I arrived in France last week to spend a few days with my friend Cecile Billard before we headed to Germany for a University reunion. I studied Forestry in Germany over 10 years ago and the reunion drew people from all over the world back together again for 4 glorious days in the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest).
As I walked into Cecile’s house for the first time, it was clear that wild plants are her deep passion. Bottles of prepared plant syrups lined her shelves (syrups are very common in Europe to flavour water), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) foraged earlier that day lay on the counter ready for dinner preparations. She immediately offered me water infused with edibles she picked from her back yard: mallow, stinging nettle, yarrow, comfrey, wild geranium to name just a few. It tasted so delicious! Why haven’t I been creating this medley from my own backyard?
The thing I quickly learned over the week is that many of the plants that Cecile was teaching me about are widely (and wildly) available here in Ontario. We are a few weeks behind climate wise, but still, they are available! Something in me was awoken by the passion that Cecile shared for her love of wild plants. So I started asking all kinds of questions. As someone who runs workshops for a living, I wanted to know how she runs her workshops, ‘how do you teach the difference between plant look-alikes. Those that are really dangerous but look similar to those that are perfectly edible to eat? The answer was quick, “I like to teach people how to identify all the attributes to a plant that is edible so that it is very clear that, yes, this one we can eat”. I still wasn’t super satisfied with this answer as I thought about the dangers that could come from making a mistake. But more on this later.
For dinner that first evening, Cecile directed me to the garden to pick comfrey. Comfrey is one of my most favourite plants. Period. It’s a dynamic accumulator which I find so fascinating. I have comfrey throughout my whole backyard here in Guelph under each fruit tree. Basically a dynamic accumulator is a plant that has really long tap roots. They dip deep, deep down into the soil, approximately 2 meters, and pull up nutrients that are not typically available to plants that have a shorter root system. The nutrients are stored in the leaves of the plant. As comfrey is a plant that grows very quickly, I go around to my comfrey plants, chop the plant right back down to the soil and lay the leaf matter around the drip line of the fruit tree so it can then decompose and give the tree all the nutrients that the comfrey harvested on its behalf. I love this! Comfrey is also used as an herbal remedy for burns, bruises, and to help stop bleeding. Anyway, I digress. We were in Cecile’s kitchen. Actually, I was picking comfrey in her garden. We used the comfrey that I picked to make a delicious dinner of comfrey leaves stuffed with a feta-like cheese, dipped in batter, and fried. Amazing.
So it went like this: throughout the week, we’d spend time on walks around town or through the Alsace region in France and finally the Black Forest in Germany and Cecile would just stop and tell us everything about the plants she knew about, which were many, so we didn’t get very far very quickly but I loved it! I learned about mallow (Malva sylvestris) and how it can be used medicinally for skin conditions and dried into a tea for coughs and throat conditions and the flower can be used for many things like salads or cookies!! Cecile made the most beautiful and amazing Gâteaux à la Fleur de Mauve cookies using the flowers from the mallow plant. Check out the recipe below.
On my adventures with Cecile I learned a lot about new plants that I had never heard of. Yes. Yes. I’ve been to many of Minga’s own foraging workshops, but I’m always working during these workshops. My brain is focused on other logistical things that ensure the workshop runs smoothly. I’m never fully present in the learning. But this past week, I was a student in Cecile’s plant world and what I have really taken home with me from this experience (besides some really great wild edible recipes) is that when you begin to know a plant in practice (when you interact with it, use it, observe it), there is much slimmer chance of making a mistake. The plant becomes easily identifiable. I stopped just seeing a forest with a beautiful plant medley that blurs into one sea of mostly green and I started seeing the forest floor came alive with plants that I knew by name and habit, like a group of old friends at a reunion. Wow. My lens, my point of view on the forest was forever changed in one short week.
So back to my original worry about Cecile’s explanation of how to differentiate between various look-a-likes; my problem was that I was trying to figure it out in thought. I was in my head trying to understand the theory. But when I actually experienced the plant first hand and could smell it, I could touch it and know its texture, the way it smells, how light shines through the leaves, how the plant looks – the shape of the leaves, the size of the leaves, the look of the flower, the smell of the flower, there was no question about whether the plant was the actual edible plant or something that was dangerous. Even when comparing them side by side, it was still so obvious. When Cecile told me that the hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) that we had for dinner the night before was in the same family and had a similar look to the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), I panicked a little bit as this is actually quite a dangerous plant, until later in the week when I began to really trust in my senses (touching, smelling, seeing, tasting) on plant identification. I could begin to spot out the edible hogweed everywhere. It was clear. It was obvious. Even when we came across its cousin, the Giant Hogweed, it was so clearly different, even if just in the shape of the leaves alone, that all my fears disappeared and I began to trust myself.
Edible Hogweed Non-edible Giant Hogweed
*** Do not touch Giant Hogweed. It contains toxins that can cause severe dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). You can get severe burns if you get the sap on your skin and the skin is then exposed to sunlight.
The take away I came home with and that confirmed (again!) for me why hands-on workshops like the ones Minga offers are so important, is that clarity and distinguishing come through using our bodies as a learning vessel not just through trying to figure it out through a guidebook with pictures and only calling upon our mental abilities. The clarity came through experimentation, not just through thought alone.
Learning through hands-on experience takes things from understanding to distinguishing.
Gâteaux à la Fleur de Mauve
Time: 70 minutes Servings: 20-22 Difficulty: Medium
Recipe provided by Cecile herself. You can learn more about Cecile and her foraging adventures at https://sauvagesgourmandes.wordpress.com/
pinch of salt
20 mallow (Malva sylvestris) flowers. If you do not have enough flowers, its OK. Some cookies will have a flower and some won't.
1 large egg white for brushing the flowers onto the cookie dough
Place butter and sugar in the bowl of a food processor; process until creamy.
Add egg and salt, process for 30 seconds until combined.
Add 1/2 of the flour and process until smooth.
Add remaining flour to processor; process to combine.
Turn dough out onto work surface and form into flat square; wrap with plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator until chilled.
Place a nonstick baking mat on work surface. Place chilled dough on counter. Roll out dough until it is 1/8-inch-thick.
Wrap in plastic wrap or other reusable cover. Transfer to fridge to chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter or anything that is the shape you want, I use a mason jar lid, cut out dough and transfer to prepared baking sheets.
Transfer baking sheets to refrigerator until dough is chilled, about 20 minutes.
Roll out scraps, and repeat until you're out of dough. Be sure to chill for about 20 minutes after rolling and cutting.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together remaining egg yolk with 1 teaspoon water; brush tops of cookies with egg white mixture.
Lay a mallow flower flat and brush with more egg white. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
Transfer to oven. Bake until cookies are pale golden, 10 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool.