Wild Harvest

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

I love the painting “Berry Pickers”, below, by American painter Winslow Homer. It reminds me of how I imagined Anne of Green Gables when I was young. The hats and dresses, the boots, the wind, and the water in the distance.

And even though I think the children in the painting are probably picking blueberries, it reminds me of picking wild strawberries in the field across the road, when I was a kid. Not that we ever looked as charming as these children. Clad in our shorts and sneakers. Sitting on the ground, eating as many berries as we collected. Hands red, mouths smeared. Eventually managing maybe a cupful to carry home. I’m telling you, those suckers were tiny. And it took an age to get a cupful. Still, that sweet wild harvest, however small, was such a treat.

"Berry Pickers" painting by Winslow Homer.
Berry Pickers by Winslow Homer source

Wild harvests are still a thing in many different parts of Canada. And maybe where you live as well. And not just wild berries in the summer. In the part of New Brunswick where I’m from, picking fiddleheads in May has long been a spring ritual. Fiddleheads are the tightly furled early growth of the wild ostrich fern. When I was young we picked fiddleheads on Sugar Island in the Saint John River. They emerged when the spring flood had abated, and the fertile banks on the island were dry and sunlit. That shot below is of me, my stepfather, my mum and a neighbour heading over to the island on the farmer’s ferry to pick fiddleheads in May 1983.

On our way to pick fiddleheads, New Brunswick, 1983.
Fiddlehead Pickers

Fiddlehead season is short. They must be picked early, while the frond is tightly furled. And only the head and a bit of the stem are edible. I scoffed when I was looking on-line today for fiddlehead lore. Some recipe sites showed bundles of fresh fiddleheads that we would never have picked nor eaten. Heads already starting to unfurl, with long, skinny stems, that were clearly, to my eyes, picked way too late.

Hubby was already picking fiddleheads when I met him. I was amazed that fiddleheads could be found here in Ottawa. I thought they were strictly a Maritime thing. But although he loved to pick them, he didn’t know how to cook or even how to eat them properly. Fiddleheads must be well cooked. First because they are wild and you have to be careful what kind of water they grow near. And secondly because when they are well cooked, and smothered in butter, salt and a sprinkle of vinegar, they taste divine.

I remember the first time I had dinner at Hubby’s home. He served me fiddleheads as a surprise treat. I gamely chewed and chewed, and swallowed, taking a gulp of wine to mask the taste. Smiling sweetly all the time. It must have been love; those fiddleheads were hideous. It took a bit of finagling to get out of him how he’d prepared them without offending. But soon he was a total convert to the method we’d always used at home.

This is Hubby’s wild harvest from the other day. They’ve been cleaned, and cleaned again, blanched, and are ready to freeze. Hubby checked his picking site several times in the last week or so. Waiting impatiently for them to pop up. And when he came home with this harvest, he was irate. Someone else had been picking on his patch. I married a forager, folks. And a competitive forager at that.

Our wild fiddlehead harvest this year.
Our wild fiddlehead harvest.

On the weekend Hubby and I had our first “feed” of fiddleheads of the year… with broiled salmon. Yum, yum. On Saturday we drove to my sister’s house to pick up a package of face masks she’d brought home for us from her drugstore. We’d brought her some groceries, some fresh salmon, and a feed of fresh fiddleheads. New Brunswickers are always appreciative of a gift of fiddleheads. Face masks for fiddleheads could become the new underground economy.

Below, you can see Hubby’s second wild harvest this year. I told you he was a forager. He knows a great place to pick wild garlic. So when he came home with this find, we washed and peeled for two days. So finicky to get the slippery skin off. Then Hubby chopped and chopped, and mixed up a batch of delicious wild garlic and potato soup. Just now I’ve been checking different sites on-line and I’m still not sure if our harvest is wild leek, wild garlic, or something called ramps. Nevermind. The soup is delicious, a lovely mix of potato and onion and mild garlic flavour.

