April 10, 2013
The Foragers [SLIDESHOW]
“And God said, behold, I give you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed, to you it shall be for meat. … I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30).
When I hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, I have a habit of snacking. The thing is, I don’t bring along any food. I follow my bible, a stained and dog-earned book on the native foods of the Gabrielino Indians.
The Gabrielinos and the Tongva lived here for thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived (and then, in a relative flash, just about wiped the Indians out). They ate the stuff we ignore — the plants sprouting just about now all over our hillsides, the weeds growing by the freeways, the animals flitting across our driveways.
People who share my admittedly strange obsession about these native foods usually fall into one of two categories. There are outdoor enthusiasts, like the late Euell Gibbons — “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” And there are the survivalists, who plan on hiding in caves with a deer carcass so the Trilateral Commission’s black helicopters can’t see them.
And then there are people like me, who feel that if food connects us to something sacred, native food — unadulterated, undeveloped — connects us to the purest taste of that. It’s weird, I know — especially when my wife catches me nibbling a stalk of wild fennel while we’re walking the dog. But there it is — I admit it.
And last week, I found I wasn’t alone.
An invitation came for a dinner sponsored by the edgy women of This Is Not a Pop-Up. It featured food picked entirely from local areas, foraged by Mia Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar, and prepared by Wasilevich.
The couple forages wild ingredients for the top restaurants in Los Angeles, like Alma, Ludo and Melisse. They lead educational tours into the local mountains and they have a blog on local foraging, called Transitional Gastronomy.
I pulled up a chair at a cafe in Hollywood, and Baudar came by and poured a hot, bright green soup over a tangle of pea shoots, fresh peas and a clump of homemade ricotta.
“Wild sorrel bisque,” he announced in his French-accented English. “With peas, sour grass and chive blossom.”
“Sour grass?” I asked. “What does that look like?”
Baudar brought me a silver canister, brimming with the clean sprays of plants you’ve seen a thousand times in Griffith Park or Temescal. He pinched off a bit of sour grass.
“That’s in my book!” I practically shouted.
He nodded — Baudar was the only other person I’ve met who knew exactly what book I was talking about.
“Then you know the crazy stuff I do,” he said.
The rest of the evening was just as wondrous. Baudar brought course after course from the prix fixe menu, and then showed me and other guests exactly what local plants went into each dish.
The Spring Greens featured capers he pickled himself from local flower buds. I asked Baudar to ID each of the greens, and he leaned a few inches from my plate and picked each delicate leaf: chickweed, amaranth, watercress, miner’s lettuce (“From the side of the hill away from the sun”).
Local black cod came with black garlic butter and spicy wild mustard. It’s the stuff that turns the hillsides along the 101 in Agoura into Monet paintings, and it tastes like freshly grated horseradish. The local oxtail disintegrated into a broth of wild carob, coffee, cleaver (a Gabrielino staple) and milk thistle pickles.
Talk about terroir. Locally grown tomatoes, artichokes, even oranges — they have taken to our region like welcome immigrants. But the foraged ingredients are the land. Baudar poured me a glass of homemade beer — its scent was like I’d rolled down the car window driving through Topanga Canyon.
“I make it with mugwort and white sage and lime,” he smiled. “That’s all.”
The Belgian-born Baudar is tall, thin, with close-cropped gray hair and a scientist’s reserve. Wasilevich is more the earth mother — tanned, dark-haired and a whirl of energy. They wake up at dawn to head out into their preferred spots near Angeles National Forest. It takes three to four hours to come up with the handfuls of greens, oyster mushrooms and other earthly delights necessary to make a meal. It’s impractical to do on a large scale, though Noma in Denmark, named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant magazine, features a mostly foraged menu.
That made the night even more of a fleeting treat. It is one thing to taste a locally grown tomato — a good, distant cousin to a non-native plant.
But to bite into a piece of fried mallow, a plant that grows in wild, unmolested abundance everywhere I turn, not only tastes of Los Angeles but speaks to a deeper truth. The Bible says it, but we don’t act like we believe it: This earth, if we take care of it, is for us a bounty. Our land is highly edible. God provides.
See photos of this meal and follow more of Rob Eshman’s food writing on Twitter @foodaism.
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