Food Drink

Foraging Offers an Edible Bounty Around the Brandywine Valley

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Foraging—how the first humans dined—is still a tasty weekend avocation.

Long before we developed farming as a steady way to source food, our long-ago ancestors hunted for what they ate. We may envision graphic images of shaggy men throwing spears at mastodons and other large animals, but early humans also survived on things that grew naturally in plains, meadows and forests. Depending on location, these hunter-gatherers lived on vast varieties of leafy plants, berries, nuts, mushrooms, plant roots and flowers. Today, that menu hasn’t disappeared. There are still plenty of people—from chefs and farmers to hobbyists and naturalists—who chow down on locally foraged foods.

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I grew up on a hillside farm where, in addition to planting crops like corn, beans and potatoes, we harvested wild greens, walnuts, hickory nuts and blackberries. Years later, I still forage, especially for morel mushrooms and wild wine berries and blackberries. I actually find it more rewarding and less demanding than having a backyard or patio garden.

Through the years, I’ve met other foragers—especially professional chefs, who I suspect like to forage as a way of escaping the kitchen. Notable among these is MacGregor Mann, who was in the woods almost daily as chef/owner at the now-closed Junto BYOB in Chadds Ford. The catalyst for Mann’s foraging fixation was an apprenticeship at Noma in Denmark. At his world-famous restaurant, chef René Redzepi routinely scours the countryside for everything edible—and he’s reinvented Nordic cooking along the way.

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On a typical spring day, Mann might be searching the woods for fiddlehead ferns, morel and chanterelle mushrooms, nettle, watercress, sorrel, and ramps. He carries along a batch of ziplock bags. “If the weather is wet, I’ll put a paper towel in each bag to absorb moisture, and a wet paper towel if it’s hot and dry,” says Mann, who’s now the executive chef at the Hermitage Inn in West Dover, Vermont. “Of course, you want a paper bag if you find mushrooms.”

Mark Eastman, owner of Chefs’ Haven in Hockessin, likes to hunt for morels at the edge of pine forests. Like most serious foragers, he’s reluctant to discuss the locations of his wild mushroom “farms.” Award-winning West Chester chef Anthony Andiario works with local foragers who show up at the door of his eponymous restaurant in the early mornings with the day’s bounty. Anthony Vietri, meanwhile, is a farmer, a forager and an excellent home cook. In addition to farming grapes for his wines at Va La Vineyards in Avondale, he also raises chestnuts, figs and Asian pears. Vietri sautés ramps, wild broccoli rabe, morels and hosta shoots. Violets, dandelions, purslane and creasy find their way into salads. He does not, however, make dandelion wine. “Wild poke is good in frittatas with potatoes and eggs,” Vietri says. “Wild garlic works well in a soup broth or simply sautéed.”

Foraged plants can also be used for teas and dried spices. The roots of young sassafras bushes, when cleaned and chopped into small pieces, can be brewed into a fragrant tea.

Many foragers learn the art of discerning what’s good and what isn’t—and what’s dangerous and what isn’t—from elders or colleagues. Others use guidebooks or take classes. The Delaware Nature Society often weaves elements of foraging into its adult education classes. “Food is a topic that resonates with most people,” says Joe Sebastiani, director of adult engagement at the society. “We try to incorporate it into most field trips. In the spring, we can sacrifice a few plants for field greens. Plus, there are roots like spring beauty corms, which look a lot like little potatoes.”

In the summer, there are persimmons, raspberries, blackberries and wine berries. Fall brings walnuts, hickory nuts and beech nuts. “We don’t integrate foraging into our kids programs because we don’t want them to just randomly pick stuff and try to eat it,” Sebastiani says. “I try to avoid danger with mushrooms—but puff balls, morels and golden oysters are all good because they aren’t easily mistaken for something poisonous. I like to use puff balls with tofu or scrambled eggs.”

Mark Eastman, owner of Chefs’ Haven in Hockessin, likes to hunt for morels at the edge of pine forests. Like most serious foragers, he’s reluctant to discuss the locations of his wild mushroom “farms.”

Adobe Stock / pamela_d_mcadams

Foraged plants can also be used for teas and dried spices. The roots of young sassafras bushes, when cleaned and chopped into small pieces, can be brewed into a fragrant tea. Sassafras leaves can be dried and ground into a powder used in many Cajun dishes like gumbo.

For beginners and even old hands, there are several books out there. I recommend the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Sebastiani swears by the Peterson Field Guides. I’ve foraged in the past with award-winning author and chef Hank Shaw. Aside from five guide books, his Hunter Angler Gardener Cook website is the largest online source for recipes made with wild foods. You’ll also find countless foraging tips.

Visit honest-food.net.

Related: Fermentation Makes Its Mark on the Brandywine Valley’s Food Scene

Roger Morris

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