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Stewarding our Earth

Paul Tappenden reminds us that we can only take so much from nature, and to be mindful of what exactly we take…

Nature has no garbage dumps. In nature, nothing lasts any longer than it is needed, then it biodegrades to create fuel for further growth. Here is the perfect self-sustaining system that will continue for many more centuries, so long as there is water, air and sunshine. So how did we “creatures of nature” break away from this ideal balance, to become such a destructive force?

Nature supplies us with all our basic needs, so it is our responsibility to respect and protect the environment upon which we are dependent. Wise cultures realize that they are the stewards of the land and harvest responsibility, ensuring that their food sources remain healthy and abundant.

There has been a growth in the popularity of ‘wild foods’ in our society. For responsible foragers, nature can be a wonderful source of nutrient-rich foods and natural medicines.  However, as with every other aspect of human activity, there is abuse—especially when there is a profit motive involved. Entrepreneurs, with financial gain in mind (poachers) have been taking advantage of the growing demand for wild foods and medicinal herbs, such as Ramps and Ginseng. They have been over-harvesting and ravaging natural sources, to the point of threatening their existence. This is becoming the case in many areas where these species were once abundant. That is why I have been teaching primarily about harvesting invasive species, with the “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em” approach. This way, plants like Mugwort and Japanese Knotweed become our allies, instead of just being garden pests.

Our existence on this planet is dependent on our working in harmony with nature and viewing ourselves as the stewards of our planet. Like the Hippocratic oath, our first principle should be “do no harm”. We should aim to leave no evidence of our presence, or leave a place better than we found it, if we are to live up to our responsibilities as the keepers of our planet.

Ramps growing in spring

Eating Violets

Wild Food Forager, Paul Tappenden, recommends a delicacy of foraged violets, with tips for how they can be prepared…

While I was walking around the neighborhood with our pups, I noticed some small patches of violets that were starting to flower. I’ve been seeing the leaves for a couple of weeks, but now that the snow has melted, the flowers are announcing their presence. Almost time to start gathering!

The leaves and flowers of Violets are both edible. They can be used in a number of culinary ways, either raw or cooked. The flowers make a colorful addition to salads or sprinkled over almost any dish before serving. I once chopped some up and added them to home made ice-cream.

A popular thing to do with the flowers is to candy them. For this, I will lightly whisk an egg white, stir in some confectioner’s sugar, then carefully dip each flower into the mixture, lying them each out on a parchment lined baking tray. I leave them in a very low oven or dehydrator until they crystallize, then use them to garnish and decorate cakes and deserts. It is very fiddly work and quite time consuming, but it makes a colorful presentation, and they taste great.

Another use I highly recommend is to gather a small jarful of violet flowers and to top it up with a mild vinegar. After a few days, the vinegar turns purple and takes on the flavor of the violets (as well as some of their nutritional goodness, which includes Vitamins A and C, and the anti-oxident and anti-inflammatory, Rutin.). Your friends will all wonder where you got such interesting and tasty vinegar.

I often use the leaves in salads, although I use them sparingly as they tend to be somewhat mucilaginous.  However, this property also makes them ideal for calming an upset stomach.

The Persistent Forager

WILD FOOD FORAGER PAUL TAPPENDEN REMINDS US THAT THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO FORAGE, NO MATTER THE SEASON…

For us foraging types, February is a very challenging month. It is about now that I am usually climbing the walls, counting the days until spring. Once the snows cover the ground, whatever greens are left disappear from view, so we are pretty much left with what the trees have to offer. With few other options to distract me, I use the winter to brush up on my tree identification and to explore possible uses.

Pines are very versatile. They provide us with their needles for making teas and resin (for myriads of uses). The inner bark can be prepared and eaten (although I have yet to try it). The bark is also useful for making baskets. Other conifers can be used in similar ways.

The inner bark of Black Birch makes a delicious wintergreen flavored tea, or it can be fun to chew on a twig while walking in the woods. Sassafras root bark has a similar flavor and was originally used in making root beer (hence the name). Ardent herbalists and woodland dwellers use this season to gather some of the medicinal polypores such as Chaga, that inhabit the trunks of dying White Birch trees.

Just recently, a friend introduced me to Hickory syrup. She arrived at my house with a bag filled with chunks of loose bark that she had gathered from a Shagbark Hickory tree. We put it in the oven for about half an hour to give it a slightly smoky flavor. Then we put the bark into a large pan with several cups of water and two cups of organic sugar and simmered it until it had reduced down to a rich, brown syrup. I dipped a fingertip in and sampled our creation. It was delicious. Every bit as tasty as maple syrup (but way cheaper).

Speaking of maple syrup, before this month is out, we may also be tapping the Sugar Maples and other likely candidates (such as Birches) for making syrups and sugars, or just for drinking (a pleasure that everyone should experience at least once).

So, as you can see, for the persistent forager, the season never really ends.

Bring on the Barberries

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden introduces us to a superfood found growing by some of our favorite hiking trails.

Barberries are an introduced plant in our area, having escaped captivity and made their home at the edges of our woodlands.

Straight off the bush, the small elongated red berries tend to be rather tart, but they can be pretty tasty when they are prepared correctly.  However, I eat them straight off the bush, regardless of their flavor.  They are such a potent superfood, that I don’t mind the flavor.  I rarely pass a bush without helping myself to a few berries.  It is as though I am taking a supplement.

Barberries are remarkably high in antioxidants.  They have been measured at 9 times that of Goji berries.  For this reason, they are a good anti-cancer food.  Naturally, they help build the immune system.  During the winter months, they are a good source of Vitamin C.

As I mentioned in my last Barberry post, these berries have been clinically proven to be highly effective in clearing up acne.

Now, as we head into winter, Barberries are once again coming into season.  If I can gather enough of them, I will usually make some Barberry butter, which can be used as a sauce over ice cream or as basting sauce for chicken, duck or fish.  It is excellent just spread on bread.

Natural Decorations

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and decorative in our area. 

When I was a kid we were very poor (living in post war London), so we had to create many of life’s necessities ourselves. When it came to toys and decorations, most of these were handmade. That was part of the fun of a holiday, sitting down together and making garlands and other decorative flourishes with colored paper and found objects.

I continued these habits into adulthood, and handmade objects d’art festooned our house during the holidays. I particularly got a kick out of going out into the fields and verges and gathering natural objects to use in decorations. They would be used in place of bows on our Christmas gifts and to decorate the tree.

wild-decorations

There are lot of interesting things to collect at this time of year, like conifer branches and cones, bittersweet vine with its red berries, phragmites fronds and numerous other berries, grasses, seed pods and dried flowers. With the addition of a bit of ribbon, some lace, and a glue gun (or wire), these can be turned into colorful, seasonal flourishes to add the finishing touch to a gift, a dinner table or a whole room.

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Similar things can be done with food, particularly baked goods. I once made a spinach tart, with an acorn crust, and decorated the top with an ornate design. Trouble was, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it, so I took it to a potluck dinner and let someone else do the honors.

ornamental-wild-greens-tart