Grazing and gathering wild food is clearly a Chthonic imperative; no fundamental human activity could be more ancient and primal, or one more diminished in urban life.
Ramps: The premier foraged food of our region is the wild leek, the type of wild leek native to these Appalachian woods is ramps. Despite their high value as a commodity, ramps cannot be farmed as a row crop; they require conditions only provided by a particular kind of forest floor. The two or three green leaves of individual ramps emerge in the woods in late April and rot away by late May. Except for a skeletal flower that grows after the leaves disappear, the life cycle of ramps is lived underground for the rest of the year. Ramps generally grow in clusters that mass into patches scattered around the woods. Some of these patches and the rhizome bodies they are based on may be very old; no one is quite sure. Ramp leaves are a great salad green, ramp bulbs make a very fine crunchy pickle, and ramps can be generally cooked in any manner suitable for onions or garlic. Our favorite way to prepare ramps is to sautee them with olive oil and dress them with salt and lemon juice. As they fry, ramp leaves inflate like small balloons for a moment and then deflate, causing the mass in the pan to seem to move like a living thing.
Franklin Chthonics has a large population of ramps; we believe our ramp harvest is in equilibrium with its rate of growth.
Apples: Apple is a unique tree horticulturally with a special place in the social history of this region. Apples are not native to North America and all “wild” apple trees are descended from escaped orchard trees. Virtually all farmers planted apple orchards, for eating and making cider and vinegar and alcohol, for feeding livestock and attracting wildlife. Each apple tree produces a different type of apple unless it is grown from a cutting; the seeds from a Baldwin apple will not result in a tree that bears a Baldwin apple. There are dozens of interesting apple trees growing in fields or on the edges of woods all around this property. Dead or nearly dead apple trees that once thrived in sunny reforesting fields can be found in the shade of young tree stands; apples are not tall trees and they tend to lose their sunlight to competing maples, ashes and oaks. Perhaps thirty of our trees produce worthwhile fruit, each with its own flavor, texture, size and color; all have been mapped and many of them now have names, including “Huey”, “Dewey”, and “Louie”. There is also a small orchard of established apple varieties near the house and barn yielding Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Golden Russet and Cortland apples. In the glorious year of 2013 we harvested nearly a ton of apples from these wild and orchard trees, from which we made many gallons apple cider, a few quarts of apple molasses (concentrated cider) and 20 gallons of apple cider vinegar.
Mushrooms: As noted in the description of the Old Maze, significant numbers of porcini mushrooms can suddenly, if unpredictably, bloom there adjoining the roots of its Norway spruces in warmer months. Chanterelles have been found in the forest.
Wild strawberries: As noted in the description of the fields, wild strawberries prosper in mowed areas, provided the cut is not too low. As a result, strawberries run through many acres of pasture and produce grazable amounts of aromatic fruit most years, and harvestable quantities of strawberries in very good years.
Wild watercress: It is possible to harvest a green salad in February at FC. Wild watercress grows through the winter in our streams, thought the best time for picking it is mid-summer when it can grow out of the quiet water by several inches. Wild watercress is more peppery than domestic watercress but it becomes milder when sautéed or cooked into potato watercress soup.
Berries: Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries: Blackberries of widely divergent sizes, shapes and flavors thrive in every unmowed field and forest clearing. Raspberries are less numerous, more delicate and seem to prefer a bit of shade along with their sun. Low bush blueberries and high bush huckleberries are found along the edges of woods and fields in grazable but rarely harvestable quantities.