Harvest of wild garlic from near Kars, Ontario.
Wild garlic or wild leeks.

After the soup success, Hubby went back to his patch and picked a bunch of wild garlic leaves. We didn’t know until he did some recipe research online that they were good to eat. Hubby tossed half the bunch into the food dehydrator, to use later in soups and stews. And this afternoon, I’m going to make pesto with the rest. Then in a day or so, I’ll make some fresh pasta and we’ll have wild garlic pesto pasta. Should be delicious…. I hope.

Harvest of wild garlic from near Kars, Ontario.
Wild garlic leaves.

I grew up eating all kinds of wild edibles from around the farm. Mum didn’t limit herself to the garden harvest. If it looked good and was edible she picked it, cooked it, put a sauce on it, preserved it, pickled it, or made it into jam.

When she married my stepfather and we moved to the farm, I think the luxury of time to cook now that she no longer worked full-time outside the home was intoxicating for her. Not that she wasn’t always busy, painting and papering the old farmhouse, cleaning, cooking, baking for us all, knitting sweaters, helping Lloyd with the garden in the summer, and the butchering in the fall. And later after we had all left home, driving tractor for the haying on the island. But I think it must have been a sort of luxury to be able to decide how she would use her time, after years of full-time employment, worrying about money, and raising four kids on her own.

And then there was the bounty of the farm. The fiddleheads, of course. One year we processed and bagged fifty-seven meal-sized bags of fiddleheads to freeze. Both of my sisters, grown-up and living on their own, and their roommate were pressed into service to help. I counted when we were done, and I’ve obviously never forgotten the final total. Ha. Wild blackberries grew profusely in one of our back pastures. But it was a hike to reach them, and so our neighbour showed up each year with a big basket of berries. Mum always said fondly that he was the best picker she knew. Then there were a few trees of wild plums the fruit of which mum preserved in syrup. And wild mint from the brook to be made into jelly. She even made chokecherry jelly one year.

Hubby is a man after my mum’s own heart. Like her, he’ll pick anything that grows. He introduced me to wild mushrooms. Every year around my birthday he hunts for morel mushrooms to make my special birthday supper. We used to find shaggy mane mushrooms quite often when we were fishing, but we haven’t had them for years now. When we were in New Brunswick in the summer, Hubby would pick baskets of chokecherries and bring them home to make wine. And once when we were camping up the Ottawa Valley, he disappeared one early morning, and returned hours later with a huge bowl of wild blueberries, face a mass of bug bites, grinning proudly. I made some delicious blueberry jam from that harvest.

And then there is Hubby’s most recently acquired spring foraging obsession. Wild asparagus. He didn’t know how to find it until the wife of a friend explained a few years ago. Now it’s a spring thing for us. Definitely our favourite wild harvest. I’m serious, you haven’t tasted asparagus until you’ve tried the wild stuff. So tasty and succulent. Even the huge stalks, which you’d think would be woody and tough, are wonderful.

And though I’m a loyal New Brunswicker, and wouldn’t miss my spring feed of fiddleheads, I think I now prefer wild asparagus.

Shhh. Don’t tell on me. A New Brunswicker preferring anything to fiddleheads is scandalous. I might be run out of town on a rail when I next go home.

How about you my friends? Do you have wild berry picking memories? Any other wild harvests that you take advantage of near you?

From the archives

life

Meanwhile… Back At The Ranch… Taking Stock

Let’s have an update on our fall so far, shall we? Our painful adventures. Or should I say, our adventures in pain. Back at the ranch.

life

Time Marches On and All That

Since my Mum has grown older, I’ve learned that it can take a village to care for the elderly.

fashion

New Year; New Stuff

Ah, yes. Winter in Manotick. Everything is lovely and clean, pristine and peaceful. Bucolic, even. …

Email delivery

Would you like to have new stories automatically delivered to your inbox? When a new story appears on the website, we’ll send the story right to your inbox. 

