Walk on the wild side

Wild nuts seem the very essence of the tree. These majestic plants that give us wood, shade and beauty also offer sustenance beyond maple syrup and palm oil. Tree nuts like walnuts and hickory nuts are a source of proteins, carbs and minerals, and delicious as well. Out in the wild they are ready for the taking, and arguably tastier than the tame and cultivated varieties. Although we have to wait for nut season in the fall – and find them, and manage to get them open (some don’t yield easily) – they keep well, to please us even in the dead of winter with their unique rich taste.

We’ve been nutting a while. People and animals both have been collecting nuts for a long, long time and still do, the tree seeds providing energy in the form of fat and protein. And meat that comes from animals that feed on nuts is tastier: if tame or wild pigs eat acorns or chestnuts, for example. The black-footed Spanish pigs that feed on acorns make an incomparable ham that rivals any prosciutto.

Last week I joined my fellow members of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association in a winter tree identification walk at Mills-Norrie State Park in Staatsburg, the intention being that learning to identify trees would help us find mushrooms when the season arrives. Certain mushrooms have their favorite trees to grow under, like hen-of-the-woods and oaks.

If I had been alone in the woods, the bare winter trees would have been just gray columns to me, and I wouldn’t have noticed how this one is smooth with horizontal stripes here and there (black birch, beech), and this one’s bark is so shaggy that it’s falling off in peels (shagbark hickory). So it was delightful and interesting to traipse through the snowy woods learning about how to ID leafless trees by their bark, dreaming of future feasts; but we hungry mushroom-lovers didn’t find more than a few dried-up oysters and other inedible specimens clinging to fallen trees. Then one of them – expert forager George Johanson – dug in his pocket and handed me some nuts: a couple of smooth, lovely cherrywood-brown heart-shaped ones, and a couple of dark-brown, almost-black rough ones, one roundish, one narrower and four lobed.

I remembered George from when he led a foraging walk with the Hudson Valley Food Network in May 2010. He taught us how to find, and gave us tastes of, cucumbery cattail, crunchy catbrier, burdock, sweet black locust blossoms and salad greens like lambs’ quarters, sheep sorrel, woodsorrel and young grapevine tendrils and garlic mustard. We took home poke, stinging nettles and winecap mushrooms to cook. It was an education. To show us how strong and vigorous a natural diet makes you, George, who is now 71, dropped to the ground and did a one-armed pushup.

Many nuts need to cure a while before they’re ready to eat, but George carries them everywhere, handing them out like candy. That day he cracked a few for us, and we tasted intense, oily black walnuts, creamy hickory nuts, butternuts and hazelnuts.

He leant some hen-of-the-woods mushrooms to co-director and actor Jason Cortlund for the film Now, Forager, who in his production blog called him a “local foraging legend.” Cortlund said that they were “several of the most beautiful young Grifola specimens I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

George is crazy about sharing his knowledge and generous with his expertise and foraged bounty. He seems to love people as much as or more than he loves wild foods. He told me about snorkeling in the Caymans, where he has a house, although the foraging there isn’t nearly as fruitful as around here; about how wonderful wild persimmons are; and that chickadees’ brains grow bigger during the winter so that they can remember where they hid all their seeds.

He told me that native people would harvest huge quantities of tree nuts, and that they would keep for three years. He said that was because trees don’t release nuts every year, but take long breaks.

The two rough, dark-brown shaggy nuts that George gave me, I believe, were types of black walnuts: an intense, oily nut that comes in a big green orb and is near impossible to crack. Some have to drive over them repeatedly with their cars. I managed to get into the narrower of the two to eat its intense meat, but the fatter one still eludes me. I need to use a hammer, as George recommended, put them in a heavy plastic bag and get the nutcracker and lobster picks ready. They used to hit the tin roof of a place I once lived and made quite a racket. The taste is unique, unlike the regular walnut: intense and oily with a distinct flavor. My mother has made cakes with them, and Euell Gibbons wrote in Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay, 1970) that they are the best nuts both for baking and for fudge.

The other two nuts that he gave me, the smooth brown ones called heartnuts, are not really a wild nut, but from Japanese trees that you can order online and plant in your yard. The first one opened pretty easily with a nutcracker, and had a nice, rich, almost-smoky flavor that reminded me a little of coffee. The other gave me more of a challenge, exploding into shrapnel that flew into my face and leaving me with a blood blister on a finger. But the pieces were just as delicious.

George wrote on the blog Eat the Weeds, “I have cracked and shared hundreds, if not thousands of these delicious nuts with young and old alike, most of whom have never tasted one […] before. Some people don’t really care for the taste of these nuts, but probably 90 percent are thrilled to try them.” Count me among the 90 percent.

For more information on the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, see www.midhudsonmyco.org. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s dinehudsonvalley.com or hudsonvalleyalmanacweekly.com.

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