I can't say that I've ever put foraging and Los Angeles together in the same sentence. To me, foraging happens in Italy during truffle season, with dogs. I did get to indulge in some mushroom foraging in N. California around the promise of a potential truffle season last year. But to suggest foraging in LA, I'd think someone had spent a little too much time with the shrooms to say you could forage in this urban metropolis.
Enter Pascal Baudar. Pascal hails from Belgium where he grew up in rural farmland, and developed knowledge and a close relationship with the land. He's a Master Food Preserver who can pickle, salt and ferment just about anything you desire. For the last 12 years he's been honing his craft and studying self-reliance so he could pretty much kick Bear Grylls' ass, or at least serve much better food than his own urine for lunch. To see what this was all about, I set out on a Sunday morning to check out Pascal's skills and learn if there actually was anything edible growing from the ground in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
We met at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center where horses were in fact jumping through a set course with a crowd gathered. We traipsed through the parking lot and picnic area, and I joked that we were simply going to forage for leftover chicken wings in the trash. The laughter quickly subsided (ok really it was just my own) when Pascal walked us up to a CA pepper tree. We pulled tiny, pepper seeds off the tree and took a big whiff of the spicy seeds. I popped one in my mouth just as Pascal was saying that these can be difficult to serve as 10-15% people have an allergic reaction. Already down the hatch, I asked how quickly one would know, and he said, oh, you'll know quickly, in about 10-15 minutes. I also knew in the future to wait until Pascal finishes speaking before popping any more local delicacies in my mouth.
We came across a mustard plant next as I nervously glanced at my watch. Normally the mustard plants are plentiful but because the rain has been so elusive in LA there wasn't a ton. Mustard loves water. I watched and waited while Pascal took a mustard leaf, rolled it in his hands and then ate it. He started talking about how it tastes like broccoli, and I was wondering if the pepper plant was starting to get to him, but when I took my own bite, I couldn't believe the near identical taste to broccoli.
Black mustard, which we came across shortly after, actually tastes just like spicy wasabi, though once you heat it and cook it, the spiciness goes away. You can distinguish the black mustard plant versus the regular mustard by its size, with the black mustard plant growing to over 5' high.
The stinging nettle tastes a bit like spinach, but as the name suggests, it ain't easy to get at unless you have gloves or really thick skin. Ouch that's prickly, but you can use it for pesto, soup or even to help with allergies.
At this point, about 15 minutes into the tour, I was happy not to be hallucinating, but I was also stunned at all we'd already discovered, especially with the parking lot still in eye shot. We pressed deeper into the forest for even more finds.
Milk thistle, a great body detoxifier, was sprawled across the ground with a beautiful green and white zebra pattern. We passed CA sage, currants, cactus, and elderberry in various states of readiness. Pascal explained peak seasons for each, as well as cooking techniques. By the end of the day, next year's Christmas list was complete with a dehydrator on top.
Checking out what looked like pussing cacti, Pascal explained that those are bugs who have taken up residence. If you boil the leaves, the bugs die and then you can dehydrate (if XMas 2014 has come). There's a brilliant red interior, carmine, that you can use for strawberry ice cream or Campari. Yes, nature is cool.
Then we got to the Yucca plant, aka, the Spanish Bayonet. This seemingly innocent plant has such a sharp point that it can cut through leather. If used carefully (those thick but pliable gloves are on the XMas list too), you can cut a strand into string so strong you can use it as twine, truss a turkey, and wrap some fish, or my holiday gifts.
As if that's not cool enough, Pascal combined some thin strands with a little CA Sage and water and started rubbing his hands together. Dang if he didn't soap up with a beautiful, natural fragrance. It's good to know that everyone can smell lovely in the wilderness.
We got to some water which saw a proliferation of wild watercress. As I lunged forward with scissors, I caught Pascal's note in time to only take watercress from above the water line, and perhaps wait until we're a little more off the beaten path. Looking around I wondered why, but then saw a few horses walking by and understood that I wasn't the only one who might enjoy watercress.
We stopped under a willow tree where Pascal started picking up grass and leaves, and even some dirt. I did not immediately follow him though he said he was going to put these items in with some home brewed beer for an amazing stock. Stock? We'll see about that.
The sweet white clover was pretty with its white flowers and 3 leaves, but I was again stopped short of cutting some for myself when Pascal talked about the toxic nature some of the leaves can have. You just need to make sure not to use any leaves with white spots and in 2 more months, things will be in better bloom.
Sorrel, curly dock and mugwort were all captured for our future consumption, which happened as soon as we got back to the picnic area. Pascal's partner in crime, Mia, had a fire going and some full tinfoil packets cooking away. They showed us an easy, but delicious spice mix that included white and black sage, dehydrated sage brush, garlic, CA bay and salt and pepper. Pascal used a mortar and pestle and created a fine spice blend that he threw on cheese for a really nice punch and great snack. Mia even throws some on her popcorn.
Pascal used the grass and leaf clippings with some of his home mugwort brew for his discussed cooking base. He folded in some cubed beef, cut mushrooms, potatoes and onions and let it all stew together. When the lid was opened, it smelt sweet and savory, but how did it taste? Unbelievably flavorful. I couldn't believe there was this much taste from basically ground clippings, and there wasn't even any salt or pepper added.
Mia made a lovely warm fruit dessert that combined apricots, nectarines, wild fennel, bay, black and white sage and persimmon for another surprising burst of fresh local flavor.
The day was educational and inspirational. It's good to know how much we can eat so close to home, and just how good it can all be. Also good to know is that I might be able to survive in the wilderness if I ever get stranded on the side of the road, assuming of course, I'm near Hansen Dam and Pascal is nearby to tell me what to eat and what "could be" toxic.
Professional chefs are already on to Pascal as his 3 big clients include Trois Mec where I recently dined and no doubt enjoyed some of Pascal's forest work, as well as Michelin starred Melisse and Top Chef alum's Girasol. Weeks later, I was also able to enjoy an elaborately prepared dinner by Pascal and Mia where everything was sourced within a 10 mile radius - including the salt! Read about it here.
Both Pascal and Mia are passionate about teaching others their skills and craft, so you too can enjoy one of their forest walks or cooking adventures by checking them out on Urban Outdoor Skills.