I remember being told as a child to “Keep your head up,” “Watch your step,” “Pay attention to the road,” “Don’t touch that,” and “Be careful.” Those admonitions came to an end when I started eating weeds. Now a simple walk to work, a hike in the woods, or even a stroll on the beach turns into a serious hunt for all things wild and edible. I can’t remember the last time I went on a walk or a hike and just admired the sky, the birds, or the way the leaves blow in the wind. I no longer see normal distractions like billboards, signs, cars, or people. I’m looking for oxalis, chickweed, wild carrot blossom, yarrow, and woodruff. I am constantly astonished at how a little walk through my neighborhood can become a botanical quest. Once your eyes have been opened to these amazing plants, it becomes difficult to focus on much else.
Non-foodies may not understand when you excitedly present them with a handful of wild salmonberries or wood sorrel. “What do we do with those? Are they even edible? Are you out of your mind?” they may ask. But for me and my team at Castagna, we are simply partaking in the rich culture of the wild world, one that has largely been lost to modern generations. When I try to come up with new ideas and dishes, one of the first things I do is to research, especially Native American history: what the indigenous people ate; how they ate; how they utilized local ingredients; how they maintained a spiritual connection that stretched from the seeds, nuts, and fruits to the people who harvested them, and continued on to the animals that enjoyed these edible pleasures as well. To the Native Americans there was nothing other than local and sustainable. Foraging, harvesting, cooking, and eating, they took the Earth into themselves and created a bond with the soil and its riches.
These days there is a lot of talk about the importance of what is known in chef parlance as “product”—what it gives you, what you do with it. Product is treated in isolation from its environment. But at Castagna we see product as a cycle of abundance: when you eat it you become part of the cycle, and if it has been artfully prepared you can taste it, feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, and we hope understand it. For instance, at Castagna we serve salmon that have fed on beautiful shrimp, which give the fish its rich color and flavor. So we serve this salmon in a shrimp broth with freshly harvested seaweeds and wild herbs that grow on the banks of rivers. That is how we tap into this cycle of nature. With a little imagination, our diners can feel as if they are the fish feasting in waters on the shrimp, swimming among the abundant green plant life.
When a farmer comes to our back door with a product of lamb, pork, or beef, I not only order the meat but also ask what the animals eat. Then I will order, say, fifty pounds of lamb collar and five pounds of the grasses they fed off of. Then we investigate those grasses. High-protein grass, low-protein grass, clovers, wild chamomile, hay, dried berries, and ferns And there it is: a dish.
We are very blessed in the Pacific Northwest with our abundant culture of food. The other day one of my foragers brought in beautiful morels. I asked him for a sampling of what grew around them—I had to feel like I was there among the morels. The aromas of moss, the taste of miner’s lettuce, the wild violets, the enormous trees that tower over these tiny treasures. In a dish you become the forager. You pick, consume, and enjoy a sense of discovery.
When did all this begin? For me, it has been a long journey. I recall one of the first times I thought about these kinds of connections. It was on a simple fishing trip when I was twenty or twenty-one. Life had brought me back to Nebraska for a while, and my friends and I were fishing for croppy and catfish in a secluded spot. You had to be careful with casting because you could easily reach the other side of the pond. I remember cooking lamb sandwiches and steaming clams with beer as we patiently waited for the fish to bite. One friend mentioned that at this time of year you could fill fifty gallon bags with morels in an hour, right in the forest behind the pond. I was in disbelief. In Oregon, where I had been going to culinary school, chefs sought out Oregon morels, and Portland diners went into a frenzy when they became available. Growing up in the Midwest I never had eaten morels, but suddenly I remembered hearing about my grandfather collecting and frying some weird-looking mushrooms that no one could name. And at that moment something clicked.
The fish weren’t biting, so I went off to capture morels. That first hour was pretty boring. I didn’t see a sign of a single mushroom until suddenly there one was, hidden under a fallen leaf. I felt transported back to the days of the Gold Rush. I picked the morel, examined it, smelled it, cradled it. After that, it was as if I had on a special pair of 3-d glasses that magically showed me where each one was hidden. I could suddenly see! The harvest began. That was the first time I got my hands in the soil. My greater appreciation had begun.
But the most mind-blowing experience of foraging and of being one with the land happened during my time in Spain, where I worked at the restaurant Mugaritz. For the first few months I didn’t get it. I was just too … green or, for lack of a better term, too American. I would always say, “That’s cool, but why don’t you do this or that or add this in there?” I usually turned something simple and beautiful into a dish that was cluttered and contrived. But one day, as we were driving to the restaurant from my place in Astigarraga, I happened to feel especially tuned in with nature. I was admiring the landscape and thinking just how lucky I was to be in such a wonderland. As I gazed off into the distance, I suddenly saw the food at Mugaritz with absolute clarity. In these apple and chestnut groves lay the restaurant’s dish of an apple served with a crumble of chestnuts and herbs that represented the locale and the green grass nestling the fallen apples all around. On the other side of the grove rose a patch of ancient trees that had fallen and lain untouched for centuries. Here was an edible landscape, the restaurant’s fossilized salsify. Imagination released me into the midst of nature’s great cycle.
At Mugaritz we collected violets in early spring and made them into a dish that reflected the whole foraging experience. We served them as an ice cream with shaved chocolate and matcha tea, the chocolate standing in for the fallen bark of the trees that protect the wild violets, and the tea—the moss growing on the bark. It was a plate of food, but it was much, much more.
At Castagna, Tuesdays are our day of production and reflection, the beginning of the new week, a new menu, new ideas, and old ones. Our work begins with a discussion of openness, of mindfulness, which the entire staff takes part in, so that we can strive to make dishes as unique as each tree that stands outside our doors.