Wild Food Wisdom

October 11, 2016

“Hunter-gathers, by nature, store information for use, understanding that there may be a time when information is scarce.”
― Brian C. O’Connor

“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself.”
– Henry David Thoreau

“We can begin the restructuring of thought by declaring legitimate what we have denied for so long. Lets us declare Nature to be legitimate. The notion of illegal plants is obnoxious and ridiculous in the first place.”
― Terence McKenna


It’s no secret that The Artist and I love to be out in nature foraging for our food.

We often try (and enjoy) many wild foods that most people don’t eat and wouldn’t think of trying. So far this year we have tried about 15 different wild mushrooms that are rarely mentioned as the “top 10” edible mushrooms and they all have been good.

Yesterday, we found two of these. The first is the dark brown honey mushroom which is not as popular as the regular honey mushroom that is mostly eaten…

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We also found a meaty dense ‘shroom called C. ventricosa, which we think makes a great vegetarian substitute for meat!

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I get asked once in a while where we gather all of the wild foods we eat on an island that is 100 square miles, but is 70% national park.

Sadly, we can’t gather any plants within the park itself as that is against the rules and the NPS takes those rules seriously. While I personally believe that we should be able to forage for wild foods on public land, I also respect the parks rules and understand they have good reasons for them. If all 2 million visitors collected wild plants, the park would be denuded in no time.

So we respect those rules and look elsewhere.

One of the places we find quite a bit is in our own backyard which is a nice mixed ecosystem that supports many varieties of plant and animal life. We also use neighbors property and local landowners who don’t believe in posting their land to keep people off. That seems much more prominent here than it was back in the FLX, where you couldn’t go 100 feet without seeing a bright orange posted sign!

One of the great things we have discovered about foraging wild foods, is how we are also gathering in information and gaining knowledge about so many plants and animals … where they can be found, differentiating characteristics of species that look almost identical, what parts can be used and best time to pick them, indicator species that connect to other species and a whole host of other things.

But the best thing is applying that knowledge and using it, and finding out for ourselves what works and doesn’t. It’s one thing to read a dozen books that all tell you a wild mushroom is edible and another to eat that same mushroom the first time yourself and experience a queasy stomach.

That first hand application of knowledge – again and again, is what leads to wisdom.

Today was a great example of that … information gathering, leading to knowledge and with hands on application, the gaining of wisdom!

This last week I gathered 40 lbs of red oak acorns from just one tree in our backyard.

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We both have read dozens of articles on the best way to use these … how to gather them, which ones to use, how to dry and store, open them, leach the tannins out (there are many ways and opinions on that!) and how to cook and use them.

Today we decided to take 4 lbs of these and apply our learning to see for ourselves what works best for us.

We started out by putting 4 lbs in a large bowl…

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… and filling with cold well water.

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This is a tip we learned from just one person, no one else suggested this!

Then watch for floaters …… they are the ones to throw away as they have small weevils inside of them. Up to 90% of acorns can be infested with weevils!  I am very careful when I gather the acorns to try and exclude these and have found after collecting 40 lbs of them, that I can kind of tell by how they feel as I pick them up whether they have weevils or not and also to see tiny holes which is another indicator.

However, another thing we learned is that instead of throwing these weevil infested acorns away, we could use the weevils for fish bait. We have been studying wild fish baits a lot lately and have found a great use for our prodigious slug supply as well as the local mussels, snails and bloodworms!

We can even eat the weevils, something we are going to try ….. and we turns out we can even eat the native slugs ….. that will be a future blog post!

I guess I’m getting pretty good (or lucky) at telling which ones have weevils when I gather them, as there were only 12 floaters!

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Then we drain them…

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…and place on cookie sheets to dry. Normally I’d set these in the sun for a day, but I wanted to speed up the process and dried them in a warm oven for about 20 minutes instead …. making sure that the oven was below 150 deg, as over that and you screw up the starch inside the nut!

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Once dried, it was time to open them up and get the meat out!

I headed outdoors with a few simple tools….

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While there are different ways to open them, the one that seems to be the best is to put a acorn on a rock and give it a quick tap with a hammer on the pointy end ….. and it worked great!

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Once cracked open, it was pretty easy to peel off the shell and pull out the nut… usually in one or two pieces.

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As I shelled them, I plopped the meat into a jar of cold water. These red acorns are very high in oil content and will oxidize and go rancid which we don’t want and putting them in cold water right away prevents that. I was simply amazed at just how much meat there was in these ..incredible!

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These nuts are a nutritional powerhouse with the average acorn being 41% carbohydrate, 24% fat (with 70% of that being monounsaturated), 6% protein and 28% water. In addition they are super high in B vitamins and a good source of both magnesium and manganese.

However, after using this method of shelling, I felt there had to be a better way. Traditional nutcrackers don’t work very well, so I decided to try a pair of channel-lock pliers.

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BAM! …. these worked even better! …. and allowed me to move the operation to the deck where The Artist joined me. We listened to music and drank juice & seltzer water drinks and made short work of the 4 lbs.

When we were done, we had almost a full 1/2 gallon jar!

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A little quick math tells me that out of the 40 lbs that I collected, we will get about 5 gallons of nut meat!

Now the nuts will be soaked in cold water for several weeks to leach out the tannins. We have to see for ourselves how long this actually takes for our red oak acorns .. it may be shorter or longer, but we will know when the water no longer turns brown and the bitterness is gone, Each day we will dump out the old water and add fresh and keep them in the fridge.

There are a lot of ways these can be used once they are leached  – roasted and salted to eat as nuts, dark roasted and ground as a coffee substitute (which was done by the Confederates during the Civil War and by the Germans during WWII), used raw in soups and stews and ground into a flour and used in baking breads and cakes!

We don’t know which ways we will like them, so with this 1/2 gallon, we will probably try them all so we have a good knowledge base to use with the remaining 30 lbs …. although that will grow as we have plans to gather more this week! 🙂

If that wasn’t enough information gathering and applied knowledge to turn into wisdom for one day, we also headed over to Somes Sound to gather some Ascphyllum nodosum or rockweed (an edible brown seaweed) and some Periwinkles (sea snails)!

We collect, dry and use Saccharina latissima or sugar kelp now in our daily diets as it is a good source of iodine, vitamins and fiber. It also is used for it’s health benefits in warding off certain diseases.

However we have never eaten the rockweed which is very common and abundant and can be collected almost anywhere along the shore at low tide. We do forage for it now to use in the garden for fertilizer, although the amount we gather is minuscule compared to what we are allowed under Maine state law for personal use …50 lbs per person per day!

That seems crazy to me … to me it seems like we use a lot for the garden, but we only use about 300 lbs a YEAR!

The rockweed is also very nutritious and we want to try this out as part of our diet as well, so we collected about 5 lbs today and hung it out to dry.

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In addition to the rockweed, we also want to see how the local Periwinkles (or “winkles” as the locals call them) are. These are a small edible sea snail, that happens to grow along with the rockweed. Maine law says we can harvest 2 quarts per person per day. I doubt we would even harvest 2 quarts per season.

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We will boil these and then remove the meat and saute in butter, olive oil and garlic the traditional French way. However, what we really want to see is how they flavor a Asian seaweed soup broth that we currently use shrimp shells for!

One of the things we have learned is that gathering these wild foods needs to be done with respect for the land and with care. Selective harvesting in multiple spots, never taking more than a little from each spot and being aware of the rules all are important. As time goes by, we become more and more aware of our landscape and just how special it is.

In that, maybe we are gaining wisdom as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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