Symbols of Spring – Foraging in Context

One of the most interesting things about foraging any environment is that you are required to build up an extensive and intimate knowledge of your surroundings. This may seem obvious, but it is perhaps important to remember that this manner of reading the world around you is almost entirely redundant in the way we live our lives today. After familiarizing ourselves with our immediate surroundings, we are rarely required to look any deeper into the details of place. By necessity, foraging forces you to focus just this awareness, as a basic understanding of seasons, the weather, and the other living things sharing a space, are all essential in getting to grips with the characteristics, and even more the edibility of the plants around you.

Serviceberry or shadbush (Amelanchier lamarckii) – just prior to flowering

Spring is the perfect time to begin drawing up a detailed predictive map of an area’s foraging possibilities. Even from far-off distances and with the naked eye, you can spot many species of blossoming trees and shrubs due to the relative lack of dense greenery. From February onwards, the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) and blackthorns (P. spinosa) are blossoming, either as lone trees as is often with the former, and in long winding drifts, common with the latter. There’s something undeniably primal and satisfying about coming across these sites and marking them down, with the intention of returning for the fruiting season – it’s something we must have been doing for much the greater part of human existence. Practically speaking, in marking foraging sites for future harvests, you’re making long-term plans for sources of food, and you’re beating the competition by anticipating that harvest – try finding a bird cherry (Prunus padus) in season not yet stripped of the fruit by its namesake – yet if you already know where one is, you can watch it closely to get in as early as possible (tough luck for the poor birds, though).

Plants and shrubs that often get lost in the dense greenery simply stand out like a beacon in spring. The serviceberry (Amelanchier sp., often x lamarckii), with its pinnate, rounded leaves often hides itself within stands of rowan, though in spring its slender stems and magnolia-like flowers are unmissable. The same can be said of the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which puts forth masses of bright yellow flowers, much smaller than those of forsythia, only to fade into the foliage later in the season. Both of these trees/shrubs are highly regarded and densely planted in urban environments, and once you have noticed one or two, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. There are many other examples of this transformation of an environment with the changing of the seasons, and becoming attuned to this is as rewarding in itself as it is rewarding for the forager’s basket.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) – flowering

In all environments there are exceptions to the common abundance or scarcity of one plant or another. Here in south-west Berlin, spring gives a short-lived but prolific season of few-flowered garlic (Allium paradoxum), a now-established escape from the Berlin Botanical Gardens in Dahlem. Large expanses of moist woodland are so densely carpeted with the plants (all of whose parts are edible) that other early flowering bulbs are crowded out. A particularly rampant neophyte from the Caucasus, there is no danger of over-harvesting few-flowered garlic in this area – but such statements are highly region-specific, and do not apply to other areas where the plants are perhaps found in much smaller numbers. Being able to count on the regularity and abundance of certain plants would have been an invaluable dimension to our sense of place before farming became established.

It’s not just about foraging, either; in general, an understanding of the seasonality of plants, their growth patterns and habits, leads directly to a more fully-engaged connection with your environment, potentially for absolutely anyone, independent of theoretical knowledge of plant biology; whether that be in the city or the countryside; whether in passing or in earnest study. In order not to reinvent the wheel on the subject and write at length what has already been written, I’d like to quote the plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, giving his own advertisement of the joys of looking closer at the natural world:

“In this age it is a great pity that botany does not figure as an essential item in the education of everyone. A little knowledge of plants would add enormously to the pleasure and interest derived from visits near and far – a walk near home, a motor ride through neighbouring country or a trip to a foreign land. To be able to recognize and interpret the things around vastly increases the joy of living. It is a truism that the more one knows about plants the more interesting they become and the greater the enjoyment derived from their association. Plants with their beauty of form, of leaf and flower appeal to all … There are no happier folk than plant-lovers… (my italics)”

Ernest Henry Wilson, Smoke That Thunders

Birch Sap

Two weeks in March. That’s all that’s promised for the birch sap harvesting time frame. It’s been on the to-do list for some time, and with the persistent warm temperatures and lack of frosts there could be only a few viable days left in which to gather it. Foraging a wild delicacy with such a short season is both exciting and frustrating, as there’s little time to perfect the technique, and the chances of failure are pretty great. More as a record of practice than anything, this is a detailed account of the process.