* indicates required

44 thoughts on “Wild Harvest”

  1. I had heard of but not seen fiddle heads until a May visit to Maine, when they were in the grocery store produce section, tiny tight spirals. I asked how to cook them and the checker called his grandma and put her on speaker to spell out her approach. I had to go back and buy butter, but they were delicious.

    ceci

  2. Aw, I remember afternoons with my grandmother, mother, and sister picking saskatoons and chokecherries which grew beside the road allowance near my grandmother’s house. Picking saskatoons was OK because they were sweet enough to eat, but, oh, those chokecherries were mouth puckeringly sour. Still, I loved chokecherry jam so I tried not to complain too much.

    I also have fond memories of crawling around on my hands and knees for those tiny wild strawberries on our hiking trips. So good, especially when we had been lucky enough to catch a couple of rainbow trout from a cold mountain stream to serve as our main course for dinner.

    1. We had saskatoon berries for the first time when we visited friends who lived in.. yep… Saskatoon. My friend had grown up on a farm “on the bald prairie” as she always said. She made a wonderful saskatoon berry pie for Hubby’s birthday when we were visiting.

  3. Wendy in York

    We used to forage years ago . As children there were blackberries , blueberries , watercress & wild garlic ( walking through a wild garlic wood now takes me right back to childhood – the scent ) . Dad was the mushroom expert but I’m too wary of the dangerous ones to do it now . I’d like to try your fiddleheads but I’m not sure if our wild ferns are your wild ferns ? There’s no tradition of eating them here . In the seventies there was a wine making craze in the UK & we were busy picking & crushing elderberries , rose hips , crab apples etc . We discussed our hobby with a French wine maker once on holiday & she informed us , rather sniffily ‘ That is NOT wine ‘ !
    Off on a tangent , I like that painting . We have recently discovered the Canadian artists called The Group of Seven & are quite besotted . Wonderful lively works , such colours & brightness which put us in mind of Van Gogh . We discussed the group with some art loving friends who have also never come across them & we’re all surprised that we haven’t heard of them before . Such a pleasure to find them now .

    1. I think Mum found watercress in our brook one year. Stu has given up on the winemaking now, but he only made it with his foraged harvest. Chokecherry wine was our favourite. One wine tasted like mouthwash…yuk.
      P.S. We love Group of Seven paintings too. Stu particularly loves the ones by Tom Thompson many of which are of Algonquin Park where we canoe. That’s where Tom Thompson died.

  4. Wild blueberries make the best pies and jam. They grew by the cemeteries and on the plains where I grew up. But we did have to keep an eye out for bears…they love them, too!

    In all my years of traveling to Maine for work, I never did try the fiddlehead ferns. But everyone I know from Maine loves them.

    1. My mum used to make wild blueberry pudding, as we called it. It was more of a cobbler, with blueberries on the bottom and biscuit dough on the top. Oh my god… it was so good warm with cream.

  5. Going foraging this afternoon. We have had several feeds of Ramps….by whatever name, and I made a delicious ramp and potato soup. Looking forward to asparagus, fiddleheads and wild rhubarb. I love the first, fresh tastes of spring.

  6. What a wonderful post! I would love to hear more about living in New Brunswick. Visiting the maritimes is on my bucket list for sure. I am coming back to the foraging ways of my parents. We are “preserving” a section of blackberry vines instead of mowing them in the paddock next door, in hopes of blackbery cobblers and jams later this year!

  7. I grew up on Long Island, NY in the 50’s. We had woods behind our house full of blueberries and blackberries, wild grapes, and our neighbor had an orchard with apples and pears. My sisters and I would head out after breakfast and return home, nothing to show for it, but bellies full and clothes, faces and fingers stained!
    In Texas now, I sorely miss the smell of those woods!

    1. It’s lovely to be out in the woods and come across a wild apples tree. This happens quite often when we’re stream fishing because we have to do a lot of walking.

