Find out how to cook using foraged food
In August I spent a week with my boyfriend’s family in the French countryside. We all stayed—Adrien’s parents, his sister and her husband, their three children, and us—in the family’s summer house in the village of Mens, in the foothills of the Alps. The house was last decorated in 1958, hung with 150 years’ of family portraits, furnished with old iron bedsteads and handsome mantelpiece clocks that chimed irregular hours. A little kitchen with a rusty stove gave out onto a garden and a meadow beyond. I went exploring.
It had been a rainy summer and the grass was lush. Plum trees were overladen with fruit—sticky purple globes, unripe greengages, sweet popping yellow mirabelles. Switching at the tall grasses idly with a stick, I saw three little mushrooms in a circle and, nearby, a snail trailing under a patch of bright orange nasturtiums. Supper, I thought. In the kitchen I found a paring knife and a brown paper bag and went foraging.
What makes a good meal? For a long time I thought it was the care and technique of cooking: the correct magenta interior of a steak, the right golden crispy edge to sautéed potatoes, oozy apples inside a pastry pie that came out perfectly. This is good cooking, non? But it is not necessarily good eating. A good meal has as much to do with the experience of the meal as its content. Appetite, discovery, mood, company, environment—all this contributes to essential yumminess.
Foraging, especially for a city girl like me, is experimental. The results of my efforts were mixed. My dandelion leaf salad was too bitter for the children. The cob nuts were not yet ripe. I found only 11 juicy blackberries and then forgot to put them in the apple pie, but the plum chutney I made out of a mix of ripe and unripe fruit wasn’t half bad. I made a nettle soup but it didn’t taste of much. No one had seconds. I made some crostini with local fresh cheese, topped with peppery nasturtium flowers (“Are you sure you can eat these?” asked Adrien’s sister, a doctor who runs a trauma hospital) and the fried brown mushrooms the kids had collected when they were playing in the meadow. These I had verified as edible at the pharmacy—all French pharmacists must be trained in mycology. They were…