The first point of discussion when deciding which approach to take when tapping a birch is whether to pierce or to drill. Video-making bushcraft enthusiasts abroad on the internet talk about feeling the need to enjoy the ancient springtime ritual of tasting the lifeblood of the birch, regurgitating the traditional methods, only to whip out a cordless drill and get straight to work, jerry-cans and plastic tubing supplied. Those with no sense of their own ridiculousness will at this point be telling us that our ancestors could have done the same with specialized stone tools, in the same breath ratcheting the Black n Decker into high-gear.

It will no doubt be clear that I am pursuing the simple method.  I can’t see the point of hypothesizing stone-age birch tapping techniques without attempting them yourself, which neither the bushcraft people nor I have intention of doing. Instead I have chosen to collect sap with the most regular, most apparent and simple tools – a knife and a bottle of some kind. Pretensions of mesolithic authenticity can go and hang on their peg, so long as the bushcrafters are busy with power tools. If I knew someone with a hand drill, I might have used that. To be honest I doubt it.

The second point of discussion leads immediately from the first, that being, volume. To do anything on a grand scale with birch sap, the method I’m using is of course useless. This is exactly why it should be done in this way, working on the principle that if a little is precious, take precious little. This may be turning logic on its head, but turning your local bit of birch grove into the sap equivalent of a Saudi oil field doesn’t feel in keeping with the spirit of the venture. In this case, a ‘significant amount’ should have emphasis on the adjective, not the noun. If not, there’s no essence to the ‘ritual’ itself whatsoever; it’s just a novel resource.

What I want to experience is the sensation of the sap rising, lying in bed at night half-dreaming of its slow drip; while it is viable I want to be aware of it throughout the day, collecting in the bottle at a rate of about one droplet every few seconds. A cupful of this gained in situ would require many a man to stretch the limits of his patience, though I wonder what freedom of thought it would give him to do nothing other than sit quietly by his tree and wait.

So, enough of the philosophical aspect for now. The third point is that location will determine much about the method of practice you choose. Landed gentry can feel free to rig up demi-johns and elegantly carved and painted taps for their trees, but those tapping trees on public land will have to do things a little more clandestinely. Conspicuous set-ups will be at the mercy of any other people sharing the space, and a curious nudge with a wellington boot or more intentional sabotage is likely to lead to disappointment when checking on your nectar. Unlike the landed gentry, there’s little you can do about it, except spreading the risk over multiple spots.

Tapping the sap.

The method of knife-and-bottle sap vampirism runs as follows (for use in a semi-urban environment).

  • Go for a walk with a bottle (glass if you have it, plastic if not) and a sharp pen-knife with a locking blade, and if you can stretch to it, a thin skewer-like object (if not, a long sturdy thorn will do).
  • Find some sheltered birches which are budding, and whose bark is beginning to peel. Note the site, and go and find an ash tree, or even better saplings rising from the ground. Cut a centimetre-thick length and check for the spongy core. If you’re doing multiple set-ups, take a long piece.
  • Return to your sheltered birches, and find one with at least the diameter of your fingers making a circle (index finger to index finger, thumb to thumb). A kinked or sloping trunk over loamy soil is ideal.
  • Position your bottle at the base of the tree, as snug as possible against the trunk. Ideally, you want the tap resting on the lip of the bottle for stability, but get it as close as possible. In loamy soil, bury the base of the bottle and pack earth around it. On harder ground, box the bottle in with stones, bricks, or rubble. Staking around the bottle is also an option. Though securing the bottle to the branch would be ideal, location dictates tactics; city folk are just too curious in tampering with obvious set-ups. Camouflage the bottle with dead leaves and built-up soil (or, in other cases, litter). If you’re worried about flies getting in the sap, stuff or cover the neck with suitable material. Where I am, it’s too cold to worry much about them in March.
  • Remove the bark from your piece of ash-wood. Shave in half way along, and taper the end down flat like a woodwind reed. The other end is your bung end, and this you can hollow with wire or with a long thorn or spine. Taper down but don’t expose the channel where the core used to be. The whole piece should be less than a centimetrre in diameter. Keep it clean as to protect the tree (and the sap).
  • Measure with your eye the angle and length the tap will need to be, bearing in mind the little gravity needed to maintain the flow. Now you can adjust your tap if it’s a little too long. Find a smooth, non-gnarled point on the birch bark, and pierce it laterally with the tip of your knife about two centimetres deep. The tighter the better, as sap will leak down the sides of long cuts, and not gather in the tap’s channel. Make another fine cut slightly below this, and remove the sliver of cork. The sap should begin to flow almost immediately.
  • Slide in your tap gently (to avoid breaking it) making sure it is tight, and take care of any fine-tuning (angle, length, bottle’s stability) unhurried. Rushing it will mean you return to a failed set-up, the tap having fallen out, the bottle having shifted out of place, or both. Wait for ten drops or more, if you can afford to. Return to check on the set-up once more before leaving it overnight.
  • After taking the sap, tend to the tree. The small slits made by this method should heal in a few hours. If you’ve had to work a little bit harder to fit the tap, and have made a bigger incision, melt a little wax and apply to the wound. Chewing gum works just as well if there is a real indentation.

