Top Secret Foraging

It is not every day that you get invited to forage in a top secret location. So last weekend when Tama Matsuoka of Meadows and More, asked me me to join her in her newly beloved wetlands and mentioned kayaks would be involved, I knew I had to jump at the chance. However, since I was sworn to secrecy I will have to describe the place without revealing it’s location. Thus mainly through photos I hope to describe this unique place, some of the native wild edibles it contains, and its ability to put you in awe at how a place so local can be so mystifying and give you the feeling you are worlds away.

I spotted Tama’s van and pulled over on the side of the road. Behind it was her colleague Larry’s truck loaded with a canoe and kayak. We were joined by Madie, the buyer for FreshDirect’s FoodKick, and headed back through a wooded area and down a sandy lane through the bogs. This unique wetland ecosystem and its sandy soils is home to a variety of unique plants, like this prickly pear cactus spotted on our way in.

Our main objective that day was to forage wild cranberries. This land had once been home to a cranberry farm decades earlier. The bogs, now abandoned, still produce ample cranberry crops each year without any sprays or inputs to the soil. Wild blueberry plants are also on the land but were already finished for the season. Before we went to harvesting, Tama and Larry walked us through the wooded areas surrounding the property and pointed out some of the rare native plants they are trying to help save and propagate.

(Small cranberry plant along the path in the white sandy soil, appearing almost alien in the light)

 

 

Tama has us smell this fragrant goldenrod variety also called “anise scented” for it’s honeyed floral licorice like aroma.

On the wooded trail she pointed out native ferns that are edible in the springtime and a forest floor of wintergreen that had a sweet minty scent exactly like the chewing gum! Along the bog path we cut some wild bay leaves which have a complex herbal characteristic. Then we came across this almost alien-looking purple fern that Tama explained is actually a carnivorous plant.

Then we got to the water sports and put the kayaks in an area of the bog with nearly three feet of water to forage fragrant water lily. It is rare to find edible water lilies because the water they are in has to be pristine. Since this land is so untouched the natural aquifers under it have some of the purest water. It was a tranquil experience to paddle through and pull each delicate lily up by its nearly foot long stem.

 

 

Then we headed back to the bog to forage cranberries by hand. They grow in a low-lying shrub type plant, and sitting down is the best method for harvesting. Since it is the beginning of the season we were instructed to try and pick only the very red ripe berries and leave the lighter ones for later harvest.

 

Meanwhile Larry operated an old-fashioned cranberry harvest machine dating from the 1950s. It runs a bit like a large lawn mower that pulls up the cranberries from the brush, but it also takes up a lot of twigs that must be removed. Later the cranberries are sorted by hand. For the sake of mitigating food waste – a topic on which Tama has become an expert and has written a cookbook about – even the sun-fermented brown cranberries are being used by a cider maker. Some of the cranberries even come out already sun-dried, like nature’s “craisin.” Tama is figuring out a way to preserve them as well. Tama tells me once cooked the fresh berries have a nuanced wild flavor with hints of cinnamon, unlike anything you would taste from highly sprayed and processed cranberries on the market. It is our plan at the restaurant to stock up on these flavorful berries for jam, seasonal baked goods, and the ultimate Thanksgiving accompaniment.

As the afternoon turned to evening it was difficult to depart this peaceful oasis. Like I said with all these unique plants, smells, and scenery we felt worlds away and had a sense of discovery in what is practically our own backyard. It just goes to show you nature is forever fascinating and that our local ecosystem has endless flora to discover. Thank you Tama for letting us in on your little secret and teaching us more about the diversity of our wild landscapes.

(Examing the juniper berries on our way out, they are not quite ripe yet, but can also be used in green state for more vegetal flavor.)