Wild Bark Teas

In the throes of winter, gathering wild food often takes a backseat to using up what we have dried, fermented, frozen, or preserved. On the other hand, for those who hunt, the season has the added dynamic of being far more active. Shellfish, too, are at their prime. For freaks like me there is always the lure of ingredients transformed by the extremes of the season–conifer needles seem especially aromatic. The residual fruits that linger have been bletted to the point that deep, resonant flavors emerge.

But no matter what your winter kicks are, there are still a number of ingredients that have particular resonance in the fourth season. Prime among these are the sapling twigs of various edible / useful trees, which have a haunting aroma and deep flavor, and can be used not just as hot cuppa refreshers, but also as brines and pickling mediums, or infused into stored up goodies like honey, alcohol, wine, salt or sugar.

In winter, the energy of most herbaceous plants is tied up in their roots. But saplings and trees focus on creating buds and new growth, in order to prepare for spring. This makes for a period in which whole new categories of identifying and appreciating the trees of your area become available. It also means that some of these bits are full of flavor and aroma, especially amongst the thickets of saplings one finds with certain native trees, as well as those that are setting buds to flower in early spring, such as spicebush.

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A mature sassafras tree with its warm, lightly reddish bark
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Mature sweet birch tree, with its characteristic grey-black bark.

We won’t go hog wild here, but focus on three trees that I use extensively in the winter, all of whom have very distinct aromas which once you have become accustomed to are unmistakable for any other plant or tree. Patches of these trees are best located during the growing season when you can confirm their identity based on other characteristics such as leaves, fruit, flowers or catkins. Of course, there is also no reason one can’t use the bark year-round, but it is an especially welcome addition to the basket in winter. To check your saplings for smell, crack a fresh bit of new growth so the inner bark is exposed and get a strong whiff of it. If you have a lack of scent, you may have the wrong tree, or perhaps one which is weak and not worth collecting. This is especially the case with lower-hanging branches of older sassafras trees, which often become brittle and weak in flavor as they die off.

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Young, vigorous saplings of sassafras often have a green, bright brown or reddish cast to them. The outer bark slowly begins to become more knotty and textured as well.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidium)

Many foragers know of the incredible taste of sassafras roots, and some will have used the leaves for a seasoning and thickener (known as filé gumbo to Creole cooks), but the vigorous young growth of saplings and twigs have garnered little attention. One is able to approximate the flavor of the root-based tea in a more sustainable fashion by collecting twigs instead of digging up plants, an activity which is also often difficult in the winter months. When gathering sassafras twigs, I look for cleared or semi-maintained areas near a line of mature trees, where one can often find small clumps of young sassafrases growing almost on top of each other. This strategy can be extended to the sweet birch as well, which I tend to collect only when I can find a thicket of them. Sassafras are notoriously weak-rooted trees as well, and one can often find larger specimens toppled after intense storms. In all cases one wants the green or red new growth which is flexible rather than brittle (you will want a pair of bypass pruners to cut these branches, don’t attempt to tear them), and which carries a strong and unmistakeable scent of sassafras. Many compare it to root beer, but I find it a bit more mellow and earthy, less cloyingly sweet than commercially produced soda drinks.

 

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Sweet birch branches range from light brown to almost silvery-black, but all will have narrow leaf buds and an aromatic fragrance like wintergreen.

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta)

Sweet birch trees tend to grow very tall and narrow, seldom having any branches within easy reach. It is best with this tree to locate the small thickets of saplings which will grow, often clustered on sloping ground, near more mature trees. While the adult trees have bark that is almost black, the saplings will be a chocolatey brown to dark grey color, with leaf buds forming in fall and persisting over winter. These buds can be used to make a seasoning salt (as can those of sassafras, or the flower buds of spicebush), but they are also a good indicator of the identity of sweet birch. The saplings tend to grow very straight and upright, with few side branches, never becoming bushy or densely-limbed like spicebush. The scent of the broken twigs is quite similar to wintergreen, and will remind old-timers of traditional birch beer. The taste when brewed is not exactly that of wintergreen, but has a more well-rounded flavor, making for a surprisingly good brine as well as tea. The yellow or golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has a similar smell to the snapped twig, but I find its’ flavor to be more on the bitter side when brewed. You may wish to experiment more than I if this tree is common in your area, I have very little of it so tend to leave it alone.

