Our gardens in many lights

dimanche 30 octobre 2011

The Magic of Foraging in the Wild...

Cet article en français. 
Este artículo en español.

Louise :  During the end of this summer/beginning of fall, I am very busy foraging the countryside to find all sorts of good things to harvest freely, since these are abandonned ressources.

Here's my Horn of Plenty for this autumn:

- Many litres of Giant Puffballs mushrooms from my own yard (Here's the article on the subject).

- A dozen jars of stewed apples and almost as much that I put first into ziplock bags and then in the freezer (slighlty cooked, the idea here is to keep apple chunks, therefore to prevent the apples from turning into puree, this way I can make pies out of it).

- About forty very sweet yellow pears that often are a bit bruised from their fall, but make delicious fruit ketchup or desserts.

On the border of this cycle path, a dozen abandonned apple trees
of different varieties still produce abundantly.
I've been observing them for about 10 seasons and
I never saw anyone harvest this abundance,
everything just rots on the ground.

- Exactly 3 pounds (1,36kg) of elderberries, my patience was rewarded with 7 beautiful jars of absolutely divine jam (it takes hours to pluck the berries without leaving any stem, a detail that would have been unimportant in a jelly recipe, but I definitely prefer jam).

- A dozen big jars of grape jelly (yes, yes, it's possible to find abandonned grape vines in the countryside and, just like the apples, the grapes manage the "wilderness" very well and even prosper on their own, without relying on human assistance to grow).

- A jar of cherry sauce that is so sublime, coated on a ball of icecream, that it has become my favorite dessert (O.K. I'll admit that I didn't have to search far for these cherries : the cherry tree in question is on my property and is a gift from mother nature).
- Seeds of greater plantain, they can be ground to make a rich flour or used whole in multigrain breads or muffins, but you need a lot of patience to harvest the stacks of mature seeds and shell them (althought this last step is quite enjoyable, apparently the opposite of this operation of shelling mustard seeds that Helene went through a couple of weeks ago). I will make flour with this harvest but will only be able to produce about 1 cup.

i- Some straw, the kind made by these tall invading grasses that grow in ditches everywhere, sometimes they are as high as 1,5 meters (I forgot the name - Ho ! It came back to me : European Reed - Phragmites Australis spp Australis). This wild straw, once the seed spikes are cut from the stalk, will find its home in many corners of my garden, as free and natural mulch, without pesticides or toxic elements (if we choose well where to harvest them). The beauty of this invading plant is that it grows where there are excesses of phosphorus and therefore it accumulates it in its tissues. When used as mulch it enriches the garden with that element.

- Bags of dead leaves, placed on the border of the streets for city services to carry away; they are way easier to "harvest" then straw, but can get more readily blown away by the wind. A key element, in a rich and well-balanced garden, is the fertilizing role of mulch, so this harvest is certainly as important as any fruit or vegetable harvest. Fallen leaves won't give you much nitrogen, but they will give away a lot of organic matter and are the perfect source to build up fluffy and rich soil, just the right texture. Before picking up a bag however, I first check if the lawn on which it was gathered is  adorned with at least a few weeds, a good gage to assess if pesticides were of use. I do steer clear of "golf lawns", which, most of the time have also been fed chemical fertilizers.

A well spread abundance people are starting to notice...

Almost any corner of Quebec province hides these green treasures that can find their way into our kitchens or gardens. For example, my sister remembers finding in the countryside the site of a long  gone homestead, where the orchard was still producing peaches, pears and apricots, plus the usual apples.

In my village, at a 5 minutes walk from home, there's an old orchard across the school, close to the railway. Hydro-Québec owns this piece of land and the company judged unnecessary to cut the dozen of venerable apple trees, which are still thriving. Among them, grows a rarity : a pear tree. I'm perfectly happy collecting the fallen fruits only and apparently, my only competition is the deer that pay the old orchard a daily visit, leaving their tracks and half-eaten fruits behind. The abundance is such that they can't eat everything. I didn't have to ask permission to harvest there since the land is semi-public, crossed by a path villagers often use, either on foot or bicycle.

If you ever notice a fruit tree nobody takes care of but which is situated on private property, you could go ahead and ask permission to harvest it. You can always offer the owner half of the harvest or thank him with a couple of jars of jam. Chances are he'll be happy to have someone else take care of this chores, especially if it only cost him the harvest or part of it.

Actually, there are some cities in Canada that have this kind of arrangement in their community, where the owners of fruit trees invite interested citizens for the harvest. This harvest is then divided between owner, harvester, and a charity or community organization.

Imperfect fruit maybe, but still absolutely delicious!

I got used to eat untreated apples at home. Indeed, when we arrived here 25 years ago, we became the owners of three very old apple trees that produced a few years more before dying. Since we didn't want to spray them with fongicides or other chemical cocktails, I learned how to use spotted and bruised apples. I realised what our grandmothers already knew: it's quite possible to make divinely delicious desserts, compotes, jellies and jams with these. And even if losses were more important than when using the entirety on a perfect fruit one can find at the grocery store, 3 old apple trees yielding not even half of their former productivity were still exceeding the needs of my family.

