On the hunt for wild food with the Restaurant Eugene crew

Posted on April 29, 2010

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Bright and early Monday morning, I tagged along on a Chef Linton Hopkins sponsored foraging trip in the Northeast Georgia Mountains. The James Beard nominated chef of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch considers trips like this a needed enrichment for his staff. Chef de Cuisine Ryan Smith, Bar Manager Nick Hearin and crew caravanned to Rabun County to meet Patricia Howell, an author, herbalist and foraging guru. We followed her Volvo station wagon up winding roads into an undisclosed location in a nook of the mountain side. She wasted no time ducking the fence and bushwhacking up the hill. She led the group, stopping at wild, flavorful plants at almost every step. The restaurant crew, perhaps a little shell shocked from the early morning trip, sleepily nodded at her lessons…until they had a whiff of sassafrass. Once they caught the scent, the hunt was on.

On Patricia’s direction, line cook Kenan dug up a thin green-leafed, twig-looking plant. After a quick shave of the bark, the sensory-sensitive Chef Ryan Smith was noticeably impressed. A root beer lover, he had never met the original main ingredient, sassafrass, in the flesh. A species of deciduous tree, the sassafrass flavor is sweet with an herbaceous, annis bite. He took the plant in hand immediately, comparing leaves and scanning the ground for more. All day long, he climbed logs and scuffled over embankments, but he never let go of his lone sassafras twig.

On the path, we also found wild onions, garlic, fiddlehead ferns and orchids. We harvested Indian cucumbers, which looked and tasted like delicious micro radishes. Chef Richard Neal pulled in the most glamorous catch, three large morel mushrooms in a clearing that Patricia thought might be particularly fruitful. The tan reticulated fungus looked like a little brain. “Mushrooms are the fruit of the mycelium. That’s the larger organism. It’s little underground threads stretching all over this area.” Like a spider web, the mycelium’s threads intertwine and stretch for long distances. When the conditions are just right, the mushrooms emerge. Chef Richard combed the territory but these were the only three fungal treasures found on this trip.

After lunch, we visited Terri Jagger Blincoe at Ladybug Farms in Persimmon, Georgia. She proudly showed off her plots and little patch of ramps, a native, shade-grown sort of leek. Around a shelter on the outskirts of the property, the chefs continued their hunt. At their feet, looking exactly like clover, woodland sorrel was a particularly yummy surprise. The little sprigs are crisp microgreens with a hint of lemon and the soap of cilantro. While foraging around the farm, I helped one crew member, line cook Stella, through some barbed wire. We strolled the misty farm roads and she recalled her days cooking in Coventry, England, making Yorkshire pudding and rabbit. The conversation was fitting. The whole day felt like a step back in time to a storybook European village, someplace full of adventure and inspiration.

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