A Taste of the Earth

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

How foraging for food can change the way you see the world around you.

All the cool kids in the food world have been foraging in the parks and forests for the last decade — but why?

I’m guessing it’s mainly that folks are looking for a little variety in their meals, since about 95 percent of all the calories people consume these days come from only 30 species. I mean, spaghetti with bruschetta on the side and cookies for dessert is basically wheat three ways. It’s like the same color of Play-Doh forced through different holes in a Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper. Surely we are not meant to eat so narrowly.

Of course, just because the cool kids are foraging doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. One afternoon as I was browsing through the catalog of foraging classes taught in New York City’s Central Park, all I could think was, Is that salad going to be preseasoned with dog urine? Trust me, if you go hunting in the hollows of Central Park, you’re going to find much scarier materials than mushrooms and ferns.

Besides, I’ve been trying for years to tell ash trees from box elder trees, with little success. Accurate plant identification isn’t that important when you’re merely strolling through the park, but it’s a pretty big deal when you’re going to put the leaves in your mouth.

So I concluded that foraging was not for me. I’d eat the 30 things everyone else eats, and just hang out with the uncool kids. But then Pascal Baudar’s new book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir, landed on my desk, and I happened to flip to the page where he candies willow leaves and makes smoked vinegar with oak bark. I thought, Wait a minute!

Weeping willows are obviously easy to identify: They stand there next to water, weeping. And my oak tree routinely deposits bark in my yard. I could do something with that bark besides toss it in the barbecue for kindling? In fact, yes.

So I call Baudar up, and catch him while he’s walking the hills outside of Los Angeles, looking for food. “There’s a coyote looking at me right now,” he says in his adorable Belgian accent. “’Allo! ’Allo there! I call the wild animals my coworkers, because they are my coworkers! The deer, the bears, the mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes — the woods is their city. I am in their hood now!”

Baudar, 54, grew up in rural Belgium. “It was basically in the middle of nowhere, so I spent most of my youth wandering in the forest,” he says. For kids, “it’s natural to forage. You find some berries. A hazelnut. I was very fond of chestnuts. It was a normal thing in Europe at the time. Now it’s considered trendy and different, but everyone’s great-great-grandmother would probably have known how to find food in the woods. It was just part of knowing how to survive.”

Once he moved to California as an adult, Baudar became an ordinary desk-bound person, working as a graphic designer and artist. He took a survival class just to get himself out into nature, reconnecting with his boyhood as he reexperienced this one lost fact: Nature tastes great!

“You know, a lot of people who teach survival skills don’t know how to cook,” he muses. “All of this incredible flavor you can find, and people were not doing anything with it. I became completely obsessed with discovering the flavors in my area in California. I started doing classes with anyone who could teach me — botanists, survivalists, chefs. I kept going and kept going.”

The farther he went, the more he discovered. Soon he was the one teaching chefs how to make wild kimchi with dandelion greens, soda from young pine needles, and crackers from wild cattail pollen.

“My passion is discovering those flavors in the wild, and creating a cuisine with it,” he tells me. “I don’t consider myself a chef, but a culinary archivist. Where I live, the native people used to collect 150 seeds — that’s 150 flavors you can’t get anywhere else, and they’re in danger of being lost. When you go to the store, you don’t even realize you really don’t have a choice.

“How many types of potatoes exist in the world? Around 5,000. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find five or six at the store. As a consumer, you are removed from tons of different flavors and products, and you could lead your whole life without ever knowing they exist — but they’re right outside.”

I confess my city-slicker problems of being unable to tell trees apart to Baudar. The real problem, he tells me, is in trying to teach myself to do it.

“You need to do it with some-body,” he says. “It’s so hard to learn from books. It’s really knowledge that needs to be passed down with human contact. When you deal with a book, you’re only dealing with one sense, which is visual. When you’re in the woods with another human, you use so many other senses. Smell — the smell of wild mint is something you never forget once someone shows you. Touch, the tactile senses — plants can be furry, soft, hard. There are so many details you can’t put in a book.

“When you do learn it, though, you’ve found the real world. This is where all our food used to come from. If you look at farming, it’s artificial. Someone took some land, stripped it of everything that grew wild, and planted something very altered from its natural state,” he says.

“Now, of course, I know the vast, vast majority of people are not interested in going into nature to find food. But if they did, I think they’d find that it’s very spiritual. The more closely you look, the more you realize all the plants are alive; you see where they are in their life cycle, how they relate to other plants. A lot of hikers, I think, just see a lot of green stuff and a view of beautiful scenery. When I go now, I see flavors, smells, and so much interconnected life.”

I find the idea of foraging in nature so appealing — I want to live in the real world, too! I might even take a foraging class this summer. At the very least, I’m going to pick up one of those oak-bark chunks my tree sheds and see what happens when I put it in a Mason jar with some rice vinegar.

It won’t get me much in the way of calories outside of the standard 30 species that I, like everyone else, generally eat, but it just may give me a chance to sample some of the flavors that surround me and have gone untasted for too long.

Pascal Baudar’s Roast Oak-Bark Vinegar

  • Forage a nice chunk of oak bark from a fallen tree in the forest. It should not be too old or rotting.
  • Take it home, clean it if necessary, and place it in the oven at 200 degrees F for 20 minutes or so for a rough pasteurization.
  • Using a torch, roast it on all sides before placing it into a simple rice vinegar.
  • Let the bark steep for several weeks.
  • Strain the vinegar through cheesecloth, and then boil it.
  • Store the vinegar in a glass jar. Now it’s good for salad dressings, or to finish fish with a smoky-forest edge.

Reprinted from The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

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Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

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