As you may have guessed I come from a long line of “gleaners.”
My dictionary defines gleaning as “picking up.” I define it as “gathering.”
In our case it meant gathering wild food-stuffs. I don’t know how far back this tradition went ... my Grandfather certainly was a gleaner of those marvelous small wild blackberries that make fantastic pie (not those fat Himalayan ones that have become a pest and a menace).
Not many people gather the wild ones now and they don’t know what they are missing. Jim, my darling departed husband, adopted the habit with enthusiasm. He called it “getting something for nothing,” which was not quite true. You didn’t pay money for what you found, but it was a lot of hard work.
The berries were small, they grew on very thorny vines and the best ones always seemed to be in burned-off areas of the forest, so they grew amongst blackened fallen trees, in pretty well inaccessible areas. But they were worth every scratch, every filthy garment, every bruised knee or stained lower lip (you had to eat a few to give you the strength to go on picking).
Grandpa, who lived many years ago in Washington State, used to pick them by the bucket and my Grandmother bottled them for winter pies (no freezers in those days).
As kids, my brothers and I picked and ate blackcaps, wild raspberries, wild strawberries, huckleberries and sour grass.
More recently I picked and cooked and ate wild “shaggy mane” mushrooms. Jim drew a line in the sand over them and refused to be tempted, but they tasted great and I survived, didn’t I?
Please don’t try it without careful research though.
We also gleaned stinging nettles, wearing gloves and using scissors to harvest only the top cluster and the first true leaves. They taste like a more sharply flavoured spinach.
We also harvested fiddleheads, the delicious crisp, curled ends of emerging ferns. These also need proper identification, as the common sword fern’s emerging foliage is mildly poisonous.
I have actually seen fiddleheads recently in grocery-store freezers and decided they must now be being raised commercially.
I’m not tempted to buy these. ... they just couldn’t taste the same without the agony and the delight of picking them in the woods, down by the edge of a deep valleyed stream.
The climb up to the road was always a killer!
Your back was tired from leaning over, the bag of fiddleheads was awkward and had to be treated tenderly.
The valley was deep and the sides steep and slippery, but, oh, those fiddleheads did taste marvelous and were a rare and delectable treat when steamed and topped with a sprinkle of salt and a little bit of butter.
Helen Lang has been the Peninsula News Review’s garden columnist for more than 30 years.