Walk on the Wild Side
Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I'm walking through a park near the foothills of the Angeles Crest Forest. The warm afternoon sunlight softly dapples through the leaves of trees as my two daughters run ahead. My youngest daughter is percolating with delight over climbing trees. She leaps upon rocks and skips through the brush, climbing up the lower trunks and limbs within her reach. My older daughter has my Nikon strapped around her neck, photographing nature, as master forager Pascal Baudar leads us into the wooded area beyond the hiking trail to teach our group about wild edible plants. The recent rainfall soaked into the earth and made everything greener. It was a perfect day for foraging.
Pascal crouches down upon a soft patch of damp grass and plucks a handful. He explains to our group that all grasses are edible, rolling the bunch of grass around in his palm. His Belgian French accent is charming. Of course, you must know how to identify plants, such as spurge, which looks similar to the edible chickweed, except for that spurge grows in bunches of three and the milky sap is the best indication. "Spurge," he instructs, "is not edible and will make you purge from either end." He shows us how to tell the difference. He explains, however, that spurge sap has been known, especially in European medicine, as a cure for various skin cancers, such as an effective topical treatment for melanoma, but otherwise the milky-white poisonous sap is an eye and skin irritant.
Chickweed grows rampant on the floor of the foothills and all around the path. We gather some in our hands, admiring the lacy leaves and lightness of the fronds. We continue hiking up into the wooded trail, and along the way my younger daughter grabs a hold of some poison oak. Pascal notices and quickly goes off to find some mugwort as a remedy for poison oak's itchy effects. He rubs a wad of mugwort over my daughter's hand vigorously, then rinses her hand with some bottled water. My daughter studies her hand as Pascal administers the mugwort clump, rubbing and rolling the leaves as a poultice, leaving her skin unaffected by the poison oak. Mugwort is a topical remedy.
Pascal broke off some bark of an oak tree. He examines the bark for mold, spores, suspicious fungus, insects, and tell us how he pasteurizes it for consumption and cooking. "It's good for smoking meats," he mentions, pointing out some areas of the bark that he disapproves of, tossing it back into the brush. Tree bark is good for adding smoky flavor to anything.
This was my first foraging experience. While walking in the greenery I felt the fresh air clearing my mind with each inhale. How often do we unplug and walk within an arbor of green trees? The asphalt, street lights, signs and traffic washed away with each step upon damp earth and leaves. I didn't care about how many likes my Facebook post received or if anyone favorited and retweeted my tweet. Just listening to the rustle of birds in the trees, learning about plants, noticing which way the sunlight falls upon the mountain. I then understood Pascal's fascination and passion for plants. He's not paying gourmet prices for greens either. Foraging is good for the soul as well as the wallet. How many times have I paid for a bag full of expensive greens? But foraging for wild food is much more than just that. It's a way to be more connected with the earth.
“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because it is unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Pascal and his lady, Mia Wasilevich, wild food chef, forager, food stylist and photographer of Transitional Gastronomy, host nature walks and foraging events around the forested areas of Los Angeles. This wild food duo host foraging workshops and create catered dinners featuring their wildcrafted cuisine. Pascal supplies top Los Angeles chefs such as the pop-up kitchen virtuoso Ludo Lefebvre. Mia collaborates with celebrated mixologist Matthew Biancaniello. They also craft vinegars, mustards and beer using herbs and wild edibles, which suits Pascal's native Belgian ways.
Pascal is a Master Food Preserver, pickling and fermenting his foraged finds. Local Los Angeles restaurants and pop-ups such as Trois Mec and Melisse use Pascal's urban foraged findings in their dishes. Chefs are currently foraging wild edibles for their own restaurant platings. Pascal is an expert forager for chefs that want to expand their diners’ palates with native plants such as sagebrush, mugwort, mustard greens, chickweed, oxalis, nasturtium and watercress.
"The goal isn't to have the trendiest restaurant in Los Angeles, or anywhere else for that matter," explains Mia. "We want to explore native wild foods locally and beyond, creating culinary expressions that are beautiful bespoke experiences."
Mia arranged picnic tables using wood planks as platters, bowlfuls of greens, a camping burner with a pot of nasturtium soup. The roasted sunchokes with pickled seeds and yucca flowers were eaten up within minutes. The nasturtium soup was peppery and delightful. My daughters ran around, finding sticks and rocks, climbing trees---- my oldest braided her little sister's long dark hair and tied it off with a few blades of grassy plants. This was a beautiful way to be: to eat, talk, explore and awaken all of the senses.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Mia's delicious Peruvian cornbread was served with a slice of cheese and savory greens. I met and chatted with Stephanie Watanabe, founder of The Girl Who Knows, a multi-sensory lifestyle blog. We talked about sensuality, what inspired her to write her blog, and what led her to inspire others. My daughters ran around the park, playing in the dirt, collecting leaves, flowers and rocks. Pascal handed me his home-brewed beer. Each sip was aromatic, alive.
Eating gourmet wild food at a picnic table under the trees opened my palate and fed my soul.
I tasted the pickled cabbage and chickweed salad in small bites, wanting to pay attention to the nuances of flavor. Then I realized: I want my daughters to be wild and learn by doing, not by push buttons and by YouTube tutorials, but by experiencing fully, wholly, relating and listening to their soul, just like this.
Looking around at our group, not one person had their phone in their hand with eyes drawn into the universe of their screen. In the park on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying conversation, food preparing and slow eating food with foraged greens made with care was all we were doing, and this felt good.
Mia and Pascal's recent collaborative pop-up, Forest and Field, offered a seasonal tasting menu featuring wild food platings:
Rosehips, Sage, Duck Prosciutto, Raw Chèvre
Sweet Clover & Currant Croquetas
Spring Mustards & Rabbit
Thistle, Buckwheat Flowers, Chervil Bagna Cauda
Lambsquarters & Quail Eggs
Sorrel & Game
Elderflower S'mores & Cordial
Native Black Walnut Nocino Whoopie Pie, Fennel Cream
Pascal's cocktail list:
Forest Beer: mugwort, forest grass, turkey tail mushrooms
Mountain Shrub: white fir, yarrow, Juniper and manzanita berries, pine
Sacred Native Brew fermented in clay: cactus, elderflower, raw honey, blueberry mugwort soda
Chaparral Infusion: yerba santa, fir, manzanita, wild mint
Wild food and foraging is inspiring backyard gardeners to explore outside their fence. Some good ways to start in your area? Attend local workshops given by expert foragers like Mia and Pascal in the Los Angeles area or guidebooks like Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Leda Meredith's Northeast Foraging, and Thomas Elias & Peter Dykeman's Edible Wild Plants as well as cookbooks like Connie Green and Sarah Scott's The Wild Table.
Always be cautious with unknown mushrooms, berries and greens, however. Seek out ways to learn from professional foragers and take a walk on the wild side.