Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: Calories for the Soul

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday.  On this day we celebrate nothing more than family, food, and friends.  The tradition of eating native foods like turkey, Cranberries (Oxycoccus spp.), and others explicitly recognizes the ecological communities that nourish us.  These lessons solidified in my mind about 12 years ago when my best friend Sam ( began hosting a completely wild food Thanksgiving.  The venison roast, mashed Wapato, and Wild Rice were not only incredibly delicious—as we ate, we listened to Sam tell us where he had harvested each food and we honored the land with our conversation—they nourished us in a much more profound way.

For many people, the food element of Thanksgiving has become abstracted with store bought, industrially produced, agricultural commodities, which have little connection to land, a particular ecosystem, or the sacred act of human harvest.  While I always long to be back at Sam’s table for Thanksgiving, this will be the first year in several that I am able to spend the Holiday with my own family.  I will bring some of my best wild edibles to the table and in the spirit of Sam, share some calories for the soul.
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Progress with Bracken Ferns

A 7' long Bracken Fern

More Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) experimenting….  I harvested several rhizomes from Dad’s property in rich loose soil under Red Alder (Alnus rubra).    The fronds are mostly dead and are starting to topple over.  I stretched one upward to its full extent and it measured 7’ tall.  The rhizomes are also quite large, but I wasn’t able to unearth an entire one although I got a few pieces that were more than 2’ long.  I washed the rhizomes and brought them home to cook.  I initially steamed about 1/3 of the rhizomes for an hour.  When they cooled they had a molasses like aroma and I peeled one with a carrot peeler and found the peelings to be very sticky on the inner surfaces.  Without further preparation I chewing on the rhizome and found the initial flavor sweet.  As I chewed an unpleasant bitter flavor dominated and I spat it all out.  So far the smell and the taste are similar to my limited experiences with Wood Fern (Dryopteris expansa) rhizomes.

Bracken Fern rhizome cross section
Using the base of a heavy wooden spoon, I pounded the remaining portion of the peeled rhizome and was easily able to separate the dark central fibers from the rest of the rhizome.  I picked through the pounded rhizome strands and tasted some pieces that didn’t have any dark fibers and found their flavor agreeable, which leads me to believe that the bitter flavor is concentrated in the dark colored fibers in the rhizome.  I finally feel like I am making some progress on the Bracken Fern front.

Peeled Bracken Fern rhizome
I continued steaming the remaining rhizomes from my first batch for another hour and peeled them.  They now have a smell reminiscent of potato chips.  I will let them dry for a day or two in the hope that the dry starch will pulverize into flour while the dark fibers remain intact enough to be separated with a sieve.

Pounded Bracken Fern rhizome
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Acorn Cracking Davebilt Style

Mark next to his Hazelnut dryer
Our Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) and English Oak (Quercus robur) acorns had been drying for several weeks on baking sheets and the time was finally right for cracking them.  I called up Mark, a Filbert (Corylus avellana) farmer based in Everson to see if I could use his Davebilt hand crank nut cracker to remove the shells from all of our acorns.  He welcomed us over and we went down to his shop to get the nutcracker.  He showed me an extremely heavy duty, stainless steel, 1.5 hp, electric nutcracker that he has just finished fabricating to keep up with the growing production of his orchard.  

The Davebilt gobbling our acorns
Many of his tools would easily translate over to acorn harvesting.  He is working on some padded hooks for shaking the nuts out of the tree branches; he has sieves to sort the nuts into different sizes; and a large forced air nut drying box to dehydrate the nuts to 9 percent; and of course, he has those dandy nutcrackers.

Smoked Chum Salmon
Using the Davebilt, we cracked our 28 lbs of dried Garry Oak acorns and 12 lbs of dried English Oak acorns in about an hour.  It was difficult to say for sure how long the process took because I kept on picking Mark’s brain for more information about his orchard.  We left with a 10 lbs bag of his Barcelona variety Hazelnuts that only cost $30!  As a token of gratitude for letting us use his Davebilt, I gave him some of the Chum that I just finished smoking.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Salmon Fishing

The day awoke clear and cold.  A thick frost glowed with un-warming light on the grass and chimney smoke puffed from glazed roofs in our neighborhood.  As I scrambled to gobble down Katrina’s home-made granola and get out the door to meet my dad for our fishing trip, I noticed large clouds on the horizon and donned another sweater and packed my rain jacket.  The last time we went fishing it rained the whole time, and with the cold temperatures, I was really hoping it wouldn’t do the same today.  