The ash-wood tap in action.

This is the method, in my opinion no better or no worse, than someone with practical and technical abilities approaching my own (i.e. as good as none) might manage. Drawbacks are several; the need to keep the bottle out of sight means less choice of good healthy trees, and therefore also less flow, the incision into the cork layer being minimal as it is. Another approach would be to set up ‘leeches’ – bottles fastened unobtrusively higher up on the trunk but perhaps on the tree’s far side if it can be said to have one (path edges, lining open spaces). The lack of tubing or other pipe material means that set-ups can be sent off-line very easily, potentially even in a strong wind, the branch moving, the bottle staying put. Also, the small, chip-like taps obviously don’t deliver the volume of a bung-like spout hammered tightly into the tree, but that’s been explained already.

The best working set-ups for me were those where I’d managed to get the ash-wood tap really clean and smooth inside. I get the feeling that when there’s still leftover bits of core and dust in the channel, the flow can easily get blocked. This sometimes doesn’t matter, as the sap should flow on the underside of the tap too, but it increases the chance of the sap running out down the bark from the wound where there’s less resistance. I’ve gotten two varieties of sap – a clear, slightly viscous type, and a cloudy, honey-coloured type from a different spot. They both taste the same pure, though the cloudy type is no good for what I’ll be writing about next, and that’s what to do with the sap.

Winter Foraging: the City vs. the Forest

The blackbirds are skipping about in the leaves looking for insects, and the tapping of the woodpeckers can be heard throughout the forest. With the continuing frosts stopping growth in its tracks, there has been little recently to be foraged in the woods, as was to be expected. All the same, there are a few plants worth looking out for over the coldest of months, and even in the city, it’s possible to find sources of these, especially when several people are keeping an eye out.

One plant that doesn’t seem to mind even the Berlin winter (around -20) is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), and having seen it sprawling for miles down the Autobahn embankments from Berlin to Dresden in December, it wasn’t surprising to find masses of it at a point where the A-road meets the Autobahn in the direction of Hamburg. One of the positive qualities of the plant is its visibility; the tightly-packed clusters of orange-yellow berries stand out against the shade of many deep brown boughs, heavy with the fruit. A party of three, we opted against the advice of several authorities (that being to break off the fruit-laden limbs, a technique supposedly ‘less destructive than it appears’) and decided to strip the branches of their fruit by squeezing, crushing the berries and collecting the pulp in buckets.

So, a few words on sea buckthorn harvesting. As mentioned before, the berries are tightly clustered around the branches, which have long spines running down their length. Crushing the berries is very messy, especially when you lose your grip on a bent branch – it’s like getting hit with a springy, over-sized paintbrush. The juice is extremely acrid and astringent, and can irritate sensitive skin if left too long. It probably stains fabric if not washed out, so wear old clothes to the raid. After an hour of struggling with a plastic bag wrapped around my gloved hand, one of our party had been observing the mess I had been making of things, and pointed out that it would be ten times easier with a washing up glove. Not what you want to hear at the time, but sound advice. If you plan on harvesting the berries as late as we did (January), you’ll need a woolen glove inside the rubber one for warmth.

