Monday, December 26, 2016

Book Review: The Wild Food Gourmet

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Wild Food Gourmet

Author: Anne Gardon

Date: 1994 (French), 1998 (English)

Publisher: Les Editions de l’Homme (1994), Firefly (1998)

ISBN: 1-55209-242-9

Length: 171 pages

Illustrations: color photos by the author

Quote: “Trading the campfire for the kitchen stove has also allowed me to refine my ‘wild recipes’ and to present nature’s offerings in the best possible light.”

Anne Gardon, listed as a current author at the Montreal Gazette, tested and elaborated on ideas from Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus but her real contribution to world literature was to illustrate them with superb full-color photographs. This book is eye candy. Even if you don’t care to forage and cook wild foods it’s a pretty book to keep on the coffee table; "food porn" alternates with "flower porn" images.

Gardon does eat the daisies. Oxeye daisy buds, she says, “can be pickled like capers or added to tomato sauce (blanch 1 minute beforehand).” Every time I see this detail in her introductory chapter I make a mental note to try it next summer, but somehow I’ve owned this book for two or three summers and not remembered to cook daisy buds in tomato sauce. Daisies like a lot of sunshine, so I find them beside paved roads, where they filter pollutants out of the environment and aren't fit to eat, rather than in the orchard and woodlot where I forage. Gardon also uses daisy leaves, raw in salads.

I don't regularly eat daisies at all but I do eat any dandelions, chickweed, cress, or Chenopodium album (one of the plants called lambs-quarters) that sprout in places where I want something more decorative to grow, and I’m surprised that Gardon neglects burdock, which isn't bad before the leaves grow big and leathery. Violets? Absolutely; if you have a clump of violets in a shady section of the garden, nibbling on the flowers encourages the plants to produce more and generates a mat of color. 

The thing about these wild plants is that, as Gardon mentions, they are very rich in various nutrients…nature clearly intended us to enjoy them in spring, when our primitive ancestors were running low on Vitamin C, but to enjoy them in moderation. It’s easy to overdose. I seldom bother cooking the weeds I eat in the garden. I nibble them, mindfully, and let my appetite warn me when I’ve had enough. Nature did not intend the human body to be stuffed with chickweed or violets. While grazing I find that the leaves' sour or bitter flavors are pleasant at first, then become overwhelming as I absorb that high dose of natural nutrients. If you push yourself to eat a full “serving portion” you may notice a reaction—usually mild diarrhea in response to an overdose of Vitamin C.

However, picking and cooking does allow some of the nutrients to break down…I’ve never sat down to eat a whole “handful” of dandelion leaves, topped with meat fried with onions, but it’s doable, because the delay and exposure to heat would break down some of that Vitamin C. Gardon’s “Spring Salad” of daisy sprigs, dandelion shoots, sorrel, and violet “leaves and flowers,” might be too rich for some people. Try it, but don't push yourself to clean a plate or disguise the flavor with a heavy "dressing." Let your body warn you when you've absorbed as many vitamins and minerals as it can handle at one sitting.

French cuisine notoriously relies on mushrooms, and Gardon includes several recipes for wild mushrooms. After quoting politically incorrect French peasants saying “You may ask for my car, you may ask for my wife, but never ask for the place where I find morels,” she “must confess I find morels rather tasteless compared with boletes or chanterelles—perhaps morels wouldn’t be so sought after if they were not so rare.” Another key reason why they’re sought after is that morels, unlike chanterelles or boletes, cannot possibly be mistaken for anything poisonous. I don’t care much for the whole idea of eating fungi (never reported to help anyone resist fungal infections, which are rampant in my part of the world) but if you do, there are some gourmet mushroom recipes in this book.

Wild fruits are much easier to love, and Gardon offers some tasty ways to use them, assuming that you and your family can wait long enough to whip up a cake or custard.

There are also short sections on wild fruit drinks (cold and hot, alcoholic and otherwise), herbal teas, wild fruit jellies, and herb vinegars.

Gardon's favorites are naturally the wild plants that grow best in Quebec. Most are also found further south and further west, but not every recipe will be easy for every reader to reproduce. Additionally, local variations in climate and soil conditions mean that readers' results will vary...from year to year, as well as from place to place. In a sunny year berries will be sweet; in a rainy year, watery; in a very dry year, you might not find any berries at all, and so on. The nutrient contents of plant-based foods (wild or domestic) also vary, sometimes dramatically, depending on the strain of plants as well as the growing conditions--so the amount of dandelions, violets, or Chenopodium you can digest may vary accordingly.

Do you need this book if you still have Euell Gibbons' books? Gibbons certainly offered more recipes to try with each edible plant, and discussed more plants as well. You might notice differences between recipes and prefer one to another. Gibbons’ approach was to test each wild plant with each traditional recipe for something similar he knew, and print all the results, with comments and jokes and warnings that some of the recipes hadn't turned out very well. Gardon’s approach is to print a small selection of personal favorites with lots of white space and glossy pictures. I read The Wild Food Gourmet as a sort of Cliff’s Notes on Gibbons’ series, but it’s certainly a prettier book. If you rarely pick more of these plants than you care to nibble in the garden, anyway, this new and shiny book is probably enough for you.

If you don't normally eat your garden "weeds," this is a frugal option worth considering. Since most wild greens are best picked young and the young plants sprout whenever the ground is not actually frozen, with a little attention to your forget-about-an-Eisenhower-Era-"lawn" you can eat your daily quota of fresh veg, for most of the year, without ever paying supermarket prices for a fresh vegetable. 

And it's a Fair Trade Book. Buy it here, for our standard price of $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and we'll send $1 to Gardon or a charity of her choice. Buy two more books of similar size, which would fit into the same package, and not only will Gardon or her charity get a U.S. dollar, not only will other living authors whose books you buy (or their charities) get a dollar also, but you'll pay only the one $5 shipping fee and thus get a better deal than you'd get by buying directly from Amazon...although in theory I earn a small commission on stuff you buy directly from Amazon links at this web site, too.