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Posts Tagged ‘Alpine strawberries’

Does everyone have a white whale? Something we’ve looked for all our lives, or it definitely seems it? And on wildly rare occasions we find it, but most often we end up like Ishmael — living to tell the tale, but that’s it?

I think I may have found mine. I’ll know in a few weeks.

It started with a hot tip.

When I told my friend Sandy that I forage for Concord grapes, he gave me a memory: During gym class he and his high school classmates would run along the treeline behind the school and snack on grapes that grew there. This was back in the ’60s, but I sometimes I see shows at this school and know that treeline still exists, because the road to the theater runs parallel to it. Last week I took a half vacation day and drove out there. Concords aren’t ripe until late summer, but the vines stick around. I’d be able to identify those.

The back of this property is far off the road. Besides the homeowners on the other side of the fence and stream, who weren’t around, and the school groundskeeper, who idly waved and kept mowing, I was alone. Ideal.

The vines were still there, after 50+ years. And they’re easier to access than my usual beloved spot. This is good, because as nature (and the ticks and vicious wild rose canes therein) swallows up more of the path every year, picking Concords there will soon require me to wear clothes that cover every inch of bare skin. It’s not a thought to relish in late August, so I welcome a Plan B.

This recon mission would have gotten an A+ if the grapevines were all I found. But next came the crabapple tree and cousins.

(Just a quick aside to let you know I am not a science wonk, let alone a botanist, by any remote stretch of the imagination. Do you need an example? Here you go: In college I studied my butt off in bio, but could not coerce the data into my grey cells if I’d had a crowbar. I expected to flunk. When I learned I had been awarded a D- for the semester, I was elated. At least I wouldn’t have to take the stupid course again. That’s how crap I am at science.

So why, with empirical non-prowess under my belt, do I notice that mulberry trees and elderflowers virtually always grow near water? And why did I realize last week when I saw members of the Rose family growing together that they often enough tend to?)

First I spotted an ancient crabapple tree. Then it was wineberry canes (which fruit in July and are profoundly tart. Imagine a raspberry after it ate half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, watched the remake of “Cats,” and suffered the inevitable existential crisis). Then it was wild rose canes, which might be flowers and nothing more, or might be wild raspberries, or blackberries. Either way, giant family reunion. They’re all Roses.

And so is the little white whale, the shyest member of this family reunion. I looked down in the shade and thought it was a stray blossom blown down from the crabapple or rose canes; they all feature a similar flower. Then I saw the serrated triple leaves and just stared.

For years upon years I have been hoping to come across fraise des bois, aka woodland strawberries, aka Alpine strawberries. Powerfully, intensely sweet — called a delicacy and deserving it — and far better known in Europe. I don’t know if it’s because there are more there or because we no longer have a foraging culture here in the U.S. and just don’t notice them. But I’ve never come across a wild strawberry during my hunts, beyond yet another Rose cousin, the wild strawberries that begin with a tiny yellow flower and produce a tiny bland fruit.

Woodland strawberries begin with a white flower. And I’ve never seen nor tasted a sweet one until, maybe, fingers crossed, if the deer don’t get them first, inside a month from when I write this.

You’re picturing me parking next to them with a sleeping bag, like I’m on line for Stones tickets, aren’t you? You’re not crazy.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with a guy who lives most of his life as a hermit. He said the best way to get through monotony, as we do now during the pandemic, is to find something you can track. Foragers never stop tracking — seasons, rain, sun, groundskeepers. Strawberries fruit in late spring, Memorial Day at the very earliest. This was a cold spring. But June is on the horizon.

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It was a dark and poopy night.

Quite of few of them, actually, recently. Nothing earth shattering as the cause, but as all humans know, it’s not always earth shattering. A week ago I moved out of one building and into another, and whether this situation will be more positive is anybody’s guess. Didn’t get depressed—I’m lucky that that doesn’t really happen to me. But I go into new things with optimism and a lot of heart, and sometimes just splat the pavement. Another thing every human knows from. I was discouraged. The feeling went on for a week or so.

