Stalking the Wild Fiddleheads: Foraging for Food and Medicine in Fields and MarketsPat Crocker May 1, 2014
Judging from the past year’s sprouting of fabulous ‘foraging and feasting’ books, the movement towards celebrating nature’s wild abundance is as strong as it was in 1962 when Euell Gibbons published his celebrated book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Of course, humankind has survived on wild food from the beginning of time and continued to forage for food even after the domestication of plants and animals was embraced around 10,000 B.C. In fact, all of our modern food plants are descendants of wild plants. It’s not new.
I would call our modern fascination with wild food foraging a trend, but by definition a trend is something developing or changing, or in other words a current fashion. Looking at the entire shelf of books (about 40) devoted to wild food in my personal library, and the 96 titles on the topic listed on goodreads.com, I would say that gathering wild plants is more than a fad or a passing fancy.
So why, in the face of convenience and overabundance in North America, do field guides, cookbooks, and city herb (or ‘weed’) walks keep poking through our increasingly technical existence? Gibbons shared his answer over 50 years ago with the following thoughts on wild food, and his words hold even more meaning today:
“We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good, but people are beginning to suspect that we have paid a high spiritual price for our plenty. Each person would like to feel that he is an entity, a separate individual capable of independent existence, and this is hard to believe when everything that we eat, wear, live in, drive, use or handle has required the cooperative effort of literally millions of people to produce, process, transport, and, eventually, distribute to our hands.”
Gibbons goes on to explain just why foraging, indeed any activity that takes us into nature, is fulfilling an inner yearning for oneness with the very essence of our beings.
Wild Spring Dinner
What to serve if Euell Gibbons were coming to dinner? Living as I do in southwestern Ontario, I would start with a green salad featuring pickled fiddleheads and baby beets. Next, I would combine wild leeks and puffball mushrooms with spring potatoes and peas and bake them en papillote, and I would finish with brambleberry bumble (read on to discover what a bumble is).
The following recipes were inspired by my original cookbook, Recipes from Riversong (now out of print).
(Makes 4 servings)
- 1 cup fresh fiddleheads
- 1 cup baby beets
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup water
- 1 tsp sea salt
- ½ cup honey or coconut nectar
- 1 Tbsp pickling spice
- 2 cups fresh wild greens: dandelion, watercress, purslane, lambs quarters, mixed with spinach or mesclun greens
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 5 Tbsp walnut or extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tbsp pure maple syrup
- ¼ cup crumbled feta or goat cheese
Both the French and Italians use this method to employ steam to cook poultry, fish, or vegetables. A folded pouch or parcel is created from parchment paper and then the individual parcels are baked and served to the delight of the diner, who must pierce the paper packet to reveal the delicate morsels within. You can add a small fillet of trout to the package if you wish. (Makes 4 servings)
- 4 sheets parchment paper (24 inches long)
- 4 Tbsp coconut oil or butter
- 1 cup chopped wild (or domestic) leeks
- 1 cup diced puffball or crimini mushrooms
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 1 cup diced new potatoes
- 1 cup new peas
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- ½ tsp sea salt
Bumble. It’s a word I’ve coined to describe berries baked with honey and a crumbly topping. In Canada, we make berry or apple cobbler, crumble, crisp, grunt, buckle and pandowdy. Why not add another descriptive? In Eastern Canada, we can gather foxberries, black or choke cherries, bunchberries, and huckleberries. Saskatoon and silver buffalo berries reign in the west. And right here in Ontario and Quebec, we gather wild blueberries (smaller and tarter than domestic varieties), as well as elder berries, cranberries, blackberries, and wild or escaped raspberries. (Makes 4 servings)
- 5 cups fresh or frozen wild berries or blueberries
- 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/3 cup honey or coconut nectar
- 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- BUMBLE TOPPING:
- ½ cup butter or soft coconut oil
- 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- ½ cup coconut sugar or brown sugar
- 1-1/4 cups large flake rolled oats
- ½ tsp cinnamon
• NorCliff Farms Inc., the largest producer of fiddleheads in North America, operates out of Ontario’s very first fiddlehead farm, located in “the bog” bordering Port Colborne and Wainfleet Township on the North Shore of Lake Erie. Wild Harvesting is the name of the game at NorCliff. One of founder Nick Secord’s favourite sayings is “NorCliff Fiddleheads have no ‘cides.’ “No herbicides, fungicides or pesticides are used on our crops at anytime.”
I’ve pulled from my shelf a half dozen books – one for each decade from 1956 to 2013. Dina Falconi’s book is delightful, with gorgeous illustrations, so look for it at bookstores; some on the list are still available on Amazon and other online sources.
Bev Gray. The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North and A Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants of Canada
Falconi, Dina. Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook. Accord NY: Botanical Arts Press LLC; 2013.
Gibbons, Ewell. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. New York: David McKay Company; 1962.
Heth, Harris. The Country Kitchen Cook Book. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1956.
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Gather Ye Wild Things. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.
Johnson, Lorraine. Grow Wild! Toronto: Random House Canada; 1998.
Pond, Barbara. A Sampler of Wayside Herbs. New York: Greenwich House; 1974.
Pat Crocker's mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat whole food with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson U., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. Her wellness practice transitioned over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook,The Juicing Bible, and her latest books, Cooking with Cannabis and The Herbalist’s Kitchen. www.patcrocker.com