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Female spicebush branch-notice the golden buds which will become yellow flowers in early spring. Spicebush bark is grey, with characteristic “dots” on the bark and an unmistakeable fragrance of resinous, spicy goodness.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Those who know me know spicebush is a plant I am an insane raving lunatic advocate for. In my area it is most abundant, one of the few natives to have survived the onslaught of invasive plants, canes and shrubs that have slowly taken over our hardwood understory. It is a four-season edible, and probably bears a lot of the responsibility for why I am an advocate of winter foraging. It has a completely distinct scent, but you have to smell it to know it. The most common use by foragers for this bushy shrub has been the ripe fruit, collected and dried in fall to make a kind of “allspice” type seasoning. There are many more ways to use it. In winter, I mostly collect the branches from public parks and maintained trails–spicebush will grow in abundance along the edges of biking and hiking trails, so I try to keep my branch collection to the spots where these bushes will inevitably have to be trimmed and truncated by park officials. I like to think that some of them wonder why their job has already been done, but more likely than not they don’t give it a second thought. If you are wanting to collect flowers of spicebush in the spring, or fruits in summer and fall, I recommend collecting only limbs of male trees, which do not have visible flowerbuds developing. If you do collect female limbs, consider stripping the tiny spherical flowerbuds to make capers or a seasoning salt.

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Sweet birch branch brewing up into an excellent winter tea.

Wild Bark Teas and Brines

Any of these three trees will make an excellent tea, a process best done in either a stockpot held at very low heat or a slow-cooker on warm or low setting. I greatly prefer the slow-cooker method. It is easy, stress and attention-free, and I never have to worry about the process boiling over. While I don’t think any real damage is done to the nutrition of the tea by boiling (unlike conifer needle teas, which lose their Vitamin C content), it does no favor to the flavor, and generally increases the bitterness of the end product. One thing that certainly must be done, whether making this tea in a slow-cooker or on a stovetop, is to strain the finished tea through cheesecloth or clean kitchen towels. Wild barks tend to have saponins in them which will concentrate on the surface of the tea (they will look like small amoebas or spots of fat), but these are easily removed by straining through cloth. I use the same ratio of liquid to twigs/bark that I use when making coniferous trees, about 1 oz. of material for every 3 cups of water. The same 1:3 ratio applies naturally for a metric measure, I tend to use 200 g for every 600 g of liquid. Note that this is weight of dry ingredients vs. liquid measure for water.

The resulting tea can be drunk as is, chilled or mixed with sugar and chilled, salted and turned into a pickle brine (use 3-5% salinitiy depending on your ingredients to be fermented), or salted and used to brine meats (especially good with pork) or other ingredients for cooking (usually you will want more like 8% salinity, with the amount of time resting in the brine depending on the weight and muscle density of the product being brined). They make excellent kombuchas, either combined 50/50 with tea or raspberry/blackberry leaf Kombucha, or in their own right with a SCOBY and a bit of active kombucha simply added to the wild bark tea. I have enjoyed single flavor teas and brines made with only one of the above mentioned teas, and I have also used two or all of the barks combined to make a complex, multiple bark tea.

If you have a slow-cooker with a warm setting or a clippable thermometer you can also create a basis for a wild yeast beer or mead by making this tea, just be sure to keep the temperature below 140 degrees F, at which point the wild yeast which is abundant in the bark will be killed off. Another option is to replace water in a brew boil with wild bark tea, and then cool before pitching with conventional brewing yeast.

All three of these wild barks also make excellent syrups, individually or combined, which can be started as a simple syrup (1:1 sugar to bark tea or 2:1 sugar to bark tea), but which can also become sorbets or granitas, or indeed the branches may be infused in milk for ice creams or gelati. Infusions in wine or spirits also produce strong results, although for sassafras extract (comparable to a vanilla extract) I tend to prefer the roots for maximum concentration of flavor.

