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Leather Storrs: Foraging for Food

Thursday, March 12, 2015

 

It is no longer enough to butcher whole animals, make cheese, pickles, preserves and charcuterie. If you’ve got on a $100 apron (ironed, un-ironic) over your polyester dishwasher shirt (ironic, un-ironed) you better be picking stuff in the woods. 

Thanks to Rene Redzepi of NOMA in Copenhagen, Denmark, the next level of sophistication in dining is not sophisticated. It’s wild food, foraged from woods and streams within a drive of the restaurant. And thanks to an unusually warm winter in Oregon, foraging season is upon us. I might have been late to the party had my wife not run into our friend Henry who asked her “What are you guys doing with nettles?” Her blank stare elicited surprise and a good natured jab: “C’mon Leath! They’ve been up for two weeks.”

So I type these words with tingling fingers, having ridden my bike yesterday to a nearby trail where I picked stinging nettles with inappropriate gloves. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be out foraged. Did I mention I rode my bike, Henry?

Many of us get into foraging via mushrooms- a grown up Easter egg hunt with real consequences. I am CRAZY for mushrooming. One time, foraging with another chef, his kids and mine, we came upon a huge patch of chanterelles and a beehive. The bees stung my son, but I couldn’t be bothered, so I handed him to the Chef/Dad and frantically continued to pick mushrooms. I don’t know what’s worse- the fact that I didn’t look after my boy, or the fact that my friend expected my behavior. Apparently psilocybin is not the only compound in mushrooms that messes with your brain.

The allure of foraging for us notoriously cheap chefs is more than the promise of free ingredients. Foraging allows a chef to sync himself to the seasons and understand his region in a tangible way. Further, it is a tool to both distinguish a restaurant’s cuisine and anchor it to a place.

The French refer to this unique sense of place as “terroir”: climate, geography and geology have an impact on what grows where and how that food tastes. Cuisine is distinguished by a shared vocabulary, but serving food that grows near your restaurant is like speaking in a local dialect.  

The seasonal vocabulary of the Northwest is moving towards shoots, greens and spores. Tender fiddleheads from native ferns, juicy hosta tips, tart sheep sorrel, vegetal chickweed and earthy morels are popping up in forests and on menus.

The East Coast is still grudgingly resigned to snow cones, but soon enough wild garlic, ostrich fern, winter cress, dandelion, Jerusalem artichokes, nettles and ramps will peek out from under their chilly blanket.

Participating in the finding and consumption of wild foods from your region connects you to the land. Eating wild foods on your travels gives you an additional tool for understanding the differences and similarities between where you are and where you live. As always, consume wild foods with great caution. There are old foragers and bold foragers, but there are no old, bold foragers!

 

Leather Storrs has served 20 years in professional kitchens. He owns a piece of two restaurants: Noble Rot and Nobleoni, where he yells and waves arms. He quietly admits to having been a newspaper critic in Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon.  

 

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