I met Dad at his house and he was already prepared to go.  Fishing rods packed, and boat trailer hitched, we set out northward to Canada to fish Chum Salmon on the Vedder Canal.  The Vedder River used to connect the Fraser River to Sumas Lake until the 1920s when the 15 square mile lake was drained to open up more land for agriculture.  Despite all the alterations to this river system, several fish species manage to survive in its waters.  Two months ago we fished Pinks and later in the winter we might return to fish Steelhead.

We arrived to find the boat launch parking lot completely empty which made us wonder if we were going to find any fish, but we launched anyway and motored down the Vedder to its confluence with the Fraser.  The river was full of bird life including Mergansers, Herring Gulls, Western Grebes, Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles but we didn’t see a single fish jump.  Without much optimism we slowly made our way back up the river and just when we both decided to pack up and try a different river, a large Chum jumped.  Suddenly the fish were everywhere, but it took us about 45 minutes to figure out how to catch them.  We used strike indicators and weighted flies to fish deep in the pools where they were resting.  I hooked into the first fish, but after a couple minutes it broke off on the anchor line while I was reaching for the net.  Then Dad showed me who was boss by catching about 5 fish while I struggled for another bite.  In the end, he landed about 8 and I landed 3; we killed 4.  On the drive home, Mt. Cheam looked glorious with snow dusting the forested slopes.

I filleted the salmon and froze one, put half in the fridge to eat fresh, and will smoke the other 2 ½ tomorrow.  It is gratifying to have another positive calorie day after a string of days hunting only for apartments.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mentors and Moving

These last few days have been filled with more good-byes.  Friday I traveled up to Qualicum Beach to see a very important person in my life, Kwaxsistalla, a Kwakwaka’wakw Clan Chief, who has taught me an extraordinary amount about the traditional food ways of his clan.  Nancy introduced me to Kwaxsistalla almost exactly four years ago and I can still hear him singing the traditional Soapberry (Shepherdia canadensis) whipping song that he sang for us that evening, and I vividly remember him teaching us about his favorite way to eat frost softened Crabapples (Malus fusca).  My visit Friday was different than my countless other visits where my goal was to apprentice with Kwaxsistalla and trade my labor for his traditionally-styled education which comprised of on-the-land instruction and storytelling.  Today, my visit was for the purpose of telling him that I was moving.  It wasn’t exactly a goodbye, although I am moving away, and he is of a venerable age.  I still plan on seeing him again.  I mostly wanted to use the occasion to tell him how much he means to me and let him know how important he has been to my understanding of indigenous foods.  I have been lucky enough to participate in the harvesting and preservation of  food, not as part of some eccentric counter-cultural desire, but as part of a timeless tradition of food sovereignty.  More important than these experiences, were the life lessons that he taught me, such as the meaning of family, and the importance of place; he showed me generosity, he inspired humility, and he gave me the courage to speak what was in my heart.

My other great mentor over these past four years has been my Master’s Supervisor, Nancy Turner.  On Wednesday she took me out for dinner and I did my best to impart to her my feelings of gratitude for her wonderful example, inspirational character, and overwhelming generosity.  Over the years she has even showed me some of her favorite berry patches and mushroom-picking grounds.

Yesterday we loaded up the balance of our belongings (my dad took all of our books earlier) and narrowly caught the ferry to the mainland.  We arrived in Bellingham in the middle of a rainstorm, but with the ferry and border crossings behind us, the worst part of the move is over.  We are watching a friend’s dog for the next few weeks while we look for a place to live- hopefully someplace with a big pantry.
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Monday, November 7, 2011

Wild Food Feast!

