Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining Hank Shaw in lovely Bodega Bay, California, to learn about the bounty of wild edibles that thrive along the Northern California coast.
Hank knows a thing or two about wild food. Longtime author of the James Beard-nominated blog Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, he released a book on foraging, hunting and fishing last year titled "Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast." It's a book I thoroughly enjoy poring through.
Hank took us through three distinct zones along the shore: The intertidal zone, where shellfish thrive; the area just where the beach meets the cliffs, and atop the cliffs. In between, in the barren sandy stretch of the actual beach, quipped Hank, "nothing lives there but sunbathers."
We covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. In the area at the base of the cliffs, Hank pointed out ice plant, one of the most prolific plants along the coast, noting that while it is technically edible, he has not been able to make it palatable, finding the fleshy leaves too salty and bitter. The gelatinous fruits, however, have a mild sweetness and are more useful.
In with the ice plant he pointed out evening primrose, whose taproots he is very fond of, with a potato-like texture but with a more interesting flavor. You can identify it by its long, blade-shaped leaves with a white rib. These were getting ready to bolt, so they were past their useful stage, and would have been bitter.
Some plants are still useful when flowering. Wild radish, which is almost indistinguishable from wild mustard and wild arugula, will go bitter when flowering, but the unopened buds can be used just like broccoli rabe.
And then there's miner's lettuce, which Hank calls "California's gift to the salad plate." It is one of the only plants he can think of whose taste does not change noticeably whilst in flower.
One of Hank's favorite wild edibles is sea rocket. Related to the common arugula we've all come to know and love, sea rocket has fleshy, succulent leaves and a strong peppery taste with a bitter finish.
Another of what he considers to be the four world-class edibles that abound here was New Zealand spinach. Again a relative of its more common counterpart, it can be blanched and used much as you would regular spinach.
The last of the four world-class ingredients is sea beans. Yet again a succulent plant, these were crisp and lightly salty with a flavor much like actual beans. Unfortunately, though this is a spot Hank had frequented for many years, the previous day a ranger informed him that we could not harvest from that location.
We found California bay -- as in the bay leaves you buy at the store. Normally California bay leaves are much stronger than the Turkish ones more commonly sold, but Hank noted that the ones by the coast are milder and sweeter. We each grabbed a leaf (being careful not to accidentally grab the poison oak that was nestled within the bush -- be careful where and how you forage!) and crushed it up. The scent was intoxicating, and actually made me a little light-headed for a moment.
Not everything we found was intended for eating, per se. Some are more for aromatic or medicinal purposes. For example, we found artemisia, a relative of which is the active ingredient in absinthe. Horehound, a mint relative, has an intense camphorous flavor, but when made into a syrup or candies is very effective at soothing sore throats. Yarrow is another intensely aromatic plant with a unique property -- it's a strong coagulant. When he sliced off the tip of his finger last year, Hank mashed up a yarrow leaf and packed it on the wound. Within 15 minutes the bleeding had completely stopped.
I've used yarrow in bitters before, and Hank remarked that if he were to do a Bodega bitters, he might use yarrow, artemisia and horehound. I think I'll have to give that a try.
And of course some plants are not meant to be consumed at all. He pointed out hemlock (yes, as in the stuff that killed Socrates), which bears an unfortunate resemblance to wild carrot. There are some key differences, though. The hemlock leaf stalks are flecked with red, whereas carrots will not have that. The flowers are quite different. Moreover, when you pull the roots out, wild carrots unsurprisingly smell like carrot -- intensely so; hemlock will smell very different, and unpleasant. But it pays to be cautious, for hemlock is one of the most poisonous plants in North America.
As the tide was falling, Hank strolled out to a rock covered in mussels, bringing back one to show us. These were California mussels, unlike the common mussels generally farmed. We're just on the verge of the annual quarantine now, when all mussels may harbor marine toxins, so we didn't risk eating them. When they're edible, however, you may get a small bonus prize by harvesting your own. Sometimes inside a mussel is a tiny soft-shelled pea crab, completely edible as well.
After a few hours our heads were full but our bellies were empty. We set up on a picnic table at Doran Beach, where Hank laid out a feast of his handmade goods: Pickled ramps with saffron, pickled artichokes with marvelous firm texture, wild hare and smoked venison sausages, and some rose hip syrup to make a refreshing soda, all this with some fresh bread and salad to round it out. The meal and company alone would have been worth the very reasonable cost (which includes a copy of his book), but the knowledge is absolutely priceless.