Cold brewing and infusing with these barks is also an option, but I have had much more success with them used as aromatic components in a botanical mix (for vermouth, bitters, or honey-based infusions) as opposed to a “sun tea” or cold-brewed tea which I do not think extracts enough flavor and is certainly more dicey health-wise. I suggest a hot brew to create a liquid base and then proceeding from there in all applications using wild bark.

Perhaps obvious to some, but certainly worth mentioning : since all these thin saplings and twigs are harmless in every way for food use, so they also make excellent kebab skewers! As a child, I used to gnaw on sweet birch sticks and even today a little nibble of sassafras or spicebush bark can provide stimulation on a long winters hike.

Acorn Preparation, Hot Water Method

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Earlier this autumn, I wrote a few posts on Instagram (@mallorylodonnell) about processing acorns using the hot-water leaching method. I felt they were worth repeating on here, especially as a mild season has meant there are still viable acorns out there to collect. In any case, here is my hot-water method for leaching acorns of their tannins.

First, you must collect your acorns. Choose freshly-dropped acorns that look clean and feel firm and heavy for their size. Avoid acorns with one or more of the following characteristics : a white patina, green or yellow coloring, caps still attached, holes (caused by the exit, not entrance, of a grub), or excessive dark or bright coloration. Sprouted acorns are perfectly acceptable. While there is a definite variance in bitterness between white oak group and red oak group acorns, the most important concern for collecting acorns is their freshness and quality. Size matters too – bigger acorns mean less work. For to be sure, there is much work ahead. First wash the acorns, then cover them with water – those that float are to be discarded.

The second step is shelling the acorns. I am completely convinced I have the best method for doing this. I heat up a cast iron pan with one layer of acorns until they are fairly warm and starting to discolor (from brown to an orange-brown). Then I remove the pan from the heat and crush each acorn the way I would a fat clove of garlic, with the base of my hand pushing down on the base of my knife pushing down on an acorn. The acorn will split naturally in two, and if you’ve steamed it enough in the cast iron pan the dark brown film (like the skin of an almond) around the acorn will come off with the shell. Discard or cut the bad bits off of any imperfect acorns such as those with small holes or black spots. Acorns can also be shelled after being briefly blanched in boiling water or even without any preparation, but I find mine to be the easiest and fastest method.

The third step is leaching the acorns. This is necessary to remove tannins from the acorns for both health and flavor considerations. There are hot and cold methods, we will cover the hot one here.

Fill your largest pot with water and bring to a boil. At the same time bring a smaller pot to a boil. I usually fill the second pot about halfway. Add your viable, peeled acorns (steps 1 and 2) to the second pot and boil until the water becomes quite dark (Euell Gibbons says “tea-colored” but think black tea). Drain the acorns. Do not wash the acorns or clean them with cold water, but you can let them sit between rounds of boiling. Put the drained acorns in the now empty second pot and add some boiling water from the large first pot. I try not to use a huge quantity of water for each round of this, maybe twice as much as the amount of acorns. Repeat this process until the acorns are a chocolate brown and have no bitterness in their taste. I usually find this takes around 3-5 changes of water for sweeter acorns and usually a few more for the bitterest ones. Generally speaking white oaks and live oaks are sweeter, red and black oaks more bitter.

Once the acorns are leached, you may chop or use whole in any way you would use nuts. Bear in mind, they contain less oil than tree nuts, so they will be somewhat drier and crumblier. You can also grind them to a meal (or flour, if you will) and mix with other meals or flours in baked goods (remembering that acorn meal will have no gluten). The whole or chopped nuts or flour can also be roasted or sun dried, the acorns will turn nearly black if one does this.

I encourage everyone who is interested in wild food to prepare acorns. It is hard work but absolutely worth it. While preparing them you may wish to consider the many generations of humanity for whom this was a necessary activity – acorns were a staple food long before cultivated rice and wheat. But most of all they taste great and have a flavor which has no real substitute.

How to Cook a Weed

2014-08-19_1408488617How to Cook a Weed takes its’ title from one of the greatest and most strange of American food books, the 1942 volume How to Cook a Wolf, written by the inimitable MFK Fisher. Released during the era of wartime rationing, it contains innumerable recipes, philosophies and approaches to living not only well but elegantly while stretching budgets and pinching pennies. The heart of this work touches something that has always been close to me : making the best of limited resources.

