraging Camp, a Wild Kitchen in the woods, a hearth of operations for future projects and outings. I greatly look forward to bringing people to this very special place.

Imagine waking up to the smell of hazelnuts and wild pears roasting over the fire; ferrying friends or supplies over the lake in the canoe; forgetting urban time and working simply on the schedule of the sunrise and sunset, getting lost and being guided back to camp by a werewolf howl; forgetting all thoughts not conducive to you being well-fed and well-settled, having no more pressing task than perhaps to finish carving the spoon you started; seeing the glow of a fire through the dark and being able to call that home.

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If you would like to be a part of this, or have any questions, please let me know. Full details of dates and activities will be posted in the Foraging Courses section of the website.

Mid-April Update: Morels True and False

 

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Morels laid out for inspection

A quick update to say that the morels have decided to stay for another week in Berlin-Brandenburg, giving me the chance to bring home this mixed quarry of black and ‘yellow’ morels (Morchella elata & M. esculenta). The weather has been alternately warm and sunny, then windy and rainy, which might just have provided the right climate – I gathered the second half of this batch in a hailstorm! Though one or two gave the game away standing quite out in the open, the choicest of the lot were tightly packed under the stems of low shrubs, almost completely hidden from sight.

The potentially lethal false morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

The potentially lethal false morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

What’s more, as if by way of testing my knowledge, this brain-like false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) saw me coming, nesting nearby the edibles, and so I used the opportunity to make a photo ID for others (it’s also posing as a snake in the grass in the first photo of this entry, top-left); if it is not specially-prepared but rather mistaken for a morel, consumption of this mushroom regularly leads to a severely unpleasant poisoning, which is not uncommonly deadly. Anyone with a grasp of the common Latin epithets of plants and fungi will notice the contradictory nature of the species name (esculenta = choice, delicious). A number of cultures (Scandinavian, Polish) prepare false morels to extract the poisonous gryomitrin (a toxin of red blood cells); still, its classification as a choice mushroom in the regular sense is no longer accepted. For the fact that it can grow among edible morels, it’s worth knowing how to tell them apart.

Left: Morel. Right: False Morel

Left: Morel. Right: False Morel. Note that colour is no sure indicator; false morels can also be light and dark brown.

So now my mind is spinning as I think of what to do with this sudden gift from the mushroom gods, and I am just as thankful for the gift-reminder of the potentially-deadly find; after al, it is just as important to encounter as its edible likeness. Happy foraging!

 

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Foraging and Re-reading the Natural Landscape

A rather grumpy old literary figure once said that there is no reading, only re-reading. I have begun to realize that the ability to revisit the seasons (as, say, one might revisit a few precious, favourite lines throughout life) is a privilege enjoyed almost exclusively by the naturalist, and, by the same reason, by the forager. Both derive a large part of their pleasure not just from discovering but from re-visiting the scenes and drama of the natural world, which with every successive year become richer in detail, more interrelated, somehow even more meaningful.

For the forager this quite complex process happens, of course, more or less by itself, by virtue of ‘just being there’, so to speak, by making it our business to know when the cranes have flown back from their wintering grounds, when the colt’s foot starts flowering, when the first brimstone butterflies are in the forest, when the sap starts rising in the trees. For this reason I believe it to be a considerable step towards being more ‘grounded’ to be able to know, however roughly, if these seasonal events are happening earlier or later than in previous years.

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Despite the lack of much rain the few-flowered leek was out very early this year, forcing up through the beech leaves and often skewering them, providing, as already noted, my own personal symbol of spring. We harvested bags of the stuff and watched it blend down to a pickling jar’s worth of fresh purée, which led me to the thought that it would be a pretty sensible idea to ‘adulterate’ it in future with a good bagful of the freshest ever nettle tops, which were out as early as the intrepid onions.

As we were waiting for the bus to take us out to the woods, we noticed that the birch tree by the bus stop was dripping from above, soaking the ledge where we’d rested our bags. I’d been hesitating about whether or not to tap some birch sap as I was planning a trip to south Germany, but this sight seemed prophetic, and the next day I packed my birch sap tapping kit and tested a mature birch on our city garden plot. The flow from the old main trunk was gentle but when I tapped a thinner but well-established off-shoot the drip rate was instantly double or triple of the former. I mention this because the usual advice is to tap mature birches, but the logic that ‘girth’ equals good sap flow has not always proven true for me.

