After the group is done gathering, they go to a private kitchen space in Brooklyn and cook a six- to eight-course gourmet meal using the foraged ingredients. Dishes have included a Japanese knotweed cocktail made from ginger liquer, lemon juice and knotweed (an invasive plant that grows all over New York state); pizza made with ramps and fiddlehead ferns; and nettle ice cream, a bright green frozen custard that tastes like green tea.
As for the hazards of foraging, both Andler and Matsumoto say that no one should go out gathering by themselves until they’ve learned exactly how to identify the plants that grow in their area. “Read plant identification books, cross-check references on the web and, above all, take tours with an expert,” Matsumoto suggests. “Get to know the best way to prepare and cook the plants you’re picking, which plants have poisonous look-alikes and which are safe to eat.”
As the trend of urban foraging grows, one subgroup that is emerging is foragers who want to turn their wild food finds into a business, be it selling jams, jellies, tarts or condiments. Take Xárene Eskandar, the founder of Tartist, a small artisan bakery in Los Angeles. “It all started with a friend of mine who had a tree overflowing with beautiful black figs,” she says. “I had been making pumpkin and chocolate tarts for friends for years, and I had a recipe for a fig tart from my mother that I wanted to try.”
After that, Eskandar says her friends and neighbors started calling her up and offering her the extra fruit from their yards. The results were so successful that last August, Eskandar officially went into business and began offering seasonal tarts made from foraged fruit, including pears, apples, persimmons and figs.
The problem Eskandar and other aspiring business owners like her have is that to legally sell to farmers markets and gourmet cafés, vendors must produce their wares in a commercial kitchen. For many artisan food foragers, this expense is too great. Enter underground food markets, a growing phenomenon throughout the country where foragers and other food producers participate in private, invitation-only events that can bring big exposure for their culinary creations.
Iso Rabins started the SF Underground Market in 2009 in a private home in the Mission district of San Francisco. The ?premiere event had eight vendors and was attended by 200 people. Today, the market, which takes place every few months at various locations throughout the Bay Area, has grown to 47 vendors and more than 1,200 visitors.
Similarly, Shawna Dawson created Artisanal LA, a private two-day food event held in the downtown fashion district. The weekend festival, attended by more than 5,000 people, features independent food producers, lectures, demonstrations and tastings. Dawson says that the growing appeal of these types of events across the country is that they allow both the food producer and the customer to be part of a shared community. “I think the success of these underground markets speaks to the fact that we want to connect with the people and places where our food comes from,” Dawson says. But for the average eater who isn’t into food foraging for business purposes or merely for the fun of it, what does it have to offer? Plenty, says Green.
“A lot of these flavors, you can’t get in any other fashion,” she says. “And when you find it in the wild, it’s free.”