  8. I first discovered spruce tips when I was visiting Haida Gwaii and now spring collection is a tradition at my home on the Pacific coast. There are many uses of the soft pale green tips but I usually just make spruce tip vinegar and a honey.

  9. When we spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard, there was a wild fiddlehead fern season, and I would literally eat them three meals a day. I’ve never seen them on the west coast of the U.S. but wish they’d bring them from the east – one of my favorite foods.

    1. It’s so great to hear about someone loving fiddleheads. Most of my friends turn up their nose at them. But that’s probably because they’ve never had them fresh picked and properly cooked.

  10. I loved reading this post. Your food adventures are amazing and you and Stu work so well together at this kind of living. I’m excitedly looking forward to my first CSA basket a week from today. It’s not foraged but it’s fresh out of the ground. Spring is here finally (fingers crossed).

  11. I lived in Maine for 52 years, before moving to Nebraska. Fiddleheads, ah fiddleheads, I love them and looked forward to eating them every year. My Mom and I went on a hunt one year, but never found any. I had to rely on our local markets. The year my daughter turned one, fiddleheads were a favorite for her. I miss fiddleheads and found some at Trader Joe’s a few years ago – they were not good.
    In Maine, I did pick berries and remember one time (after some tree cutting in one area of our property) blackberry bushes sprung up and blackberry pies were on the menu for some time. I also remember, when my family was young, going hiking “up country” and seeing where the bears had matted down the bush berries sitting there and raking the berries into their mouths.
    I also love Winslow Homer and remember going to the Bowdoin College museum in Brunswick, Maine. They had a large collection of Winslow Homer paintings. I believe it is a permanent collection.
    I think this is the first time I have commented. I have followed your blog for years and look forward to your posts.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Liz. We use the term “up country” as well. For us it meant up the Saint John River Valley. I’d never heard of Winslow Homer until I started researching paintings of berry pickers. I love his work.

  12. Hello, We grew up eating wild berries, asparagus and love ramps, fiddleheads and morels. Lots of people forage for them around here and yes, spots are secretive! Especially morels. We miss them as our local restaurants would serve all of that. Yes, jams, canning and freezing were a part of our childhoods. We are planting the garden this weekend and my indoor seeding has done well. Now, must go and taste the strawberry and rhubarb pie that husband took out of the oven. It’s a work from home day for him and what he did over his “lunch hour”!

  13. I love your lifestyle ♥️. Just recently I’ve been following homesteaders blogs and learning more about food preservation. I don’t have a lot of knowledge or skills, but I used to harvest plums from my grandmother’s tree and dehydrate them Absolutely the sweetest plums ever. What a joy it was to read your blog today! Maybe I can find some like minded people down here in GA and learn foraging from them. Have a blessed day 😊

    1. Thanks, Paula. Hubby dehydrated plums one year to take canoeing and fishing. One day I kept snacking on them and he said…”You do realize that you’ve just eaten six plums don’t you?” Ack. Took a few minutes to feel the full impact of all that fruit. Ha. They were delicious… but six was a bit too much.

  14. Just an “off topic” note — on the side panel of today’s blog (which, as always, was wonderfully evocative) I noticed the title of a suggested older blog post — When Well-loved Books Become Movies from February 9, 2015. I looked at it and read your musings about The Goldfinch and who would play the parts. I wonder if you have now seen the movie The Goldfinch and, if so, how it fit with your suggestions?

  15. Great post, Sue, it brought back wonderful memories for me.
    Growing up in Derbyshire, we went blackberrying at the end of every summer. We’d come home with purple stains everywhere, not to mention the scratches… The juiciest berries were always in the thickest brambles. Sometimes we’d take Grandad’s old walking stick to hook them down. Mum would make blackberry and apple pies, and nobody has ever made pastry as good as my mum did.
    Mum and Dad also collected what they called “leaf mould”, basically mulch and soil from the surrounding hills, which they would dig into the veggie patch as compost. I hated vegetables as a child, but I’d love to try theirs now, sadly they both died over 40 years ago.
    Jules

  16. I love to pick blackberries. One year I froze 71 litres! And I love chokecherry jelly, my favourite, even more than wild high bush cranberry jelly. One year, I was too busy to make jelly. I said so to Daddy, who promptly picked me a large bag of cranberries. Soooo… I found time.

