Into the Wild
Foraging in and around the Berkshires
Brandon Curtin forages for fiddleheads near the Green River. It is recommended to take only half the tops per cluster for sustainable harvest.
Photo by Jake Borden
Here in the Berkshires, we have an abundance of supermarkets and specialty markets that provide us with fresh produce year-round. During the summer months, farmers markets and farm stands allow us to enjoy locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables. But for a real challenge, foraging in the wild can bring you into close contact with nature. You might even gain new respect for how our predecessors foraged to survive.
To learn about wild foods, take a hike with expert Russ Cohen, the “dean of foraging,” who has been conducting walks and talks all over New England since 1974. Following him over the course of his two-hour workshop, participants learn how to identify and harvest a large number of edible plants. The ebullient and energetic Cohen has also been known to provide goodies made from his finds. (His black walnut brownies taste like baklava.)
Never one to rest on his laurels, Cohen has found something new and exciting to do with his vast accumulation of knowledge. “I’m now playing the role of Johnny Appleseed for edible native species, as well as gathering those that are already in the Berkshires.” He has partnered with Miss Hall’s School by donating seeds that the students sow in the school’s greenhouse that are then sold at maturity. He also has donated plants to line the River Walk in Great Barrington.
One of the most important rules to follow when foraging wild edibles is not to strip-harvest. It is essential to leave some plants in the ground so that there will be more in coming seasons. However, when it comes to invasive species, by all means, go all out. These non-native plants have high-growth, reproduction, and dispersal rates, and displace the native vegetation. Since they don’t have natural predators or parasites, their proliferation is hard to control.
The white mulberry is one example of an invasive exotic species that has overwhelmed vast expanses of native plants. Another is the autumn olive. State authorities encourage people to harvest it, and it is worth the effort, as the berry from this deciduous shrub is sweet—perfect for jams, wine, and pies. Cohen prepares fruit leather made of the autumn olive that is absolutely delicious.
How much wild food can a person actually find out there? Ask Jim Gop, owner of Heirloom Fire, a unique catering company in south county. The bearded and effusive chef likes being able to eat locally produced food—an astounding 30 percent of the food he uses in his business is foraged.
He started his wild-food relationship with ramps, with which he makes a pesto, although he says that the pungent wild garlic has become so popular with chefs that is in danger of being over-harvested. Other forays into the woods have netted him Japanese knotweed (for syrup) and stinging nettles (which taste better than they sound).
Gop’s favorite wild food? Grapes. “On a hot August day, when it’s 90 degrees outside, I love to grab a handful from the side of the road. They just pop in your mouth and are so refreshing.”
Up in the northern reaches of Berkshire County is Sandy Smith, chef at MASS MoCA’s Gramercy Park. While he loves wild foods—hen-of-the-woods and oyster mushrooms are his favorites—he doesn’t have time to forage himself, so he depends on professionals who come knocking on his door when they have something. “You never know what you’re going to get. It could be morels or chanterelles or wild watercress. Or, you could go out and get absolutely nothing,” he says.
And when it comes to fungi, there’s an old Czech saying: “All mushrooms are edible. Some only once.” So, it’s probably safest to follow the prime rule of the mycologist: Always check with an expert. And our resident expert is John Wheeler, president of the Berkshire Mycological Society. Every Sunday morning for almost 25 years, one can find him at any of a number of meeting places throughout the county, introducing aspiring foragers to the intricacies of safe hunting.
Wheeler advises novices to learn only one new mushroom each year. Because many mushrooms have twins in the toxic world, perhaps go after mushrooms that look like no others and leave the more complicated ones to the mavens.
So, take a basket or a bag and explore the region’s treasures. In May, foragers don’t need to look any farther than their own backyards, where violets grow prolifically. Both leaves and flowers are edible—the young leaves excellent in salads, the older ones cooked lightly. The lovely purple flowers can be eaten out of hand or tossed into salads, candied for cake decoration, or even infused in a jar of raw honey for a sweet treat.
Lovers of pie, cordials, and wine will find mulberries in late June. The one-inch-long berries can range in color from light pink to dark purplish-black. You will know they are ripe when they are plump and juicy and begin to fall off the tree. Warning: Do not attempt to eat unripe berries, as they contain a milky sap that is toxic.
For “the dean of foraging” Russ Cohen’s schedule of walks and courses, go to users.rcn.com/eatwild/sched.htm
A monthly guide to New England’s wild edibles can be found at joshfecteau.com/resources/wild-edibles-monthly-guide
For information on Berkshire Mycological Society walks, visit bms.iwarp.com/about_1.html