Foraging: Find Free Food in the Weeds

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

If you’re making a weekend of the Herb Society of America’s annual meeting on April 29 in Asheville, consider going on a wild food adventure with No Taste Like Home.  You’ll forage for wild herbs, “weeds,” and other edibles. Alan Muskat and his expert guides identify what’s edible and common, how to tread lightly, where it’s legal to forage and how much, proper preservation and preparation, and much more.

Foraging saladWhen I was about eight, I loved to lounge in the lawn behind my parents’ light green ranch home. The grass was mixed with clover (edible), dandelions (edible), plantain (edible), chickweed (edible), violets (edible), purslane (edible), ground ivy (edible), onion grass (edible). Who knew I was laying in the salad?

In the good old days, the lawn could be a first course. Not so much today with chemically cultivated homogenous grass.  For many reasons, the perfect lawn became a middle-class American standard and gone was any connection to some of the most sustainable, locavore foods.

Reclaim that culinary heritage with a foraging hike in Asheville, NC.  Alan Muskat’s wild food tour company,  No Taste Like Home, has 30 private hiking spots scoped out to collect edible “weeds.” He has negotiated permission for all of the sites.

Foraging brifeIn January, when we visited, our guide Abby Artemisia handed out little, brown paper bags, round basket with handles round baskets with handles and an affectionately labeled “brifes.” A “brife” is a combo knife and paint brush for picking and cleaning specimens. Ours is a duct-taped prototype that may be followed by the real thing.

20160130_140908We spent three hours stepping around the ten acres surrounding Alan’s home in the mountains a few miles east of downtown Asheville. There we found more than 20 herbs and edibles.  An amazing number for a dormant season.

Among these were white pine needles that are used for seasoning and tea and wild rosehips that are good by themselves, in preserves, or made into tea. Just when it seemed everything was edible, Abby pointed out a few poisonous leaves and berries to avoid as well.

When the hike was over, Abby distributed a sheet to record our “catch of the day.” It listed possibilities found in other seasons such as ramps, wood nettle, autumn berry, and so much more. The list noted which can be particularly hard to identify and which must be cooked.

If we scored 20-plus in mid-winter, imagine the menus you can build with a mid-summer’s collection of mushrooms, berries, flowers and so much more.

Speaking of menu, you can even take your harvest to one of four Asheville restaurants where a top-name chef will transform it into a free appetizer. Kind of like Iron Chef meets Survivor Man.

Creating No Taste Like Home is part of Alan Muskat’s journey to Foraging Alanself-actualization.

About 25 years ago, studying philosophy at Princeton, the Miami native of Cuban ancestry first went hiking, learned to cook, and discovered taoism. These three encounters led to an interest in natural foods. At that point, Alan’s next comment is no surprise: “I decided to drop out, become a hippie and live off the land.”

In the best sense of doublespeak, he continues: “Foraging means taking things as they come. It was grounding for me. It gave me a sense of abundance.”

No Taste Like Home began, quite simply, because Alan ran out of money.  “I fell into it,” he says. “It was an outgrowth what I was already doing for myself. No one else was doing it and I thought, ‘I can teach this.’ I must have gotten the jump on the trend, because in the past three years, my business has twice doubled.”

Pausing, he says that for many reasons, the growing interest in wild food is really inevitable. “We have to get back to what’s truly natural. Even organic agriculture is neither local nor sustainable unless you’re growing what would thrive there on its own.”

Alan is working with Asheville schools to dispel any stigma about “eating weeds.” His company is offering a seven-month training program, starting this April, for people who want to learn to be wild food instructors, whether with his company or elsewhere.

It’s hard for Alan to pick a top wild food. He compares one of his favorites ­– autumn olive juice – to lychee fruit.  He sings the praises of what he calls fairy potato (commonly known as cinnamon vine).  But mushrooms top his list.  Or, then again, maybe it’s amaranth…

What’s your favorite wild edible? Favorite wild herb?

Register for Annual Meeting ON OR AFTER Feb. 9

annual meeting - 2016

Four speakers highlight the agenda for the The Herb Society of America Annual Meeting  on April 29, 2016, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Members recently received a reminder postcard.  Registration begins FEBRUARY 9th.

Follow the above link AFTER that day to sign up.

Add Biltmore to Annual Meeting Plans

Biltmore housefront12x8__large
All photos courtesy of The Biltmore Company


By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

When you plan for this year’s Herb Society of America Annual Meeting  on April 29, 2016, schedule extra time in Asheville, North Carolina. One of the most significant attractions is the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate.

House tours are self-guided and take 1.5 to two hours. Tickets include a free visit to the property’s winery. You can purchase add-ons such as audio, guided tour, rooftop tour and more.

Biltmore italiangarden12x8Tours of the estate gardens – 2.5 miles of manicured paths — may be more delightful for Herb Society members. Acres of formal and informal gardens were designed by America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. From the beauty of the Italian Garden to the breathtaking trees in America’s first managed forest, Biltmore’s lush landscape is a living tribute to Olmsted’s genius.

As a century-old model for forest conservation (and, more recently, for sustainability, thanks to nine acres of solar panels), Biltmore continues to honor Vanderbilt’s legacy of environmental protection.

While the property lacks a formal herb garden for visitors to wander, it has a utilitarian kitchen garden for use in the Biltmore’s six, sit-down restaurants. By the end of April, most of the kitchen garden fields will still be at rest.  The only sprouting things will be a couple thousand broccoli plants. The greenhouse, however, will be in full production with microgreens, flowers, lettuce, and herbs.

Field to Table Manager Eli Herman answered a few questions for HSA …

Biltmore production_garden12x10__largeQ. Is there a dedicated herb garden? Kitchen garden? 

A. We don’t have an herb/kitchen garden any more but we do have our Field to Table Production Garden. FTT focuses on larger plantings and less diversity than a kitchen garden.

Q. How big is the garden? 

A.Our current planting is about 2 acres and one 30- by 80-foot greenhouse.

Q. What herbs/produce are grown? 

A. Some of the crops we grow are blackberries, butternut squash, broccoli, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and sweet potatoes. We also have a small greenhouse where we grow microgreens, edible flowers and are developing hydroponic production for lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and chives.

Q. What are the crops used for?

A. Everything grown in FTT is used in one of the six restaurants on the estate.  Our goal is to have something available to every restaurant year round. The chefs determine where they will feature the products

Q. Can the visit the food gardens?  

A. USDA and USFDA food safety guidelines forbid visits by the general public.