I won’t spend much more time singing the praises of Fisher and her masterpiece (believe me, there will be enough and plenty to come), but rather extrapolate on why that volume relates to our work here.

On the surface, this site is about foraging and using wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and medicines in the pursuit of a thrifty, healthy, green lifestyle without forsaking elegance or the pleasures of the table. This is the world of cucina povera–the cooking of the poor and the working classes. The best, most heart and soul-warming cooking there is. It is about making the most of what we have, and maybe realizing that we had more than we thought. There will be more attention paid here to the multiple uses and benefits of plants and mushrooms, and responsible and delicious ways to use and grow them, than botany lessons or identification guides. There will always be some identification content but this site is not intended to cover that well-trodden ground. Many have already done it much better than I ever could.

On a deeper level, this site is about re-examining our use of the food resources we already have, and understanding our responsibility should we choose to use the additional wild produce provided by our environment. Our culture is one of waste and gross negligence. I won’t be spending much time harping about that, again, other people have done it much better. What we are interested in here is solutions, ways in which we can rethink our environment from the woods we take a hike in to the yards and gardens of our own houses.

We have fought against the wildlings. We pay people to spray them with chemicals or pull them from the ground. Some of them might not be so bad. Some of them might even be a whole lot better than the denatured spinach in a plastic bag you plunk down your hard-earned cash for.

It’s time to let the wildlings in.

It’s time we learned how to cook a weed.

Why Forage?

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A natural enough question to ask nowadays, and as good a one as any to get the ball rolling.

Really, though, why do anything we don’t have to do? The need to make an effort to prolong our own existence has in many ways been taken out of our hands in the modern era. Sure, we still need to do something in order to survive – whether it is to work a 9 to 5 or simply go on the dole. Neither of which, to be honest, is usually much fun. Nor does it create a sense of engagement or excitement in our minds, having replaced those desirable states with a world-weary awareness of mundanity and toil. In both cases, the direct relationship between our work and our sustenance has been largely removed, replaced by a system of exchange based on pieces of paper. Fairly quickly on, the process of learning and changing and growing each season or each day in order to provide for ourselves becomes merely a matter of maintaining the status quo. Challenging our assumptions has been taken off the menu, so to speak.

The short answer to the question why forage? Because it is engaging, and it is exciting. It represents a contrast. The effort of procuring food from ones’ environs is far more interesting than your average trip to the supermarket. Walking in the woods or scanning the perimeter of an abandoned field is a dynamic, stimulating activity. Cruising supermarket aisles is just never going to be that interesting, no matter how colorful or unique the produce. And truth be told, most of the time we’re not looking at produce. We’re picking up boxes and wondering, can I eat this? Is this… real? The short answer to that is that it isn’t. And the effort involved in creating that type of food-like product places demands on our environment that we really have yet to fully comprehend. Even the whole foods that we rightly tout such as grains and vegetables have often been flown or shipped at great expense, not to mention harvested using questionable gas-burning machines and chemicals and equally questionable labor practices.

The long answer to the question why forage? Well, it’s long. Let’s break it down.

1) Foraging is what we have always done. You might not remember, but your mother remembers. And if she doesn’t than your grandmother remembers. And if she doesn’t… well you can’t go too far back before you come across someone in your family who did. They might not be around anymore, but nearly everyone did one kind of foraging or gathering in the era before refrigeration. It is a tangible connection with our past, as real as looking through old photos or visiting ancestry.com. And one doesn’t need documents on paper to establish this connection. Simply put, if you know where your ancestors lived then you can figure out in pretty short order what they grew and gathered and ate. And guess what? It’s the same stuff you can grow and gather and eat today, maybe even if you don’t live in the same place (one thing we can thank the modern era for). Now that’s a real connection.

