Forager Pascal Baudar wildcrafts plants, herbs and fungi from the wild, then uses them as ingredients to create food and beverages that he says express the true flavor of the environment. He is the author of two great books on the topic, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine and The Wildcrafting Brewer. Contributor Russ Parsons talked with Pascal about his passion for foraging and the restorative result of recent destructive California wildfires on some of his favorite foraging spots. Try your hand at making Pascal Baudar's recipes for Nasturitum and Watercress Hot Sauce and No-Fermentation Soda.
Russ Parsons: Tell us a little bit about the foraging you do and how you got into it.
Pascal Baudar: I pretty much grew up that way in Belgium. I grew up in a tiny little farming town with maybe 1,000 people. We had a garden; we had chickens and rabbits. My grandma used to send me into the forest and say, “Can you get me some nettles?” Or walnuts, or hazelnuts. That's what got me into foraging. From that perspective, I never had this conception of being disconnected from nature. There is always food everywhere. What I do is study the flavor of a landscape, of an environment. I can do that in California, I do it in Vermont, sometimes I go back to Belgium. My passion is to discover what is the taste of a location.
RP: Can you give us some examples? Like here in southern California, what are some of the things that you collect?
PB: There are so many things. For example, mustard. We have mustard everywhere. Nobody does anything with mustard here in Los Angeles; people don't think about it as something edible. They're all edible. A good one, for example, would be the black mustard, which is super invasive. You can make the most incredible Dijon mustard. But you can also go for other plants. Here in my hand I have a mountain vinegar that I make myself. I make my own cider with Manzanita berries; I change it into vinegar, and then I infuse it with pinion pine, mushrooms, all kinds of different wild berries. If you smell it, it completely smells like the mountain. People absolutely go crazy on that one. It's one way to take a look at the environment and research the flavor to be able to create condiments out of it.
Pascal Baudar teaches classes on foraging and fermentation (left, top right) and creates recipes such as Forest Beer (lower right) from the ingredients gathered in the wilderness in Southern California. Photos provided by Pascal Baudar
RP: What are some of the other ways that you capture and preserve these flavors?
PB: Last time I counted there were 16 different methods of food preservation. You can make wine, sodas, or infusions. I can turn all the drinks that I make into vinegar, I can make sauce or condiments. Last week, I was making some oyster mushroom ketchup. I can do an infinity of products, really.
RP: Where do you collect these things? Do you have favorite hunting grounds?
PB: What you're looking for will dictate the environment that you're looking for it. I have 2,000 acres of private property, so I do all my foraging on private property. If it's non-native, then I don't care. I can go to a place and pick up dandelion – no one wants dandelion. And by the way, 90 percent of the things I collect are actually non-native, because the native stuff is usually very strong. Foraging can be a little bit controversial, but I look at foraging as one way to actually help the environment at the same time.
RP: Are you on the coastal plains? Are you on hills?
PB: I'm all over the place. If I want to make the mountain vinegar, my friend Claudia has a whole property and she has 60 acres of pinion pine and white fir. I just go over there and collect whatever I need. Close to Los Angeles, I have some friends who have property in the Angeles Forest.
RP: All those hillside properties. Everybody knows this winter was just horrible as far as wildfires. Were you affected by that?
PB: I pretty much lost everything. What I used to do in the Angeles Forest – on the property where I use to have my wild food garden – I had a beer garden and a spice garden, both that I created with native plants – it’s all gone. At the same time, I took a look at it, I'm saying, “How can I use that to be more creative?”
RP: Can you tell us the first time you went back after the fire, what did you see?
PB: There's nothing. I had never seen something like that before. It was just completely black. Some of the bigger trees are still there. The oak trees are okay; they survived the fire. But there was nothing left. The smell was like bacon. There was smoke everywhere. It was scary. But the interesting part – and I’m not a botanist – but from my perspective, I'm seeing the native plants coming back and not the non-native plants, which is interesting. The environment cleaning itself to some degree. I see much more native plants growing right now than ever before.
RP: That's fascinating.
PB: You have a lot of plants like mugwort showing up. Wild essence, California sagebrush, giant nettles, they’re all native plants that are taking off. A lot of grass too. The hillside is turning green right now. It's interesting that in the old days people used to do that on purpose. It was a process of regeneration. I'm still learning, and it’s a fascinating learning process. As horrible as it was, I'm looking at it more from an educational experience and see what I can learn from it.
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Russ Parsons was the food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach. He is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and has won awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Association of Food Journalists and the James Beard Foundation.