Mother Nature on Speed
Mother nature has us on our toes this year. Slightly out of whack, in timing and order, we are scrambling to keep on top of it all. Most sprouts, buds and blooms are showing up early, and then following their natural course at a clip, not leaving us much time to find and pick them, process and menu plan. Many of the spring greens didn't last long; the leaves were on the trees so fast. Then again, quite a few spring things and summer plants overlapped, more than usual. There didn't seem to be much time for daisy leaves and live-forever.
I was barely finished pickling the last of the fiddleheads and it was time for the daisy buds. There was wild ginger to confit for our sugar, and a juice and paste to be made for cooking and for our flavoured mustard. And crinkleroot to be made into my house condiment, to be infused in olive oil, and the leaves dried for our salt. Meanwhile, I was making soup with the stinging nettle, and drying it for the tisane. Soon enough, I was drying dame's rocket for tisane too. Now it's elderflower, to dry and make syrup with. The marine greens are coming in fast and furious (normally July plants), which means drying sea parsley, sea rocket and sea spinach for our wild herb salt, making sea parsley pesto for my year, blanching sea spinach for the freezer. Cleaning and processing the wild garlic mustard (such an abundant weed, but so much work!) was a chore; we're still at it when it should be done with.
As the day lilies are budding; there will be petals by the weekend. But before considering the petals (which we dry for our tisane and garnish salads with, François' uncle makes jelly with them), I have to find the time to pickle the buds (after making sure they get picked from the adjacent field, spare hands??). The cattails are out too, and for those prized shoots, we have an even shorter window. The season will likely be over within days. And I need to clean, peel and blanch dozens of pounds for my year, not to mention the other ton to make broth and cattail flour with the pollen (flowers) before they explode. This flour is a staple in my cooking yearround, adding wild flavour (asparagus, corn notes) to my crepes, polenta, pie dough and fritters. The big spears make a great vegetarian broth for my soups, and the babies get slathered in buerre monté for a terrific little (fun!) side to be eaten like a pogo. Waiters and dishwashers and anyone with a spare moment will be peeling cattails this week.
I can't even properly concentrate on the buds or the cattails, because the boletes are starting to show up. So perishable and so precious, they need to be cleaned and dried ASAP. Or frozen for sauces and soup. We go through hundreds of pounds of dried mushroom mix in a year, so a head start there is bonus; we have next to nothing left from last year. It is always mildly depressing to see how little is left after drying, but the resulting aromas are something else, definitely worth it.
Needless to say, there is a line up for the dehydrator (and we have a big one), but since we need to prep everything first (clean, pull off leaves, chop..), it all works out. I wish I could sprout a few extra pairs of hands for the season. A major chunk of our time from hereon in is devoted to filling and emptying that baby.
Following François' foraging heritage, we are in the business of wild and sustainable anyway for the love of nature and for our own longevity, but I can't help but chuckle at any worries of over-exploitation once you see what goes into it all. Living the mad, unpredictable, labour intensive process of dealing with wild edibles and them putting up, you clearly see the natural built-in safety for sustainability. There is no way you can overdo it, when you have to find the stuff and be ready for it when it decides to come, pick it by hand just so, clean it and cook it at its freshest. The season of anything is over before you can get through the few pounds of stuff you picked, and then it's on to something else. It's tricky, and not the kind of thing you can organize, control, or attack with industrial zeal, which is a good thing.
In any case, I certainly have an abundance of fresh, local wild edibles to put on my plates, which is beautiful - what I live for. Summer menus are heaven. I can't help but overload the menu with too many garnishes, even if I hate overworked dishes. But when the bounty is there, I feel the need to share the maximum of the season, introducing our customers to as much of the wild stuff as possible, all while trying hard to keep the flavours clean and in order. What a sweet challenge to have, I must say!