Katrina and I wanted to host a special meal for our friends to let them know how much we appreciate them before we leave Victoria and move to Bellingham.  With 19 mouths to feed, it was by far the largest dinner party that I have ever thrown and I wish I could have invited more people.  We spent the better part of the day preparing food and moving furniture to the venue.  Our menu was as follows:

Homemade Apple cider.
Toasted Sea Palm (Postelsia palmaeformis) and Nori (Porphyra abbotae), Salal (Gaultheria shallon) fruit leather, Kate’s smoked Sockeye Salmon, Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorn bread, Hannah’s homemade bread, Andra's Grapes, and roasted Chestnuts (Castanea sp.).
Cream of White Chanterelle (Cantharellus subalbidus) and Cattail (Typha angustifolia) rhizome soup. 
Ryan’s English Walnut (Juglans regia), Filbert (Corylus sp.) and Cranberry (Oxycoccus oxycoccos) salad. 
Mains Dishes- 
Sam’s Wild Rice (Zizania palustris), roasted Metchosin Farm Pumpkin Squash (Cucurbita sp.), and Ashley’s Trout.
Hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida) pie, Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) cheesecake.

It was really fun cooking the food and not as hard as I imagined it would be, especially because many of our wild foods are stored in a way that makes them easy to use.  We made the desserts the night before with frozen Hawthorne pulp and sweetened, canned Elderberries.  The appetizers were easy, the seaweeds and chestnuts just had to be roasted; the acorns had just finished leaching, so I just drained the water, added maple syrup, and fried for 10 minutes on one side.  The oven was hot, so instead of flipping the bread and frying the other side, I flipped it onto a baking sheet and baked it for 20 more minutes.  The soup required only slightly more work.  We had already fried and frozen the Chanterelles, so all we had to do was thaw and season, but I decided to add cattail rhizome flour, which required pounding the dried cattail rhizomes to separate the fiber from the starch.  Our friends also brought some nice dishes, which was a big help.

The wonderful thing about eating wild foods is that with each bite, we are reminded of the landscapes we harvested from and the people we harvested with.  With so many of my foraging friends at the table, it was a real communion- a sharing of Nature's bread.
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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Capital Nut Tree Project Acorn Workshop

Stalking the elusive acorn

Acorn bread with acorns in different stages of processing in the background
Today I led an acorn workshop for the Capital Nut Tree Project at Playfair Park in Victoria.  I just can’t stay away from that place!  Every time I go back, there are more acorns on the ground, and today was no exception, although many were hidden under the accumulating leaves.  It is a peaceful place to pick, hidden away off of the backstreets.  About 20 inquisitive people showed up and we worked our way through the process of identifying the different species of Oaks in Victoria, selecting healthy acorns, drying, shelling, grinding, leaching, and cooking the acorns.  I brought as many props as I could, so they were able to see dried, shelled, and ground acorns, and smell the delightful acoroma (an acorn aroma worthy of proclaiming ¡ay caramba!).  We started leaching some acorn flour, and I had some leached flour that we cooked on a camp stove for everybody to eat.  I forgot maple syrup, so everybody got to taste the true essence of acorn flavour in the acorn bread.  I haven’t had it plain in a while, and it was better than I remembered.  For more pictures and a nice write-up of the workshop, see Rhona McAdam's website.

Rod, a Playfair Park neighbor enjoying acorn bread
Acorn tannin dissolved in the first (left) and last (right) change of water
The City of Victoria's Agrologist, Kendell, told us about many other nut trees in Victoria.  I learned that layering is the easiest way to propagate nut trees, especially those species that aren’t always true to seed.  All you have to do is weight down and partially bury a low lying branch and then wait a few years for the branch to develop an independent root system.  She also mentioned another Chestnut (Castanea sp.) in Esquimalt, and she brought a number of different species of Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.) that were all from Beacon Hill Park.  I hope I have time in the next few days to go look for them.
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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fall Reflections

The last few days have been pretty quiet on the foraging front.  I made some more apple butter, and have cracked some acorns, but the majority of our efforts have been focused on packing up our apartment.  We are moving to Bellingham.  A chapter in our lives is rapidly coming to a close.  We will both participate in our graduation ceremonies next week and I can’t help but reflect on all that I have learned and all the wonderful people that I have met over the four years that I have lived here.  As a rather trivial measure of my graduate education, I kept a list of all the wild foods that I ate during the four years it took me to finish my Master’s.  The first year I ate 107 different wild foods, 41 of which I had never tried before and 31 of which I had never collected before.  The next year I tried another 25 new foods and collected 14 new foods and the third year I tried 21 new foods and collected for the first time 20 more.  During my last year I tried 13 new foods and collected 9 new foods.  It amazes me how many different things there are to eat in this world—even this bioregion—and still so many that I haven’t tried!  Such a shame that our society mainly eats different combinations of corn, wheat, sugar, and beef!