So no, neither the occasional small worm found near a core nor the black spot on the skin made me shiver with disgust. Neither did the half-bruised apple. While consuming an untreated apple, I feel I can go back in time, to a place where the use of pesticides and fongicides were unknown practices.  I'm convinced it's a lot better for our health.

What can you expect from this kind of harvest?

When we forage apples that have received zero treatment, more so apples that fell on the ground, we can divide our harvest in 3 categories. Firstly, let's look for the most bruised apples, and those that are half eaten by wasps and other creatures, but are not rotted, yet. In general, these apples will make up the two thirds of the yield found on the ground. They can be used to make juice or cider. This year, I provided a good quantity of these fruits to a collegue who was, along with family members, the proud owner of a cider-press. She thanked me with a delicious gift of brown apple juice, that I froze for later use. Of course, I intend to propose to my own family to acquire our own cider-press. I love the idea of a new occasion for a yearly family gathering ! But let's go back to our subject.

After harvesting (or ignoring) all those apples destined to your brand new cider-press, you come across the apples that are nice enough for jams, ketchups, pies and other cooked delicacies. Their skin may be spotted and they may be deformed.They may be quite bruised or cut, and partly eaten by bugs also, but they are big enough to give an adequate quantity of intact flesh. They will form a bit less than a third of the yield.

Finally there is your perfect fruit. Not bruised, not split, nor invaded by even the tiniest worm, its form is mostly regular, its big enough, perfectly ripe and its skin have little to no default. These apples represent 2 to 5% of what's fallen on the ground. I noticed they are more present if the ground is soft or presents an even surface, as an area covered with long grass, for example.

This means that among the two thousands apples or so that I harvested this year (yes, this is not a typo), I put aside maybe fifty to bite in directly.

I have access to many varieties of apples, red or yellow, early or late season, varying in size and in taste. My favorite was a big apple of a soft yellow, often a little bit bruised but exceptionnaly sweet tasting, the kind of sweetness that even the store's varieties have trouble matching. But the majority of apple trees I visited give fruits that have a more acidic taste, comparable maybe to a MacIntosh. I also found another yellow variety tasting just like a Granny Smith! The last apples I harvested just yesterday are so acidic that I wouldn't dare to eat them raw, but according to my experience, they should do find in a jam... if I'm a little bit more generous on sugar.

And the pears, yellow, big and juicy, delight my husband, because it's is favorite fruit of all, althought they are more problematic to use, since their tender flesh is so easily bruised. Those ones that were too damaged to eat fresh found their way into my fruit and tomato ketchup.Of course, I could have made a dessert or a jam out of them also.
All in all I got a big box full of these grapes,
harvested with help since I needed a stepladder
at the end, to get to the more beautiful bunches.
My most astounding harvest is, without a doubt, the tart grapes, maybe from a wine making variety, which ended up as jelly. The vines climb abandonned apple trees next to a public parking lot and a cycling path (see photo). When you get close enough, if you just look up, you can see the top of the trees interlaced with beautiful blue to violet bunches. I started harvesting what I could reach. This was at the beginning of September. The juice, which tasted as bad as the fruits, still made a good jelly, but gave an orangey color, since the fruits just weren't ripe enough.

Thesee vines stock  seems like its
assaulting this abandonned tree, boring
high in its branches.
The abundance was such that I couldn't resist, so for my second visit, I enlisted the help of my sister and we came back with a stepladder.

And for my third and final visit in mid-October, this time helped by my husband, the bunches were so ripe that we obtained a juice as dark as what you can find at the store. This last batch of jelly is exquisite.

Therefore, in three foraging sessions of 30 to 45 minutes each, we harvested about 3 square foot of grape bunches, which gave us about 8 liters of grape jelly. And we left behind us about the same amount, unharvested. 

Of course all of this foraging activity consumes time and effort, both outside and in the kitchen, but at least, I didn't invest a minute of my time to cultivate these treasures. I only had to extend an arm (O.K., a ladder too) and grab. Furthermore, I didn't have to dedicate any space in my yard to cultivate any of that.

These are just a part of the bunches we left behind us,
the harvest being too abundant for our needs and a bit too high for our stepladders.

What about you? Would you risk harvesting and eating wild food like that? Or maybe you already do your own foraging ?

Would you be hesitant to help yourself with all this abandonned goodness? Hélène is a bit uneasy about it, especially if she knows a passerby could see her. However, those who see me while harvesting and have the curiosity to talk to me have a very positive attitude about it. My husband is always a bit scared of transgressing any unknown and obscure law while foraging in public spaces. Of course, I would never ransack these spaces to obtain wild plants, nor would I trespass on private property without explicit permission from the owner, but here, I'm talking about fruit abandonned on the ground, on trees or vines that once belonged to well tended gardens, and that still give their abundance generously in places that lost their private title.

I would like to close this article by pointing out that, regarding wild plants in general, the important rule to remember is not to destroy any environment. Some plants are protected by government laws, like wild garlic. But many species are so widely spread that you won't endanger them by foraging them. But do be respectful. If you harvest whole plants (like when I collect burdock roots), you have to leave some specimens behind so the natural balance will stay in check and the plant will not risk eradication from any given site. It is the way to keep a sustainable environment.

 What do you think about it?

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