After harvesting, the pulp has to be separated from the seed and the spines and other bits that will have collected in the bucket too. This can be done by hand although immediately after harvesting the pulp will no doubt be freezing cold. Once the spines and other bits have been removed, pass the pulp through a sieve, and you should be left with a thick, pleasantly sand-coloured juice, slightly speckled in a similar way to the berries themselves (this colour is greatly altered on cooking).

Pure sea buckthorn juice

The taste of fresh sea buckthorn is truly wild – even bottled organic sea buckthorn drinks are often mellowed with honey and sugar, making it impossible to ready yourself for the genuine article. Being orange you might have guessed at the high tannin content, but this is laced with a battery-acid citrus tang reminiscent of the super-sour sweets we would buy as kids. Though a bit of an assault on the taste buds at first, you get to thinking of that jolt of flavour as an indicator of pure goodness, the kick that told indigenous peoples that what they’d found (in this case enormous quantities of vitamin C) was highly nutritious.

Half of the sea buckthorn was cooked with apples and made into jam, a process which unfortunately requires quite a bit of jam sugar. One way of tackling this would be to cook the sea buckthorn with quince, which would have the pectin boost needed to get the jam to set. If you were going to do this with completely wild foraged ingredients, it would be better to harvest the berries earlier to coincide with the quince season. Bear in mind that the commercial quince is Cydonia oblonga, as the smaller ornamental quince used in low hedging is Chaenomeles japonica. It is edible, though inferior in taste, and there’s little information about its pectin content in comparison with that of Cydonia oblonga. The jam is less suited to breakfast toast, but works well as a side to cheeses, and I’d imagine it would work well with game or other rich meat, though I’ll have to ask a meat eater’s opinion.

The other 1.5l was experimented with in the following way: commercial sea buckthorn berries are supposedly first frozen, both to make separation from the cut branches easier, but also to round off the flavour a little. Thinking about this, I allowed the remaining juice to freeze out on the balcony for two months, to be tried when it thawed, which it promptly did last week. Pure, there seems to be no difference in the intensity of the flavour, but used like cordial I could almost not be imagining that some of the astringency has been removed. As it’s almost too thick to drink pure, it makes sense to dilute with water, though even if it were naturally thinner, it is perhaps a little too dominant to be drunk neat.

The second bit of substantial winter foraging comes from another shrub that carries its fruit over the ‘barren’ seasons, the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), and more importantly its fruit, the sloe or sloe-berry. Having heard about a stand of blackthorn outside the Martin Gropius gallery a few months ago, I imagined it’d be far too late in March for it to be worth taking a look, until riding past a few days ago and remembering the mention of the blackthorns, I went to take a look. Almost half of the fruit were still glossy and plump, with a dusky blueness on the skins. The thorns are brutal, and as I’d left it so late, it was necessary to push through the stands to bushes with still-ripe fruit, impaled on all sides while gathering the fruit. No real special technique needed here – just slide the sloes gently from the thorn-like stalk; done too quickly the inner fruit sticks to the stalk, and you pull away an empty skin.

Sloes

The late late sloes are now steeping in alcohol – one bottle of good gin, one of vodka. Even in March it was still possible to collect a kilo of fruit in about an hour. A little sugar is all that’s needed – some recipes state the addition of almond extract, but I’m confident that adding the stones as well as the pulp will handle the almondy flavours well enough, and the less additives, the better. This has to steep for at least three months, though the disciplined will then bottle the stuff back up after a quick taste to check for impurities, waiting a further three months. By these strict calculations, my sloe gin and vodka will be ready in September, a harrowing thought, as theoretically it’ll almost be time by then to go out and, well, start picking sloes again.

