Sep 18, 2014

Home & Away


On Monday I went foraging with a friend. We picked these berries, called autumn olives, which are tart and sweet. They come from a plant called Elaeagnus umbellata. We picked them from a tree in a parking lot in a suburb of Boston.


I find it tricky to be in the moment, to be totally present. My mind is caught on a dream about the future, or about some past event, how it's effected me. I could be anywhere, just not here.


But foraging for wild foods changes all of that. I don't think about other stuff that normally clutters my mind. All I think about is this raw thing and my relationship to it. I feel it under my fingertips, I taste its unique flavor. I am so connected to the plant it makes my skin tingle.

What if that's the way we felt with other ingredients, too? Especially the ones who have travelled so far. Like this nutmeg:


When I was visiting Sri Lanka I had the chance to see nutmeg (and its companion, mace) growing. It resides in these fruits that look sort of like small, yellow avocados. Or like funny apples. Either way, they enclose a fragrant seed.

The fruit, which comes from the plant Myristica fragrans, has the texture of an unripe pear, but has all the flavor of nutmeg. Some women make jam out of the fruit, but the seed (nutmeg) and its lacy aril, or outer protective layer called mace is so much more valuable that most of the fruit is discarded. It rots in piles of compost, or is fed to the pigs.


Autumn olive trees are also called 'Japanese Silverberry' because they come from Japan, planted here almost 200 years ago. They aren't an olive, it's just that the leaves look similar to an olive tree's. But like the fruit of the nutmeg, most of the fruit from the shrub goes unnoticed by humans. The berries are eaten by birds, or fall to the ground. The seeds aren't valuable the way nutmeg is; rather they are a minor inconvenience in consuming the berries. 

As my friend Didi Emmons (who introduced me to this fruit) writes in her book Wild Flavors:
 "Each glittering red fruit contains about eighteen times as much lycopene as a tomato, and the lycopene content is only increased by cooking. Yet these berries go largely uneaten, perhaps because they don't come packaged and have no marketing budget."
Lycopene is a phytochemical that acts as an important antioxidant, potentially preventing certain types of cancer, as research has shown. Maybe this will help push people to try it.

Nutmeg developed its own marketing budget on account of its incredible aroma; nutmeg's history is one of the most fascinating of all the spices. Nutmeg originates from what became known as the "Spice Islands" or the Moluccas, part of Indonesia. At one time these islands were the only source of mace and nutmeg; the trees were eventually brought to Sri Lanka by the British. Giles Milton's book Nathaniel's Nutmeg tells it well.


I love being home, but I love to go away. One of the reasons I travel is to shed the associations I have with certain flavors and learn about them in a new context, approaching each new moment with curiosity and hunger. 

But being at home and discovering something new gives me the same excitement I receive when I travel. I realized, weirdly, that the more I travel the more I am curious about my home. 

It's this paradox I'm fascinated by—the taste of nutmeg, so familiar even though it's from so far away. The taste of autumn olive berries—so foreign, yet so close at hand.

How to harvest & cook with the berries:

These tart, sweet, tannin-y berries are great for sorbet, jam, or a savory meat sauce. Think of how you'd use sour cherries and translate this to autumn olives (which have less flesh but more nutrition.)

In order to do a project with the berries, it's best to gather a lot, which is easy since they grow thickly on the small trees. Look for dark red berries and pull them off gently with the leaves, which you can pick out later. The plant grows best in disturbed areas or along roads (hence the parking lot where Didi and I found ours.)

Here are some ideas, inspired by local New England foragers Eva Sommaripa, Didi Emmons, and Russ Cohen:
  • make a sorbet by cooking the berries and sending them through a food mill. Add a spiced syrup! Eva adds rose petal, I'm planning to add nutmeg.
  • make fruit leather by cooking & milling the berries then drying in a dehydrator. No added sugar!
  • make a jam. Add sugar.
  • make a sauce for venison or pork and make sure to serve it on bright white plates to show off the color.
  • make ketchup by adding salt, mustard and garlic powder. The texture of the berries once the seeds are removed has an uncanny similarity to ketchup.
Check out:

Wild Flavors: One Chef's Transformative Year Cooking From Eva's Farm (2011) Didi Emmons
Wild Foods I have known & Eaten, and Identify that Plant, Russ Cohen's website  

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