By Bradley Carleton | Contributor
In June, I drive the back roads of Chittenden and Addison counties with a Vermont Gazetteer in my lap and proceed from one waypoint to another, checking for the telltale bolting stalks of wild asparagus, marking them with an “x” on my map. I have been doing this for several years now and have trained my eye to look for ditches, fences and sunny shoulders where, most frequently on the western side of the road, a few standing plants have passed and begun to branch out into the frilly dill-like leaves that indicate a hospitable environment for this, my favorite wild edible.
Summiting a small hill east of Snake Mountain, I spot them in the distance. The elusive, magical wild asparagus. I slow down and check my rearview mirror for interlopers. I am on a dirt road and no one else is behind me. I jump out of the truck, leap over the bank into the ditch and begin scouring the long grasses that surround the beefy stalks. Score! One, two, three…four nice half-inch round stalks with the tiny buds still clinging tightly to the main stem. I spot four more but let them be, to mature in another year. I hop back in the truck and mark the spot with my “x” and head north to the river in search of fiddleheads.
Most fiddleheads have passed, except in a few shady riparian riverbanks. These delicious wild edibles are found along river and stream shorelines, where they can sprout up through the root balls surrounded by sandy soil leftover from the late winter snowmelt. The tiny sprouts are tightly bundled and wrapped in a brown paper-like sheath. The inner edge of the spine is concave and snaps off crisply. Sautéed in butter or olive oil with some finely minced garlic or shallots, the flavor is as close to rapture as a vegetable can attain. I describe their taste as a cross between a snappy asparagus and an earthy artichoke. Beside a few freshly caught brook trout, garnished with fresh dill and a slice of lemon, there is no finer wild feast that can be had by man or beast.
Wild leeks, colloquially known as “ramps,” were harvested earlier, during turkey season. I find them consistently on western-facing slopes in wet soil and rocky terrain. The leaves are broad and somewhat waxy, terminating to a rounded point. This year, as I sat waiting for a gobbler to walk into my calling, I was overcome with the strong fragrance of these edibles that were discovered by the Abenaki and named winooski meaning “wild onion.” After taking a nice young jake (a young male turkey) I sat down in the middle of the field of ramps and picked a vest-full of succulent specimens. Here I wish to note that I employ sustainable harvest principles for all my foraging and never take more than a tenth of the population. In the case this year, I was surrounded by a half acre of mature winooski and felt fine about taking five pounds. When I arrived home, I sprayed them off and cleaned them by clipping off the white root and the green leaves and separating them. The white bulbs, roasted with olive oil and sea salt caramelize into a phenomenally sweet side dish. I put the leaves into a Cuisinart with roasted pine nuts, garlic and, yes again, olive oil. This year I also tried something new. I am a fanatical smoker—not tobacco, but wood—and tried smoking some wild leeks over apple wood and beer, which came out very nicely.
Now it is time to head into the high mountain streams in search of one of earth’s most beautiful treasures, the brook trout. Although a salmonid, the brook trout is actually not a trout at all but a char. The Latin name salmo fontanalis means “of a spring or fountain,” referring to the cold clear water that it requires as habitat. It is Vermont’s state fish and one of the true signs that a steam or river is clean and well oxygenated. The daily limit on these colorful piscatorial delights is, at this time, 12 per day. Here I will make my opinion, albeit unpopular with the hook and bullet crowd, heard now—I am against this creel limit.
There is no need to take more than three or four of these majestic fish for a meal. (I believe in catching my own fish rather than purchasing them at the supermarket where they have been farm raised on a diet of chemically treated pellets that change the color of their flesh) And even then, with respect to the specific pool’s population, I would not return again that season. I believe that a six fish daily limit is more than sufficient to appease those who wish to catch dinner and those who would like to feed a party of two. As my friend Chris Thayer says, “Brook trout and orange juice is proof of a higher power.” Just look at the colors—green and brown tiger stripes on the back, red dots with blue halos on the flanks and orange pectoral and pelvic fins tipped in white.
On a good day in June, I will spend the entire daylight hours driving the back roads in search of fiddleheads, wild asparagus, ramps and maybe a few morels to share the plate with a few freshly caught brookies.
As a society we have moved away from providing for ourselves from the earth and instead purchase most of our food in a store under fluorescent lights, wrapped with plastic in a Styrofoam container. However, June reminds me that the Great Spirit still provides us with all we need if we only take the time to worship nature and learn from our ancestors.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter.org, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for TraditionsOutdoorMentoring.org, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.