2) Foraging is educational. I know, I know, learning things is supposed to be boring. That’s what our society keeps telling us. We parrot a notion of education being important but we constantly treat those who seek after knowledge with a kind of disdain. I’ve never been able to comprehend it–for me learning has always been exciting, and the idea that I would ever know all the “answers” is a foreign one. One of the most exciting things about plants and mushrooms is that NO ONE will ever know everything about them. Not even in the narrowest sense. The incredible diversity of plants and fungi even within small geographical area is nothing short of staggering. The thought that as intensely as I have studied these matters, I will NEVER run out of new things to learn is a constant inspiration to me. Rather than making me feel like it renders the whole endeavor pointless, it is precisely this that keeps me going. I will never know everything, but perhaps one day I will have a real comprehension of how deep my ignorance is. It’s a humbling and fascinating process.

3) Foraging is free (mostly). Anybody else seriously sick of paying money for every damn thing? I know I am. I’ve never been a serious breadwinner, preferring to concentrate on things that make me feel happy and fulfilled rather than ones that fill my bank account. Nine times out of ten when I leave the house these days I return having not spent a dime. This doesn’t please me for any miserly reason, in fact the money I’ve saved usually ends up being given to local farmers or artisans, plunked down in exchange for vegetables that I can’t or don’t grow, or fine local cheeses or honey or craft goods. Supplementing what I grow or forage with local, responsibly farmed goods is one of the big plusses that keeps me on the trail, in the garden, and–most importantly–out of the supermarket.

4) Foraging opens your eyes. Most people unfamiliar with forage think that it involves a lot of time spent in the woods and wilderness, being rugged and outdoorsy and climbing up trees for berries and so on. It really doesn’t. Most of what we gather comes from our own backyards, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s one of the first things you learn, especially if you begin by walking with a local expert or trustworthy enthusiast. Edible plants are EVERYWHERE. Humble, delicious wild plants are especially most abundant where human activity has left a deep mark–what we planties usually refer to as “disturbed ground.” And this eye-opening doesn’t extend to just knowledge of edible plants. After all, knowing what is edible means knowing what isn’t. And the knowledge of plants becomes very quickly the knowledge of trees, of fungi and mosses, of stone and soil types, in short the knowledge of ecosystems. People who focus on ecology are quick to hammer home the complexity and variety of the systems that they study, but they rarely seem interested (typical bane of the specialist) in communicating how ABUNDANTLY CLEAR many of these systems are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how a transition forest grows and changes, and what the native and invasive plants are, and what kinds of relationships emerge. It only takes someone who is willing to look at the world with open eyes, filled with wonder and free of preconceptions. And the more you look, the more you forage, the more you will see.

5) Foraging is healthy. Not only does it quite often involve good exercise, it also means collecting plants which are nutritional powerhouses. The simple, oft-cursed stinging nettle delivers a level of vitamin content that should have commercially-grown spinach quaking in its’ chemically-enhanced boots. Even without really getting involved in the true medicinal plants or the medicinal aspects of wild edible plants, the pure nutritional content of this free and abundant food should be enough to stimulate the interest of anyone who would like to live more healthfully. Of course, our society likes to steer those people towards expensive supplements and vitamins, in short, manufactured goods. Unfortunately, most of what you will pick up at health food stores is just as manufactured and processed as regular dry goods, only sold at even more of a premium to enchant those who think good health comes with a hefty price tag. In fact, the humble violet (which grows rampantly in both yards and woods in my area every spring) contains four times as much Vitamin C in its leaves and blossoms as an orange and a full complement of Vitamin A to boot (over 100% of our daily need in one half-cup of cooked greens). This is but one of a multitude of examples, most of which are probably a lot closer to your neighborhood than the remote locales in which many medicinal botanical ingredients are grown.

There are an abundance of reasons to forage. There are also some reasons not to, but I don’t mean that in a categorical sense. Rather, there are times when one needs to know when to leave well enough alone, for reasons of pollution, law or ecology. That concept will be addressed in another article, for now it is enough to say that there are a multitude of pros and most of our cons are the result of habituation. Foraging seems strange and unnecessary to most modern Westerners, but a hundred years ago our own ancestors would have found our attitudes puzzling. In fact, many moderns in cultures outside our own and outside of the large mega-cities would simply shake their heads and carry on supplementing their lives with free and abundant healthful plants.