Humans have always foraged for their food. It’s just not something that most people do anymore, what with a plethora of grocery stores, fast- and slow-food restaurants down the street. But it is possible to reclaim our connection with the food growing wild in our backyard — and by backyard that could mean Del Norte County’s expansive forest.
Redwood State and National Parks allow hikers to pick nuts and berries by hand for personal consumption, but picking mushrooms is not allowed.
The U.S. Forest Service allows gathering in the Smith River National Recreation Area — mushrooms, huckleberries and bay leaves are most commonly picked — but a permit and a small fee may be necessary.
Check with the Gasquet Ranger Station on U.S. Hwy. 199 in Gasquet before foraging to find out what permits and fees are required. The Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or call 457-3131 for more information.
On private property on Requa Hill, the chefs at the Requa Inn forage for wild greens.
On a sunny Monday morning, chef Paul Hess went traipsing down a hillside to find wild ginger, the leaves of which are reminiscent of the root commonly used in Asian dishes.
Wild ginger likes deep, heavily shaded, wooded areas — coniferous forest in particular — where there’s not a lot of foot traffic, Hess said.
“It tastes like a little bite of being in the forest,” he said. “It’s earthy.”
At the edge of the forest was what’s known as miner’s lettuce. Hess said he sees it everywhere. It pops up with other weeds and grasses on small hillsides and embankments.
Miner’s lettuce has flat, smooth leaves with white, five-petal flowers.
The blossoms from cherry trees are edible delectables found all over. The white flowers have a hint of cherry-almond flavor and dress up a dish, Hess said.
Watercress, as its name suggests, grows next to water — anywhere there’s water moving downward, Hess said. He noted that a plant often seen near watercress looks similar, but has pointed leaves whereas watercress has more smooth leaves.
Down by the Klamath River, along a trickle of water from above is watercress. The leaves have a strong peppery taste.
When foraging, you just have to know what you’re looking for, Hess said, and it takes practice.
“Once you know, it’s not hard to identify,” he said.
Another ancient practice is hunting for food. Right now, fishermen are seeking steelhead on the Smith and Klamath.
It’s an opportune time to reach into our primal brains and bring out our natural survival instincts of finding food for sustenance.
The chefs at Requa Inn prepared a simple dish of roasted mesquite-smoked steelhead adorned with the fragrant leaves found in nature.
“This is food that doesn’t need a lot of playing around with,” Hess said. “It’s good the way it is.”
Chef Thomas Wortman caught a steelhead near Blue Creek up the Klamath.
If you’re not inclined to fish, “become friends with a fisherman,” Hess said with a laugh. “It’s not that difficult to do this time of year in Del Norte County.”
Wortman cold-smoked the fillets with mesquite to give the fish flavor without cooking it.
He poured olive oil all over the fish and doused it with salt. The fish didn’t need to roast long in the oven before the pink flesh was firm and flaky.
Hess mixed the day’s gatherings with dill, fennel tops, parsley — the chefs call it moss mix. Some dried sea palm from the Arcata co-op was added for crunch with lemon zest and olive oil for flavor.
He tossed the moss mix all around the fish fillets to form a border. The dish looked like something Nordic Vikings would have feasted on after battle or a bucolic meal for seaside villagers.
The chefs at Requa Inn like to use local ingredients and have turned to foraging as a way to stay as close to the land as possible. They also like to serve food family style, where everyone digs into a dish.
Roasted fish with a hefty portion of greens is simple, but makes a main course, Hess said.
“They’re great ingredients. You don’t have to mess with them,” he said. “Every bite is different.”
This Saturday, the Requa Inn will be featuring Cabot Winery from Orleans during one of its last wine-maker’s dinners this season, but the event is sold out. There are seats for the Briceland Vineyards Winery dinner March 17. Call the Requa Inn at 482-1425 to make reservations.
Steelhead with green garnish