Then all of this madman* stuff started happening. And it’s wild enough that I put my planned post on hold till next week to tell you about it.

The First Thing: I’m walking to my car last week to unload more stuff, thinking poopily, wondering/hoping/wishing my luck would be better this time around, when a chimney sweep truck drives past me. I’ve never seen one, not ever. Who cares? says you, the thinking reader. I do, and history’s on my side: for centuries chimney sweeps have been considered to be harbingers of good luck. ‘A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be,’ right, from Mary Poppins? Apparently you can even hire them out for your wedding if you’re waffling about your chances. I’m serious. So this was kind of a knockout.

The Second Thing: Two days ago I walk past an empty house in town. A bit rundown, but I find beauty in hundred-year-old rundown houses. And although I’ve passed this house many times, I quite suddenly felt compelled to go across the lawn and look into the windows of the carriage house.

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This hook on the front of the carriage house is bigger than my hand. I wonder if it was used for the horses somehow. Does anyone know?

On my way up the lawn I look left at the overgrown hedges and see orange and yellow flowers. No way. Honeysuckle?! A few weeks back I had wanted to make a recipe with it, searched in all of the places I know it grows and found nothing. Figured it had died back for the season, and lamented about it in my ‘edible wild–late summer’ post. I taste the nectar of one, but it’s October and it had dried up. No matter. It was nothing short of a miracle for me that I was even seeing them. But there they were! I was aghast.

The Third Thing: As I turn to head home, I look down at the grass and see a tiny bright red spot. A flower? I kneel in the dew and touch it. It is a very, very small strawberry. But not just any. The kind that grows wild, the Alpine strawberry, the fraise des bois, the wild woodland strawberry. Coveted around the world for its intense flavor, and no bigger than a pea, it is my Holy Grail. This is no exaggeration.** It’s occasionally found growing around property borders. I know two people who have them in their yards, but they never get to eat them because the deer get to them first. But deer never come to houses a block from the beach.

And it wasn’t a fluke of a berry. I sweep my gaze across the grass and see dozens. Everywhere! In the overcast, early evening light, they sparkle like scattered rubies. I taste one. Like the honeysuckle, its time had passed. But now I know where to go on Memorial Day weekend next year, when they’re in fruit again.

I wish I could explain what this was like. I’m trying. It was so utterly, bewilderingly, galactically unexpected, and so exactly what I needed, that I actually choked back tears. Alpine freaking strawberries…in Allenhurst…that no one knows about. I went again yesterday just to be sure it wasn’t a hallucination brought on by the night air and poopy-thought saturation. They were there again.

So here’s the takeaway.

1) Whatever compels you, whatever you feel drawn toward, go to it. Okay, fine, as long as it’s not illegal, go. You can figure out what you were meant to learn later. Or sometimes the universe hands the lesson right to you. I have felt a pull like this many times in my life, and I always give in to it, no matter how inconvenient, because it always leads me somewhere I need to be.*** In my case: Relax. Everything’s going to be okay. And next summer you have two new wild treats to feast upon.

2) Keep your eyes open. There were in fact TWO strawberry patches, and one of them I walked right over as I was crossing to the carriage house.

For their weekly Shabbat dinner, observant Jews have two challah loaves on the table to signify God’s enormous generosity to them. He doesn’t just give them what they need; He gives them more—extra. The same sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew word and song ‘Dayenu’. It means ‘It would have been enough.’ God gives this and this and this and this and it would have been enough, but He keeps giving. This is how it felt—I was overwhelmed with custom-made treats. How to explain this? I guess it’s not necessary.

Still reeling at having found these berries; to imagine what I’m going to make with them seems downright greedy. But maybe by mid-winter I’ll sink into my sofa, imagine what they’ll taste like, and dream.

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Soaked the knees of my jeans to shoot this 🙂

*Hugs to Holden Caulfield for that one.

**Every girl needs a Holy Grail. And I’m not into Dolce & Gabbana handbags.

***Whovians will know from what episode this is paraphrased. Mad props to anyone who names it.

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