Foraging for food is an opportunity to reconnect to our hunter-gatherer roots and reconnect with the land. And fall is just the time to pause and recognize the marvel of a bountiful harvest.
1. Neighborhood Delicacies
Bonnie Alter over at Treehugger suggests rooting around your neighborhood for edible treats. But time is limited - get out there before the first frost. Some of the tastiest - and the easiest to track down - are:
A) Dandelions. Their young and tender leaves are delicious in salads. The roots are a Japanese delicacy, roasted, processed and drunk like coffee.
B) Bulrushes, those familiar marshy plants that most of us stick in a vase, have young shoots that can be eaten raw, poached or roasted.
C) Berries. If you happen to live in British Columbia, watch out for salal berries, also dark blue but the size of a cranberry and delicious in jams. Alternatively, elderflowers and the berries, elderberries, are well known for the wine that can be made and the pies and jams.
2. Mushroom Hunting
But if you are eager to set off for the woods, bring along a basket in which to gather mushrooms. Scavenging for wild fungi is an art - and there's nothing so delicious for an autumn supper as a pristine puffball or a cache of chanterelles. Thriller writer Nicci Gerrard recently wrote a story for The Observer describing the particular thrill of hunting for mushrooms:
Picking mushrooms goes beyond the pleasure of food for free. In part this is because you never know if you are going to find them. You know where the raspberry and blueberry bushes are, but not where the ceps will be.
Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that you have to learn about mushrooms. It's not just anyone who can go out and pick them. It's a skill (although not a very hard skill if you only reach the level of someone like me, with a handful of types I can recognise without a shadow of a doubt).
But I also think that the repellence of mushrooms, their closeness to dead animal flesh and indeed their danger, is part of the pleasure - like eating blowfish. If you go blackberry-picking, you don't worry that the crumble you cook later might cause you to vomit or your kidneys to pack up on you. Mushrooms, on the other hand, are a food that's close to poison.
3. Urban Foraging
Alternatively, Fallen Fruit, an activist art project which started in Los Angeles and maps "public fruit" throughout the city - and the world - encourages the newfangled concept of urban foraging. While collecting watercress from a remote river is a fun, pilfering passion fruits from a public park offers luscious produce scented with the whiff of mischief. Fallen Fruit encourages "everyone to harvest, plant and sample public fruit, which is what we call all fruit on or overhanging public spaces such as sidewalks, streets or parking lots." They "believe fruit is a resource that should be commonly shared, like shells from the beach or mushrooms from the forest." The organization not only maps existing fruit trees but has also recently begun planning and proposing fruit parks for under-utilized urban areas.
4. Apple Picking
Apple picking is one of the most popular ways to get outside and get your hands a little dirty collecting nourishment. While the most eco-friendly version of this activity would inherently involve planting your own trees, taking a field trip to an orchard where you pay-to-pick is not a terrible way to go. Ideally, carpool or take public transportation to reach one of these often far-flung destinations, and of course check to see whether the fruit in question is organic or was at least least raised using minimal pesticides (i.e. "low-spray" techniques). The best way to do this is to simply call the farmer and ask, because small-scale organic or even biodynamic operations often forgo certification as a way to cut costs - or to avoid being associated with the increasingly mainstream and diluted definition of "organic".
To find an orchard in your area where you can pick your own, head over to Pick Your Own, which has a list of apple festivals and family orchards by state. Rural Bounty sorts orchards and small farms by fruit type, which is handy if you're hoping to score a Halloween pumpkin along with those apples. You can also limit your search to only organic farms. Rachel Brown of Plenty highlights some of the perks of picking your own:
Buying on-site has the same benefits as buying local produce from a farmers market, because your money goes directly to the farmer. The price for picking your own top-quality, fresh, heirloom apples compares favorably with buying them in the store, and usually, it's significantly cheaper: Center Grove Orchard in Iowa, for example, sells their apples at a peck (12 pounds) for $12. If you don't want to go it alone, wrassle up a posse of friends and family, or arrange a field trip for your child's class; Bowman Orchards in New York gives group tours for just $9 per person, including a 3-pound sack to fill up at the end.
Apple picking is both a fun fall weekend activity, and a practical opportunity to stock up on fruit. Pick-your-own orchards often feature heirloom or unusual varietals - from Rome Beauty to Rusty Coat - whose highly nuanced flavor and homely appearances bear little resemblance to the gleaming yet dull tasting Red Delicious, unfortunately the most widely eaten apple in America. If you're lucky enough to have a cool cellar, you might take the opportunity to stock up for the winter. If not, apples keep well in the fridge, and having a bountiful supply on hand will surely inspire much pie baking and even cider vinegar making. Jennifer M. raves about the bright quality of this vinegar over at The Ethicurian:
The first whiff changed my mind about vinegar completely. This stuff was real, alive, and practically dancing its bubbly way around me, making me dizzy with delight. This vinegar actually smelled like apples and fresh cider, a realization that startled me. (Yes, I know that cider vinegar is made from letting cider ferment over several months. But the store-bought vinegar I'd always used before never offered that real connection for me.)
Fermentation enthusiast Sourdough Monkey Wrangler suggests hard cider as an appealing option. He outlines his fairly simple process here.