Bitter Lessons – Garlic Mustard

It’s a mild start to winter in Berlin, and in the woods the ground is unfrozen two months after it was covered with snow last year. The hardiest of greens are taking advantage of the forgiving temperatures to push up through the forest floor: narrow-leaved dock (Rumex crispus), hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), chickweed (Stellaria media), lesser stinging nettles (Urtica urens). But nothing at this time seemed to be thriving quite like garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

The first bit of proper woodland was carpeted with the glossy, webbed-edged leaves, sprouting in clumps from the gloomy and frosted earth at the edge of the first small pond; everything from the freshest leaflets to mature plants could be found, also those from last year, which were leathery and blackening and seemingly perforated by insects during the still-warm autumn.

In the often fanciful praise of old herbals, in records of plants in folklore, in every foraging guide available encountered at the time of writing, garlic mustard is listed as nothing short of an exceptionally fine green.  After washing the leaves, they were prepared as pesto: shredded, wilted in lemon juice, given a dash of olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped garlic, then ground in a mortar and pestle. Then left to cool, then tasted – the chalky, overpowering bitterness was there in luckless plenty. Repeated attempts to balance the flavours failed with multiple batches.

Garlic mustard, or Jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata)

The literature holds garlic mustard in a very flattering light (at least where the plant is not invasive). With the occasional apologist giving a quick aside to its slight bitter note, most encourage liberal strewing of leaves raw in salads, cooked in a little butter and salt as a side, or similar minimalist approaches, as if to savour the delicate garlicky taste. No writer on the subject of wild food wishes to label garlic mustard as we have (as yet), as many people have experienced it – anything between mildly unpleasant to strongly unpalatable in flavour. Faith in the unanimous opinion of garlic mustard’s virtues – and a similar unwillingness to dismiss its edibility to those who claim it – lead me to assume that I’m overlooking something.

I’d nibbled on the fresh leaves last year and was not at all surprised to find them a little on the bitter side, and found the garlic aroma a little tainted by the lasting aftertaste. These leaves were much as most of the ones harvested for the pesto recipe: webbed but plumply cordate. A closer look at the botanical description reveals that these are first-year leaves, said by many to be by far the most bitter. The more hastate (spear-shaped) leaves are second-year growth, which of course were not then readily available. Could it be that the bitterness is found in the basal-rosette forming leaves, and is more or less absent from the established plant’s new growth?

If you’re thinking ‘why bother?’, there are several reasons. The first is of course ‘why not?’ The second is that, according to John Kallas’s book on foraging, garlic mustard comes out in the nutritional testing as just about the healthiest green you could manage to find, and, seeing as not finding it in mixed woodland would be a far harder task than seeking it out, it is desirable. The third is that the bitter conundrum makes it an interesting case, as I feel we are missing a point that people who commonly knew this plant were very much aware of. And if you’re also thinking ‘who are we?’, well, there are certainly other people on the net who are experiencing the same thing.

With certain reserve, ‘bitter’ flavours have their place in the very finest cuisine. Not being able to get on with the regular level of garlic mustard bitterness is doubly frustrating, as it leads you to think about bitterness in a different light. It’s difficult to accept the presence of at least some experience of bitter flavours in so much wild food as empirical – it would be easier to believe that the almost total exclusion of bitter flavours in our diets serves to exaggerate any real bitterness we come into contact with. Whether this is imagined or not, whether as hunter gatherers we found bitterness in our food as problematic as I am finding it today, is a question each person will no doubt answer differently. Nonetheless, the literature is constant and it is obvious that garlic mustard has been eaten by people whose diet wasn’t exactly a mesolithic one, so what’s the knack?

It’s clear from this experience that relying on foraging literature without having intimate personal experience of the plants you’re dealing with leads to, well, disappointment, and that descriptions of plants are often either incomplete, viewing its properties at only one time of its life-cycle, or the descriptions are lifted from other works, being deemed so often described that a personal study of the plant seems not to be worth the effort. What strikes me every time I think about this problem is that people have gotten around it, probably for centuries, and the reason that this knowledge is nowhere to be found today is simply because it was once constantly in use, and didn’t need writing down. So the garlic mustard experiment goes on. It is now spring, the new growth is appearing.