1cm tubing sealed with birch tar (birch what? See previous post)

1cm tubing sealed with birch tar (birch what? See previous post)

So, the sap was flowing, I would be leaving the following day for south Germany; it was now a birch sap race to get a useful amount and to use it/preserve it in some way (not like last time; see original birch sap post for evidence of my utter hypocrisy). There are enough sources on the internet detailing the method of acquiring birch sap, so there is no need here for another. Besides, writing about foraging is not foraging; by the time you read this, the birch sap season will be over. So, what am I getting at? Only that it’s well worth the effort to go beyond the idea of or the reading of foraging and do it, even if the risk might be travelling five hundred miles on a regional train with over  a gallon of sugary groundwater.

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Luckily the birch was also in a hurry to get its leaves out, so I managed to take just about 5l in about 24 hours. My plans are to follow birch sap aficionado Fergus Drennan‘s method of making a light birch sap wine, concentrating half of this to attempt to provide the conditions for ‘catching’ a wild vinegar mother. Remember my going on about the importance of being able to source indispensable household items from the wild (in the post about birch tar)? Well, I think vinegar was one I mentioned, and my mum says you can use it for almost everything, and even bought me a book about doing just that. So it’s a mini-project that’s got it all; vinegar; my mum; vinegar mother. As I can make out, it’s acetobacteria that are active here, turning alcohol into vinegar (remember the gangster-philosophy/GCSE Food Technologies advice of Marcellus Wallace gives to Butch in Pulp Fiction). Like wild yeasts which are of course not bacteria but fungi, acetobacteria is airborne and can be ‘trapped’ using different techniques. Rest assured, mine will not be the modus operandi of the chemist but more likely borrowing those of the wild food experimentalist.

If you live with non-foragers, mark your precious sap to avoid potential disasters

If you live with non-foragers, mark your precious sap to avoid potential disasters.

 

A weekend in the south of Germany and then a return to late-March Berlin was the environmental equivalent of fast-forwarding to early summer and then back again over the space of a weekend. On a stroll in the spring rain I was met by true wild garlic, hogweed, common cowslip, wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), woodruff, horsetails (which I just found out can be used to polish tools and fine-sand wood-craft objects), and, most importantly, butterbur (Petasites hybridus).

Butterbur, or pestilence wort

Butterbur, or pestilencewort

I started this entry trying to impart something of the feeling of interrelatedness one inevitably ends up being daubed with in the pursuit of experiencing some of the more shy natural phenomena (especially the edible ones), and I tried to suggest the practical nature of this accumulation of sensibility to one’s environment. As an obsessive mushroomer, when I see butterbur, I think of one thing: morels (Morchella spp.). In my geographical/ecological/meteorological playing field, the presence of birch, butterbur, dog’s mercury, cleavers and other such spring ephemerals speaks of a kind of hallowed morel biotope, and, as I have haver had the pleasure of finding any, I have scoured the available regional data/accounts/notes on morel finds for what is now a good four years. In all this time I have found perhaps the withered stems of several early false morels (Verpa bohemica) before the tiny window of opportunity (here in dryish Brandenburg, maximum one month) has closed on the year.

 

This season there were moments of pure conviction that I had found a lens refracting the triple surfaces of birch, butter bur and cleavers into the reality of a nest of morels; alas, the vision was entirely prismatic, and my searches came to nothing, while online mushroom fanatics in my vicinity posted photos of the secret but consistent mother lode. Foiled again. I did however find the skull of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), as I always find animal remains when looking for morels, which did lead me to the conclusion; if you happen to be an amateur zoologist trying to complete his collection of small woodland animals, and you keep finding nothing but morels on your expedition: – show me your spots, and I’ll show you mine.

The elusive logo-mushroom

The elusive logo-mushroom

Many of your will have noticed the proliferation of web-presence and logos and official stuff. Grunewald Foraging is going seasonal full-time. Please e-mail me and book a foraging walk at your leisure, and do share this with friends if you think it will please them. Happy foraging.