Foraging–it’s an age-old instinct that’s become the latest trend.
Living in a progressively health-conscious society puts a greater emphasis on knowing where foods come from. Foraging offers individuals the ability to go out and gather their own food or, if they are dining at a restaurant that uses foraged ingredients, to at least know where the food originated.
Fed by Brandywine Creek and neighboring streams, and featuring acres of public forest areas, the Brandywine Valley has plenty of places with plants waiting to be foraged.
Having grown up on 17 acres in Western Pennsylvania, brothers Tom and Cavan Patterson have been scavenging for edibles since a young age. Their knowledge and experience has allowed the two to build an entire business around foraging. Founded in 2009, Pittsburgh-based Wild Purveyors prides itself on “hunting and gathering the finest wild and cultivated foods.”
The company supplies foraged goods for numerous restaurants and chefs around the state. “We have established a network of over 100 farms around the state of Pennsylvania, totaling over 15,000 acres of land to forage on,” explains Cavan. “From March to early November, we forage daily, depending on orders.”
Mushrooms are a big draw. Chanterelle mushrooms are available for harvest beginning in the summer and running through to winter, with slivers of their distinct stalks often visible along the forest floor. Morchella mushrooms, better known as morels, are found in the spring around the base of apple, elm, and ash trees. Langermannia gigantean, better known as Giant Puffballs, can be found plump and ready for picking from late summer into fall. And Grifola frondosa, or hen of the woods, is readily found each autumn hiding among the debris of the forest floor.
Along with mushrooms, other popular foraged foods include ramps, better known as wild leeks, stinging nettle, and dandelion greens. This generous supply of fresh, local ingredients, together with the growing demand provided by discerning patrons, has provided a boost for related businesses. Wild Purveyors now supplies more than a dozen restaurants and fields “constant inquires from interested clients and restaurants,” says Cavan. The company also operates a retail store selling everything from turkey, pork, beef, lamb, and goat to organic fruits, vegetables, honey and cheese.
Sampling a Taste of the Region
Though the idea of heading out into the wild, basket in hand, to gather nature’s bounty certainly has a romantic appeal to it, Cavan offers one cautionary note: “[Foraging] can be very dangerous.”
At Wild Purveyors, brother Tom’s horticulture degree from Penn State University (with a minor in plant pathology and mycology) comes in handy.
“A specific knowledge is needed,” Cavan explains. ‘There are an abundance of edibles to be found, but there are also just as many that can harm you.”
If you’re interested in gathering and harvesting your own food, but aren’t sure what to look for or how to prepare it, first consider trying the work of a local chef. Around the Brandywine Valley, many restaurants take advantage of local ingredients.
Sean Wineberg, chef and owner of Restaurant Alba in Malvern, PA, utilizes fresh foods harvested in the Brandywine Valley to create contemporary cuisine with seasonal ingredients. “We’re an Italian restaurant, and I think a real Italian restaurant is all about its ingredients,” explains Sean. “It’s about the local taste of the region, and the only way to get that taste is to use ingredients that are grown locally.”
One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes features local fiddlehead ferns. “We sauté the fiddleheads in vegetable broth, butter, and prosciutto, then top it with fresh cheese.” The fat from the meat works to balance the strong vegetable taste of the ferns; however, the dish is still 80 percent fiddleheads.
Other eateries are also getting caught up in the wilderness-to-table movement building their menus on fresh, foraged foods. And patrons are reaping the benefits.
“It’s a sustainable way to live [and] a great way to eat and incorporate [nutritious foods] into our diets,” says Sean.