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.