    You have reminded me, though, of the first fall that I lived in Fredericton in adult married student housing. I found a chokecherry bush at the edge of the property. I was busy picking, when I found myself surrounded by a group of Iranian student wives. Not a one spoke English, but they let me know they were curious. What faces they made when they tasted them! They waited at the bush while I went indoors to retrieve my copy of Weeds of the Woods. I think they thought I was nuts! From that memorable picking, I made a very small batch of chokecherry wine, so delicious that I’ve never been able to replicate it.

    Yesterday I checked the fiddleheads. Just their brown tops were showing. I’ll check again today. ❤️

    1. I think Mum found high bush cranberries one year. And the other day she reminded me of the “sand cherries” she used to pick on the beach at the upper end of Sugar Island. Stu misses making chokecherry wine. But the chokecherry harvest at home has been much diminished in the last few years. They’ve become hard to find. I think you must be just coming into fiddlehead season, there, eh? It was always around my birthday at the end of May. At least two to three weeks earlier here. 🙂

  17. Since childhood, not many summers have passed without my getting scratched to bits filling bowls and cans and buckets of blackberries. In our last home, on the island, they grew thickly on the verge between the dirt road and our back fence, and I let them over the fence with just enough room inside that I could pick them every August (suited up with jeans tucked inside rubber boots, a long-sleeved shirt of sturdy fabric, hair firmly tucked into a spider-repelling hat — not comfortable in 27C weather, but every item necessary, and I still got scratched). Slimmer pickings in the city, and I haven’t yet found a spot where I’m confident enough about what might have been sprayed nearby. . . .
    The grandkids love to find and eat huckleberries, thimbleberries, and salmonberries, as did their parents whenever we went hiking or camping or even just picnicking. . . .

    1. Blackberries can be nasty to pick. Worse than raspberries. Huckleberries and salmonberries are not around here that I know, anyway. And I’ve never even heard of thimbleberries. So much bounty still out there, eh?

  18. Sue,congratulations on your You Tube channel! I’m so happy
    I’m so curious about fiddleheads- they must be divine,wild asparagus are my favourites (although I love garden species as well)
    I’ve spent one early autumn in Moscenicka Draga some forty years ago,we went hiking every day,picking blackberries and making jam (confiture)- it was the most delicious confiture ever
    Dottoressa

    1. Thanks Dottoressa. But my YouTube channel is nothing much… it’s just where I publish my little videos for the blog or for Instagram. I’d like to try to learn how to edit short videos into one longer one. That’s going to be my next learning curve.
      P.S. Wild berry jam is the best, isn’t it?

  19. Loved this post Sue … I had no idea what fiddleheads were, so good to learn all about them and to realise that you could cook with wild garlic etc … Also wonderful to be transported back in time, to my teens when I spent time in the Scottish Borders, where my brother lived. Such happy memories of walking through the Glen in Newtown St Boswell’s to swim in the River Tweed, the scent of the wild garlic was intoxicating.
    Picking elderflowers from hedgerows with friends and our children to make Elderflower Cordial and when it came to picking berries, I always ate more than I took home! 😂
    Rosie

    1. It’s wonderful to have memories like ours of spending summer days outside in the countryside, isn’t it? I’ve had elderflower cordial from the store and it’s really good. But I’ve never seen or picked elderflowers.

  20. ChristineCascadia

    Your post made me think back to my early college days when the Euell Gibbons books (“Stalking the Wild Asparagus” was one title) were popular. He was quite the food forager celebrity. I remember being especially fascinated by the chapter on preparing/eating pond cattails, although I wisely decided that it was best for me to forego the gathering and stick to just reading about how to do it. Ha!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *