Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Foraging in Schoharie, New York and Wild Watercress Soup

Peter Pehrson dons a baseball cap, pulls on a pair of shiny black rubber boots and removes a recycled mesh potato sack from a storage cabinet. It is time to search for ingredients for dinner.

I am a complete neophyte when it comes to foraging. My innate hunter-gatherer skills consist of an aggressive “slam and shake” technique I’ve perfected when the M&Ms fail to fall out of the vending machine.

Almost anyone you meet in Peter’s community of Schoharie, New York will tell you that the area is known as the “bread basket of the American Revolution.” The soil is incredibly fertile and residents have taken great pride in what they grow for hundreds of years. The bounty of Schoharie is found, not only in the cultivated fields, but in its wild and natural places.

The place formerly known as Watercress Farm.

In literary archetype terms, Peter might be described as a wanderer or an explorer. He has lived in a tenant farmhouse on the property for three years - next to a coop of majestic Rhode Island Reds - and he seems to instinctively know the land and its resources, pointing out edible flora along the path as we walk. He leads me down a steep hill through tall grass to a crystal clear stream.

“This place was once called Watercress Farm," he tells me. He wades down into the stream, towards a lush island of vegetation. He works quickly, pulling out clumps of watercress leaves that have been nourished by the cold water. Soon the mesh bag is filled.

Peter Pehrson forages for wild watercress.

He pulls out a sprig and examines it. “Let’s make sure there are no frog eggs on this,” he says. Such are the hazards of foraging.

He offers me a bite of the watercress. The leaves have a sharp, peppery taste. The bag is bulging with greenery. Some is used to flavor a hot rice dish served at dinner that night. Once cooked, the watercress takes on a milder flavor. Some of the remaining watercress is packaged up in bags and sent home with me.

Wild watercress is quite perishable, so I work quickly. Back home in my kitchen, I cook up a large pot of Wild Watercress Soup, a brilliant emerald-green puree of watercress, potato and onion cooked in chicken broth. The soup tastes incredibly vibrant and alive, a bit like spinach and pepper, a bit like the valley of Schoharie. A good foundation recipe for watercress soup can be found here.

Peter has become a vocal advocate for local food and preserving the harvest in Schoharie. He and a dedicated group of individuals are working hard to establish a cooperative cannery in the area, where farmers and gardeners would bring their bulk produce and have it preserved in glass jars and cans. Their vision is to add value to the local economy, but also extend the life of Schoharie’s most prized resource – its locally grown produce.

Peter has done home canning for years and says that the process addresses a very basic human desire. “Everyone has a drive in them to provide for themselves,” he says. “I want enough in the winter, so that I can enjoy the summer in a jar.”

At one time, local canneries were far more common in communities. As more focus is placed on the importance of locally grown food, there is a national resurgence in home canning, and a number of local community groups are hoping to follow the lead of the team in Schoharie as they pursue their vision. You can learn more about the proposed Schoharie Co-op Cannery and their plans at their website.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Julia said...

I *love* the idea of a cooperative Cannery. I can every summer, and it's always a chore because I'm canning so much in a residential kitchen. I would be a huge supporter of a cannery in Boston..

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I can only imagine all of the regulatory obstacles that will be put in the path of a cooperative cannery, but I hope they can be overcome. What a wonderful asset to the community. I'm going to share this post with Rhode Island's director of the department of agriculture.

veron said...

I love watercress soup. I think that was the only vegetable I ate growing up.

~~louise~~ said...

Gee, T.W. and here I was thinking you were a modern day Johnny Appleseed:) You did good! Especially with that envious Watercress Soup.

How do you ever find these adventures? I think a Co-Op Cannery is a wonderful notion! I will have to tell my daughter about the idea. She is forever canning...Thanks for sharing...

Helene said...

I would love to be part of a Coop Cannery. I've never seen foraging before but would love to try fresh watercress. Soups is really nice.

Jann said...

I really enjoyed sharing this outing with you~the photos were terrific. We have a local cannery here,although I have no knowledge of how it is run or operates.I have often thought about buying a few crates of tomatoes and canning them~nothing better in soup during the winter.

chez aurora said...

How wonderful to hear that you've given foraging a go! Really enjoyed your adventure & your wild watercress soup sounds delightful.

I've just recently went on a field hunt with Steve Brill the Wildman and begun foraging here on LI. It's becoming addicting! :)