A year ago I would have looked you dead in the eye over a glass of Côtes du Rhône in my London garden and explained to you that I’m really more of a nature person than a city person. Then I’d have clopped off to spend the afternoon shopping at Borough Market, or nosing around the farm store on Lordship Lane. If The Fella and I could be bothered, we’d battle traffic to get outside of the city for a day. We’d get on our mountain bikes and follow the GPS around the North Downs bridle paths, which was really just an excuse for stopping at a country pub on our way home. See? Nature.
You may recall that my early ‘foraging’ efforts involved dressing in my cute weekend flats and exchanging a few somewhat-hard-earned pounds for a rustic paper bag filled with clean wild garlic leaves and flowers.
Now that I’ve turned my life on its head, I have access to real foraging opportunities, like ramps and morels and lamb’s quarters, presumably with which the whole woods around me is teeming. The problem with real foraging is that you have to know about, like, trees and plants and soil and stuff.
Now I have to admit something to you, which is a little embarrassing and I’m reluctant to say it so plainly, so lean in closer and promise you won’t tell anyone. If you put me in a room—I mean, a forest—full of trees, and asked me to identify even a single one, I couldn’t do it. I could point out a few bits of poison ivy in Georgia, or name a few wildflowers, but if you forced me to show you an elm or a hickory, you’d better not hold your breath.
The Husband finds this incomprehensible and is constantly asking me questions about the American landscape that I have simply never considered. Things like ‘what kind of bird is that, in the Maple to the left—no, the LEFT—higher, higher. No, look where I am pointing, higher, oh never mind.’
My interest in foraging may seem incongruous with such blatant gaps in my knowledge, but perhaps that is part of the appeal. Every time I consider that I could just take a walk in the woods and come home with something to eat, I feel a sharp sense of disbelief, followed by the sneaking urge to try. All I need is someone who knows about things, who can help point me in the right direction. What I need is a guru.
Enter the cousin. Cuz is a wild man—he keeps birds of prey, hunts ducks, kills wild turkeys, and eradicates skunks with a bow and arrow. He shot a moose earlier this year. I figured he’s just the guy to tell me what I need to know, like “where are all the morels?”
This is really the most pressing question in my life right now, since the window is short and I haven’t got a clue where to look. A kind twitter person told me to look near dead and dying hardwoods in alkaline soil, but I didn’t have the heart to explain that to me this description sounds something like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon doling out homework to Charlie and Lucy.
Cuz has been thinking about where to look for mushrooms, but in the meantime has been leading me by the hand through some other foraging opportunities. A few days ago, he parked his truck on the side of a busy road, and led us into the woods, up a steep hill, over the train tracks, and down another hill into a marshy river bed. Climbing up out of the chalky soil were dozens of clumps of ostrich ferns, still unfurled and covered in papery brown chaff.
We collected a bagful of fiddleheads and headed home. Since Hubs and I’d never tasted them, we figured we should do something simple the first time around. We sautéed them with a little garlic, salt, and pepper—nothing more. They taste like asparagus, but milder, and with a slight earthiness. The next night I sautéed the remaining fiddleheads and made a hollandaise sauce to go with them. It worked perfectly, and though we meant to only eat half the sauce (since it is made of an entire stick of butter), unfortunately our hands slipped and we were forced to eat it all. Shame.
Knowing that the season is short, I planned to pickle some fiddleheads as well, and got my ingredients and canning jars all ready to go. I went back to The Spot, to find…nothing. Clump after clump of former fiddlehead, either sprouted or picked clean. I walked deeper into the woods and managed to find a few, but sadly over the course of a few days, I missed the boat.
No matter—we got two good meals out of them and two jars of pickles, which I am looking forward to chopping up into a salsa verde or incorporating into a nice trans-Atlantic ploughman’s. And I learned my first real lesson in foraging, which is to enjoy your success as you would a vase of cut flowers, and then move on.
Here are a few tips in case you find your own:
- Pick the heads when they are still tight and low to the ground. Avoid any that have started to unfurl.
- The first time you go, take someone who knows what they’re looking for. I am definitely not an expert, and there are poisonous varieties out there.
- You are only after ostrich ferns, identified by their brown papery coating and a v-shaped ridge in the stem. Do not eat any that are covered in fur.
- Be polite, and leave a few for the next guy.
Sautéed Fiddleheads with Hollandaise
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 T vinegar
- 1 T cold water
- 1/2 cup clarified butter
- 1 T lemon juice
- 2 cups clean fiddleheads
- 1 T olive oil or butter
The sauce: In a double boiler, whisk egg yolk, vinegar, and water until it looks smooth and creamy. One drop at a time, whisk in the butter. Go very slowly, especially in the beginning. Once an emulsion starts to form and your sauce starts thickening up, you can add the butter a little faster.
Be sure not to let the sauce get too hot or the egg will curdle. I like to take it off the heat every now and then as I go to prevent this. If the sauce is getting too thick, you can add another T of water to loosen it up again.
Once the butter is all incorporated into the sauce, take it off the heat and stir in lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
The fiddleheads: First, pick the brown chaff off of the fiddleheads while they’re still dry, then put them in a colander and rinse them very well in cold water.
Over medium heat, put a little oil or butter in a frying pan. Add the fiddleheads, a little salt and pepper, and sautée for 2-3 minutes.
- 1 lb. fresh fiddleheads
- 8-12 shallots, roughly sliced
- 4-6 cloves garlic, roughly sliced
- zest of 1 lemon, cut into strips
- handful fresh dill
- 1 t whole peppercorns
- 1 1/2 cups vinegar
- 1 1/2 cups water
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 T salt
First, pick the brown chaff off of the fiddleheads while they’re still dry, then put them in a colander and rinse them very well in cold water.
In clean canning jars, layer the shallots, garlic, fiddleheads, dill, and lemon peel, packing everything down into the jars until you reach the top. Drop a few peppercorns in each jar.
Heat the vinegar, water, lemon juice, salt, and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Pour the mixture over the fiddleheads, to about 1/4 inch below the lip of the jar. Screw the lids on each jar and put them upright into a large pot of boiling water. Cover the pot and leave to sterilize for 10 minutes.
Remove jars from the boiling water, double check that the lids are on tight, and let cool. Your pickles should be ready to eat in 3 weeks’ time.