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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.