The summer here in the East has extended well into October. Mushrooms are still forcing themselves up through the soil, berries are ripening in the intense afternoon sun, tender shoots, slightly fuzzy ivies, and pine tips enjoy a fresh green elasticity similar to the nubile pubescence often identified with spring. This postdiluvian fall is the summer for which we had hoped. Lettuces, leeks, herbs and summer squash are all enjoying a surprise moment in the sun, brazenly producing buds and flowers in the face of the imminent frost. While stuck in the city, we can’t wait to get out in the fields, bogs, woods and hillsides to search for the familiar and unfamiliar treasures of the Hudson Valley. Our weekends are for foraging.
Recently, in northern Columbia County, we’ve had a bit of luck, some of which has returned with us to the restaurants in the city and some consumed almost upon being pulled from the ground or clipped from a tree. On a hike up along the eastern ridge of our property in Old Chatham, fortune shone upon us as we spied, resting in a bed of fallen pine needles, a cluster of the magical fungi belonging the genus boletus (had only we been listening to “cletus awreetus-awrightus”) a noble genus that comprises the beloved porcini. Crouched close to the ground to unearth the meaty mushrooms, a small forest of squat stalks and thick brownish caps no more than five inches high presented themselves as an alternative landscape to the giant elms, pines and oaks that provided a canopy of shade. A great joy of foraging is its insistence on complete focus; you have to give yourself over to the shapes, colors, topography and smells of the woods. You cannot be on your smart phone, texting and walking. It’s quite the opposite: You have to be completely present, aware and in the moment, a state that, for most of us, is a great escape.
Boletes cut and bagged, Jori and I panicked with excitement. Must we race back and cook them with a bit of nepitella and olive oil and abandon all further foraging. Eat them before some unknown misfortune relieves us of our woodsy bounty. Logic: once you have the crack, what else matters? Mushrooms – allow us to wax for a moment – mushrooms, we know of no other who possesses the woodland magic to convert the dank, the damp, the funk of the forest floor into aroma and taste inimitable, that after eating, one wants for nothing more, nothing more than more mushrooms.
We had almost made up our minds to run for the kitchen and rapidly consume our booty in a defensive posture, like a dog protecting his bone. The eagerness, the greed, it reminded me of a time I was in Bermuda at a weekend-long wedding party on an estate belonging to a wealthy widow, let’s call her Minerva. She had owned a chateau in Bordeaux and had, through her sixty-some-odd years, been privileged enough to imbibe generous amounts of France’s finest. Minerva’s wealth and unfettered access to such houses, and vintages, had left her indifferent as to whom she would give the keys to her wine cellar. While she danced to Grace Jones she casually tossed my friend and me the keys and instructed us to help ourselves…to anything. Well, once we confirmed that “anything” was truly anything, we hastily made way to the underground cellar. Verticals of Petrus, Margaux and Lafite dating back to the ’70s were at a perfect 58 degrees Fahrenheit. A long story short, we huddled in a closed off room with our decanted goodies, hunched, defending this nectar from the droves of reveling philistines who were happy drinking anything approximating alcohol. It was in this defensive manner I imagined eating our boletes.
Now, we did say almost, however we did not make it back in such swift fashion, as is often the case with the forager. Distraction and a new tangent came in the color and shape of the green, golf-ball sized coverings of the black walnut that caught our eyes and rolled under our feet almost as soon as we had oriented ourselves toward home. One, two, three and then countless manifested — as is the visual adjustment of foraging — littered across the ground, Hudson and Jori collected them as I adjusted the positioning of boletes in our bag so as to avoid bruising.
Mushrooms and black walnuts merged to form an idea: we would poach a chicken from our friend’s farm in sweet German Riesling with the mushrooms, tender pine tips and black kale from the garden. To season the chicken on the finish we would toast the black walnuts and mix them with some minced nepitella and sea salt. A perfect plan, except for one oversight, the need to consume some of the boletes immediately. We returned to the garden and found some young zucchini, still growing in this warm weather, and firm serrano chilies drooping from thin stems. Growing along the garden fence and the compost bins we found some ground ivy and yarrow. A little garlic and some tender tuna ventresca and we had a quick salad: sautéed boletes, garlic and zucchini with yarrow tops, ground ivy, chili and salt. Light, fresh and earthy and successful in achieving only one result: making us hungry for more.
As the chicken cooked in a cocotte sealed with luting dough, we walked up to the western fields. Not long into our walk we came across a Hawthorn tree insidiously offering up swollen red fruits, “haws” as we later learned. As we reached in to sample the offering, ominous, spear-like thorns pierced our hands and arms. Proceeding a bit more carefully, we maneuvered among the thorns, picking the ripe haws until the only ones that remained taunted us from the spiky heart of the Hawthorn…a fool’s errand.
Returning to check on the chicken, we walked along a tiny creek. Growing alongside there was an herb that looked like a cross between mint and basil and smelled similar to lemon balm. After further research, Jori identified it as Horsebalm, a wild citronella plant. We picked about 20 sprigs and set to work on making a little sweet treat. We pitted the haws with a cherry pitter and rinsed them several times. Jori made a simple syrup with the Horsebalm and proceeded to poach the haws in this syrup with the addition of bay leaf, some slices of the serranos we had used earlier, mustard powder, fresh grated nutmeg and a bit of salt. Poached haws with butter cookies and fresh cream ended our meal.
Not every weekend is like this, but many are. And, as we come to further understand what grows wild on our property or nearby, we are beginning to reconsider what we grow in our gardens and what we serve in our restaurants. This is our evolution, our focus.
As for the restaurants in the city, there was a gallon of wild fox grape jelly that was produced that weekend and ended up on the menu at Fatty ‘Cue WV. We had also clipped sugar maple leaves for our next round of smoking, wrapping and aging Vermont cultured butter which ends up in both Fatty ‘Cues, but first began in Brooklyn. And, there’s often some very, very fresh milk and cream we pick up form some farmer friends that makes its way into crème fraiche and fresh cheese and other preparations.
There will be more to come.