Stacey Daley, the chef of Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, is an urban forager. “For me it’s almost like a meditation to be out in the wild, and I kind of consider the wild to be out in the city, too,” says the chef, who hunts for juneberries and mulberries for jam, and purslane and chickweed for the salad bowl.
Daley encourages others to try the practice, taking certain precautions. “When you start walking the city and trying to identify, get yourself somewhere with a field guide. I really believe in observing and educating because you have to learn to identify plants before you can ingest them.” If you don’t have a guide with you, Daley suggests taking a photograph and returning to the spot later.
Where the plants grow can be as important as what’s growing. “When I’m going into industrial parks I’m constantly looking to see what is here, where are the trees planted, what likely was here prior?” Getting to know a neighbor who is familiar with the area’s history can also help identify safe foraging spots. “I have a lot of older people in my neighborhood, so I communicate that way. A lot of people are always asking me while I’m foraging, ‘What is that?’ so it’s conversation.” A lot of the success of foraging is using your instincts and relying on common sense. “I’m not going to go where there had been an 18-wheeler lineup,” says the chef.
When you do find a forage-worthy feast, Daley reminds us to “wash our harvest,” and in keeping with the aim of sustainability, take only what you can eat, and what you can identify, “It’s really important for me to get people to understand that if you take everything it won’t grow back next year.”
You can spend several years discovering the best foraging spots, as many foragers “keep them a secret, close to their hearts,” says Daley, who has connected with other foragers online, and recommends novices do the same. She also keeps a seasonal calendar of her harvest, “so the next year you are right on target.”
The most important thing, she says, is to approach foraging with a sense of curiosity and adventure. “It’s kind of like an old-fashioned scavenger hunt back when we were kids. We don’t exactly know where everything is, but the next day nature might just open itself up to you.” Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, 196 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-225-0040, www.centralbottle.com