Perkinsville — What’s for dinner generally isn’t a mystery at the Inn at Weathersfield, which posts its menus online. But at a foraging and cooking class held there last weekend, that wasn’t the case.
The meal would “tweak and twist,” based on what they found, Marilee Spanjian, who co-owns the inn with her husband, Richard, said earlier this month. And that’s part of the deal.
“This is a class for the adventurous cook. Picky eaters will not enjoy this,” a description on the inn’s Facebook page warned. But for those who bit, it offered a guarantee: “You will learn, laugh, have fun and eat things you probably have never tried.”
That was true for Sandy von Unwerth, of Woodstock, one of 10 participants who spent the Saturday morning searching for wild edibles and then returned to the inn to prepare and share a meal.
Sampling the wild plants was fun, and it was interesting to learn how to use them to add new flavors to food, said von Unwerth, who attended the class with her partner, Bill Sjogren, as a gift. “It was just so new and innovative.”
And she enjoyed the colorful, flavorful results, including the “delicious” wild grapes and onion, served with veal sausages, and the pickled crabapples, which “still had some crunch,” she said. “I loved them.”
Von Unwerth came to the class knowing “nothing” about wild food. But she left with plans to do some foraging of her own for two new favorite plants, purslane and sorrel.
When it comes to knowledge of wild food, it seems she’s in good company.
“For the most part, people are 100 percent unaware that most plants they walk by have some edible part to them,” said David Craft, who co-led the class with the inn’s executive chef Michael Ehlenfeldt. Of all the plants one might encounter while strolling around outside, “only a couple are poisonous.”
A medical researcher and author of Urban Foraging, Craft said people are often surprised at how excited he gets about certain plants, such as the nutritious and ubiquitous lamb’s quarters, which the group tasted. The appeal of the leafy green is hard to convey in the field, where it might be sampled raw, but saute it with garlic, olive oil and salt, and people realize, “that’s a pretty good vegetable.”
In addition to plants commonly considered weeds such as sheep sorrel and burdock, the group identified and cooked mushrooms — in short supply, due to the abnormally dry weather — crabapples and wild grapes.
The grapes, which were plentiful, were “kind of a surprise to me,” said Craft, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. “They’re not something I see all time.”
To supplement whatever they would find that morning, he brought with him some “preforaged” ingredients.
Actually feeding 10 people requires lots of foraging, which is pretty difficult to combine with teaching a class, where the goal is to point out a variety of plants, he said. To prepare, he usually forages in advance by himself, bringing along his bike, shovel and bags.
It’s the sort of task he enjoys.
“For me, going out and spending a few hours biking around natural settings and gathering plants is not really a chore,” he said.
A longtime forager himself, Ehlenfeldt is well at ease with the puzzle-like process of impromptu menu-making.
While the meal isn’t charted out in advance, he has an idea of what’s available locally, “due to the topography and weather,” he said. For instance, he knew they’d be able to find wild grapes, and he’d just made the sausage, so the Northern Italian dish that combined those ingredients, along with a little onion and balsamic vinegar, was “a no brainer.”
And having pie dough onhand sparked the idea for the apple and blackberry galette, said Ehlenfeldt, whose menus at the inn often feature ingredients foraged by him or his friends.
But much gets decided along the way. Even as he’s picking, he’s asking himself, “What am I going to with (this)?”
The first time he’d ever worked with Craft, it was “a lot of fun,” Ehlenfeldt said, “because he was more than happy to fly by the seat of his pants.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.