The Waiting Game
I remember as a small child being strapped into a red jogger stroller at the crack of dawn at our family’s house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and embarking on walking adventures with my Gram, my aunt, and my mom. First, we walked down the windy dirt road, then down the hill past Nauset Lighthouse and Nauset Light Beach, and from there we ran the infamous ‘Loop.’
It is the same loop I run on my own now, every season of each passing year. I am inspired and aware of my surroundings because I was taught to be. We watched for ‘rabbies,’ as my Gram would call the baby rabbits, and we were quiet when we saw deer feeding on patches of grass fresh with morning dew. I remember Gram pausing on the hill across from the lighthouse to observe very special green globes which appeared like magic on a certain plant tucked in among the poison ivy, wild blueberry, Virginia creeper, and bearberry. They were beach plums, and she would vigilantly follow their progress over the summer as they changed from green to pink to a deep-but-soft bluish-purple. And then, finally, we would pick them.
Foraging is a waiting game. It requires patience and persistence in the anticipation of nature’s bounty. Some days there is a feeling like a runner’s high in discovering one particular ingredient. You get a taste of something good, something that is just perfectly ripe and in-season, and it must be gathered in that moment, whether you’d set out for that item or not, whether you’d brought the proper knife or clippers, baskets or boxes. Other days can be discouraging if that sought-after ingredient is not found, or if it is insect-ridden, unripe, or past its prime.
For me, foraging is a practice and it has taught me to see things most people do not notice, like the tiny tips of new growth on Norway spruce trees in the spring, or a small lump of pine needles in a mixed oak and scrub pine forest that, if you are oh-so-lucky, just might have matsutake mushrooms hiding beneath them come fall. With practice comes a feeling of being in tune with the seasons and the harmony of nature.
I do not forage for my full-time job. Not yet. I have a background in Communications and Environmental Science, but my calling after graduating at Boston College in 2010 was to work in the field of sustainable agriculture. The lure of the outdoors, and working with my body and my hands to grow food, turned my gears in a way that a typical nine-to-five job could not. A passion for foraging came later after apprenticing with “Evan the Forager” in Maine and Vermont who gave me a real foundation of wild food knowledge to play with and build on.
This past summer, I worked closely with a different restaurant on the Cape called Ceraldi, foraging for them depending on the availability of wild ingredients. Michael and Jesse Ceraldi approached me about foraging for wild foods and gathering farm-grown ingredients from farmers markets, also working a few nights a week in the kitchen of their beautiful seven-course-tasting restaurant in Wellfleet. This allowed me to see the ingredients I was picking interpreted by an immensely talented chef whose menu changes daily to honor the seasonality of available ingredients, both wild and cultivated.
One fairly regular wild vegetable on Ceraldi’s menu is the abundant samphire, a coastal plant which begins to crop up in early to mid-May on Cape Cod. Samphire is the sea vegetable that wears many hats. It is samphire to some – seabeans, glasswort, pickleweed, or sea asparagus to others. It creates a temporary settlement on the bayside along the water’s edge from May until September, when the tippity tops begin to turn yellow and eventually an autumn red, a sign they are too bitter and fibrous for eating.
I find it funny that samphire appears when the first flush of people come to visit Cape Cod in the spring, and sticks around just as long as many of the last seasonal visitors do. It grows mostly in colonies, thousands of small spears, bright green and standing erect right at the shoreline, revealing themselves at low tide and becoming submerged when the tide is high. When perfectly ripe in early summer, the shoots are tender and crunchy and taste like the ocean, salty and perfectly satisfying. These colonies are the happy hosts to hundreds of tiny crabs which navigate through the wild beans like you or I might in a dense forest.
It just so happens that samphire has a wonderful companion sea plant, sea blight, which complements it both in the field and on the plate. Sea blight is more mildly salty in flavor and resembles a sprig of rosemary, with a central stem and many soft bristle-y needles. The needles slide nicely off the stem and offer a softer texture when eaten alongside the bright and crunchy seabean. Both samphire and sea blight were regularly mixed together in seaweed salads on Michael’s menu at Ceraldi restaurant this past summer season.
During the last beach plum season I called my Gram, now ninety-three years old, and reminded her of the stroller walks when she would point out the purple berries to me. She is still sharp and remembers everything from birthdays to beach plums. Just before the berries were ripe this year, I had asked her advice when I was picking them for Michael, because although some were ripe and ready, others needed more time. She surprised me by telling me the flavor of the tarter berries would round out the taste of the plumper, sweeter ones and add complexity to a jam, compote, or sauce. It made perfect sense.
I am continually learning from my elders and from others with an interest in wild food, refining my eye in nature and my palette (and my palate) in the kitchen. With each coming season, there is something extraordinary to look forward to.
First published February 2017