How a Winter Hike Can Turn Into a Food-Finding Adventure
For most of us, a wind-swept, snow-covered forest won’t stimulate the salivary glands. But those who know what to look for actually get hungry. In this week's Quick Bite WKSU's Vivian Goodman searches for sustenance with a winter forager.
We meet Jeremy Umansky, chef, author and wild-food forager, on a cold, February morning at Punderson State Park.
We picked one of the windiest days of the year to trudge over the snow.
Foraging is permitted at Punderson
“First and foremost is definitely being someplace where you’re supposed to be or you can be. That’s why we’re at a state park today. You are allowed to forage within reason for personal use in a state park. A great thing to look for is a lot of parks have cross-country skiing trails in this area. Those are trails that’ll typically be groomed, and they’re lots more accessible at this time of year than a lot of other trails.”
Umansky knows most people wouldn’t consider foraging for wild edibles on such a cold winter day.
“And to be honest, even someone like myself, I do this as a profession and an academic pursuit. I don’t come out all too much in the winter.”
Challenging but rewarding work
In all seasons, though, he loves what he does.
“It’s a lot of fun. It can be hard work, too. It’s definitely physically demanding being out here and it can be intellectually demanding.”
Umansky has identified almost 300 species of edible plants and almost 100 species of edible fungi in Northeast Ohio.
“Understanding that many things and each of their uses, it can be a little mentally exhausting some times.”
Only minutes into our hike he spots food. “Right here I see a red oak tree.”
Not only for squirrels
It offers what we might assume is just squirrel food.
“Look there’s even a little acorn that never really formed that’s still hanging on there. So even a tree without leaves, if you’re not good at identifying bark, every once in a while you’ll see an underdeveloped acorn that’s stuck on the tree.”
A squirrel might take it or leave it, but Umansky says for humans, the red oak offers something better than acorns.
“Acorns themselves are perfectly edible, but this time of year in late winter, we’re looking at oak leaves.
"They stay on the tree typically until buds push them off in the spring, and they’re wonderful for making infusions. You can use that liquid to steam a piece of fish, and it imparts this wonderful, woodsy, earthy flavor to it."
We wondered what kind of fish the chef might use the red oak leaf infusion to prepare.
“Hey, we’re in Northeast Ohio,” he points out. “Any good lake fish or river fish is wonderful. Things like trout out of the Chagrin River, even walleye or bass out of Lake Erie, it’s perfect for it. Those freshwater fish tend to have an earthy almost muddy quality to them versus ocean fish which are briny. So this type of flavor pairs really well with it.”
But can a person actually survive on the kinds of edibles found in winter? Umansky admits it would be
difficult to stay nourished. “This environment’s really tough.”
Learning from foragers where the weather is like ours
He says beyond finding the food you would need to know how to cook it.
“We pull this knowledge nowadays from many different cultures worldwide that live in similar climates. For example, in Siberia and parts of Russia, they may do things with types of pine and types of oak and other things that maybe the Native Americans didn’t use here. But we have similar species and similar environments and then we can carry on those food traditions and make them our own.”
Want pine tips with that?
Umansky points to a magnificent pine tree near the Punderson manor house as an example of a food source a Siberian or a Northeast Ohioan might use.
“In this area, we have over 20 species of pine trees. The edible parts are exactly the parts you think wouldn’t be edible.
"The spiny needles are what’s fantastically edible about them. Really soon here they’ll start putting on their spring growth, probably in about a week, maybe two weeks. And those tips, those pine tips, those spruce tips, those needles haven’t firmed up yet. And they’re incredibly soft and tender. You can saute them and use them as a vegetable. You can pickle them. They make a great sweet pickle. You can cure them in sugar and kind of make a pine candy, or you can use them in different teas and broths. They’re fantastic!”
Beech nut is more than chewing gum
A few steps farther he spots a beech tree.
“It produces a wonderful nut, one of the best edible nuts you can find.
“You can just eat them as a snack, toss them in a salad, crush them up and crust a piece of meat with them. They’re just wonderful.”
We had no idea that beech nut was anything other than gum.
“And that’s the joy to foraging, “says Umansky. “You get to experience a lot of foods that have either been forgotten or don’t have access to in today’s settings.”