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Forest Foraging, Fasting and Feasting.

Wednesday night I went on a Forest Foraging evening. The Foraging event was put together by Savour Winnipeg. My interest in the evening was piqued by a couple of things. First, I met Ben Benton of Savour Winnipeg when I attended the Flight Club event earlier this year. I had it in the back of my mind that I should try one of these foraging experiences. Second, and the bigger influence, is I’ve just finished reading Adam Federman’s new book: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray. I’ll be including a review of the book after describing my evening.

Forest Forage Sage
Sage was one of the many edible plants one can forage for.

Forest Foraging:

The instructions for our foraging evening is that we should meet at the parking lot on Grant Avenue, just by the entrance to the Assiniboine Forest. As usual, I bused out to the event, and found myself at the site a little before starting time. That gave me a chance to check out some of the signage telling the story of Assiniboine Forest.
By 6:30 pm our group had gathered and was ready to set off. It wasn’t a large group, around 10-12, but that made it perfect size for allowing questions and for sampling. A couple of things that should be noted: Savour Winnipeg works on the principle of “leaving only footprints behind.” So, we were reminded that we should take out with us anything we brought in with us. Second, the other thing which was stressed was that we should always leave something for others to enjoy.

Sometimes You Don’t Have to Look Far:

Once we started into the forest, we had only progressed a few steps before our guide stopped us, and introduced to do plants. The first was Pineappleweed. You can eat the flower or leaves, or you can put them into a tea. It tastes like pineapple, cut without any of the acidity.

Forest Foraging Pineapple weed.
Pineapple weed. Edible flowers and leaves, but they tend to get bitter the older they get.

Goldenrod is another plant that can forage for. Again there were plants as we entered the forest. Flowers and leaves are both edible. They can be used in salads, and they can also be boiled for tea. Now, as you can see in the picture below, there is a large round ball on the stem of the plant. This is called a gall and houses the larva of the gall fly. This larva will eventually develop into an adult gall fly. However, in the development stage the larva can be eaten as a source of protein. Although, you will need a fair number of these before you get enough protein for your daily limit. I took this with me to give it a go. In the end, no being at the end of my protein tether, it was more than I wanted to face(you can look up videos on YouTube, and you will find that my decision isn’t uncommon).

Forest Foraging for Goldenrod
The Goldenrod Gall Fly Larva is edible, but in the end my hunger wasn’t quite severe enough for me to want to try and consume one.

As we traveled through just one loop of the forest we continued to come upon all sorts of other plants that one could hope to use to stave off starvation or to add vitamins and minerals to a limited diet. Among the other plants we observed were: dandelion, prickly lettuce, Sweet Cicely, Stinging Nettles(always use gloves to pick), Wild Mint(the plant we tried was stronger than store bought), Saskatoons, and Dewberries.
There were a couple of items not listed above that I found particularly interesting. The discovery of Sarsparilla, the plant that puts the root into Root Beer. Like a couple of other plants, this is one that if you harvest properly will not only give you the use of the root, but will help the plant to grow in healthier numbers in succeeding years. The other plant, was the Cattail. I didn’t realize that there was so much of the plant that was edible. The brown corn dog looking part of the plant was past it’s edible stage, but the core of the stem was still at the edible stage, and when you strip the outer part and get to the centre it tastes like Cucumber, and not just any cucumber, but the most cucumber-y cucumber. I’d love to try using it sometime to make a Tzatziki sauce.
So, of course, while you can find many edible things to forage for, there are a few you need to avoid because they will poison you. Even edible plants can be harmful at the wrong time of year, or with the wrong preparation. Fortunately the Fantastic Forest Forage Handbook that Savour Winnipeg puts out for only $3.99 will help you avoid the most dangerous culprits, while helping you find the more healthy and delicious foods available.
A couple of things worth noting. A lot of these plants are accompanied with claims of great health benefits. I haven’t investigated any of these, but their is more than enough information if you want to check a variety of sources. Another things is that to make these foods part of your life on regular basis will require a fair bit of work and time. However, many of these plants make great additions to drinks or sauces, that don’t require large quantities of the forage food.
The amount of work and care, involved in foraging brings me to Fasting and Feastingthe book I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Forest Foraging book inspiration.
The title page for Adam Federman’s Fasting and Feasting.

Patience Gray and Foraging

I had never heard of Patience Gray until I came across this book in the Winnipeg Public Library’s New and Noted section. Once I picked Federman’s book up, it was hard to put down. Gray’s story is one of a woman who didn’t fit in with the mores and morals of the world she lived in, and who decided to then cut her own path in the world. While on this path she met the sculptor Norman Mommens(it’s in Italian, but the site offers translation), and they embarked on a journey that would see them live in several countries, but eventually settle in a remote corner of Italy.
Federman does a great job of story-telling in this book. Gray was a complicated woman, and who had complicated, and often tangled relationships with her family, and her friends. However, the one relationship she had that wasn’t complicated was the her relationship with the land.
Honey from a Weed was the second cookbook that Gray wrote. Her first, Plats du Jour, had been quite successful, and she was often encouraged to revise or write a follow up. However, the longer she lived in a remote area, the less Gray was interested in conventional foods, and it was only after the success of Honey from a Weed, she did eventually allow it to be reissued.
The title of the book, Fasting and Feasting, in addition to being the working title for Honey From a Weedalso reflected on their lifestyle. In our North American world, where you can find a billion varieties of salad dressing in your local grocery store, most of us have lost the fasting part of our ancestors lives. If our meals are monotonous it’s because we lack creativity, not because we don’t have access to good ingredients. Patience and Norman learned to live with the rhythms of the land.
Once Patience and Norman moved to Italy they adopted a stripped down, spartan lifestyle, one that would make the Amish seem forward thinking. Yet, they lived a full life. Although they were in a relatively barren area of Italy, Patience’s skill and commitment to foraging allowed them to enjoy as much as the land would offer them.
Another aspect that grew from this, although present earlier in life, was the sense of generosity in the life of the Patience and Norman. There home, no matter how remote was always open to the many people who came to visit them. Beyond that, they were also very concerned about the effects pollution was having on the land around them, and became active in speaking out against it.
This isn’t to say that they were paragons of virtue. Patience in particular, could be an off-putting and imperious individual not willing to spare feelings when she felt someone was wrong or didn’t live up to her standards. Also, in their early years of living in Greece, they clearly botched up their relationships with the local populace. Throughout her life her relationships with her family, including her children were often strained, and Federman presents a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of this aspect of her life and character.
Nonetheless, reading this one gets the picture of a singular woman. One who would have found a way to flourish in any era, and in any place, if she chose to put her mind. Gray is a role model for any woman, or man, who doesn’t feel they quite fit in with conventional society and is willing to put aside the comforts of that society to live her own life to it’s fullest.
One thing Federman has done with this biography has brought a renewed interest to the cookery and foraging writings of Gray. At a time when we are facing new challenges in feeding the planet Gray could serve as guide to help us navigate through the perils ahead, as well as to take us back to the old ways and to relearn all the goodness of a bountiful creation.
This is a great book to give as a give for grads, birthdays, Christmas, or just because.

By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.