Katrina and I have endeavored to follow the phenology of Chestnuts (Castanea sativa or C. dentata) closely this year so that we can get the nuts before they fall prey to squirrels or get squashed by car tires.  It hasn’t always been very convenient to bike to the few Chestnut trees in town, but we watched last month as they started dropping empty and immature nuts, and a couple weeks ago, as they started dropping some mature nuts.  Today, a kindred nut from the Victoria Nut Tree project tipped us off about two entire streets lined with Chestnuts that are practically in our backyard!  We stopped by for a quick peek on our way to meet Kate for a hike up Mt. Work and had enough time to grab a couple handfuls of nuts.  In general, the nuts aren’t as large as those we found in Fernwood, but they are more abundant, and it looks like some of the trees have plenty more still to fall.

On our hike up Mt. Work we saw many Bleeding Milk Cap mushrooms (Lactarius rubrilacteus).  Katrina and I have been talking about trying to salt some Milk Caps, but most of the ones we picked today were too buggy to keep.  Near the summit we found some dead camas (Camassia sp.) flowers and I dug down to examine the bulb.  Camas, like many members of the lily family, begins to sprout in the fall.  The sprout overwinters just below the soil frost line, and then emerges and flowers early in the spring.  Here in this mild, wet climate, there are other plants that follow a similar strategy of getting a head start on the spring.  The Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia spp.) have already sprouted and established themselves ahead of the winter.  I hope Katrina and I can establish our roots in fallow soil before it gets too cold as well.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mushroom Hunt

Shin, Andra, Katrina, Scott, and I went mushrooming today out in Metchosin.  It started raining at almost the exact moment we entered the woods, but it wasn’t too bad.  Mushrooms require rain, so part of me was excited about the rain.  We found moderate amounts of White and Yellow Chanterelles (Cantharellus subalbidus and C. cibarius), Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum umbilicatum) and Puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum).  I also picked a few Milkcaps (Lactarius sps.) because I want to get more familiar with that group.  I think the mushroom season may be winding down with all the cool weather we have been having.

Back home we canned some more Apple butter and sauce, and started another batch of Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) acorns leaching.  I ground the acorns in the blender and let the blender go for a long time to try and make the flour as fine as possible.  Acorn flour smells so delicious!  Katrina likened the aroma to graham crackers.   I hope someday to purchase flour sieves so that I can eliminate the course pieces and only the leach the very fine flour.  This would enable me to leach the acorns more quickly, and probably retain more of the flavor.
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Today we got to go Prawn fishing.  Ashley, a UVic Environmental Studies graduate student, works with a local fisherman (named Guy) to collect Prawns for her research every week.  She couldn’t make it out this week, and arranged for us to fill in for her.  Katrina, Kris (another UVic grad student) and I met Guy at his vessel, the Michelle Rose, in Sidney and spent an hour pulling up prawn traps near DFO’s Institute of Ocean Sciences.  Ashley’s research required juvenile Prawns and Guy said that he put the traps in the water just a couple hours earlier because the juveniles enter the traps first; if you leave the traps in too long, the adults drive the juveniles out.  It was really pleasant on the calm water, and Guy was full of interesting stories about the BC Coast.  This trip was for science, not the dinner plate, but it was still fun to learn more about an excellent wild food.  I was also impressed by Guy’s cooperation with conservation scientists like Ashley.  He was not only volunteering his time for the project, but he spoke about the different fisheries that he participates in with the long term invested interest that you would expect from someone whose livelihood is dependent on natural heritage, but for some mysterious reason has failed to manifest itself during some unfortunate periods of our industrial relationship with the earth.

When we got back I decided it was time to start processing the apples that we picked with Ryan yesterday.  I quartered, boiled, and sauced about 1/3 of our apples.  We have about a gallon of sauce in the slow cooker to make some more apple butter and another gallon that still needs to be strained.

Kris invited us over to sushi which featured his smoked Coho Salmon and fried salmon skin.  Then I dropped by Shin and Andra’s house for Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) pie.  It is wonderful having friends that love wild foods!

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