Frederick Thurber, my guide, swore me to secrecy. So while I'd like to tell you the location of the seaside spot where we foraged for ripened beach plums amid New England sand dunes ... uh, I can't. What I can tell you about are the tiny scratches I earned from reaching through gnarly branches in my greed to nab the small, purple fruits. But that's part of a day spent foraging and is a small price I gladly pay.
Press me, and I will admit that it's a little absurd to go to these lengths to gather what will amount to a tiny pint or two of beach-plum jam. Of course, that's after I've done the work of washing them, removing their stems, simmering them, and long after I've disposed of their tough, purple skins and cherrylike pits.
And yet, foraging has a hold on me. I relish cooking with an ingredient I have to seek out and gather myself. I enjoy the fact that the deep-purple jam now sitting in my refrigerator is something I can't pluck from the shelf at my supermarket and mindlessly add to my cart as I move down my grocery list. More important, I am attracted to the way foraging connects me with nature and with like-minded individuals.
For parts of the afternoon, Eva Sommaripa, a local herb farmer, and I traded friendly gossip on the Boston restaurant scene where she is known to all simply as "Eva," singularly named like Elvis or Madonna. Eva knows plants. She supplies scores of local chefs with interesting ingredients such as lovage and bronze fennel tops. Her enthusiasm for wild edibles is like the sea breeze. It was gusting my way, and I was gladly caught up in it.
While we were walking, she nabbed a tendril of beach pea – along with its tiny, purple flower – and handed it to me to nibble on. I had noticed it, thinking it resembled the English peas cultivated in early spring on a farm near my home, but I'm not yet confident enough in my foraging skills to have grabbed a taste of it on my own. After all, make a mistake, and it's not pretty. But now, thanks to Eva, I can safely add beach peas to my growing list of tasty wild things.
Boston-based chef, Jason Bond was with us, too. Jason looked pleased by his half-filled bag of tiny, wild plums. I could only guess the ways he'd transform them into sauces, sorbets, or jam that I'm certain would be less cloudy than the batch I produced. He moved on from a depleted beach-plum bush and gingerly began to gather rose hips among very thorny branches. He was patient while I grilled him for recipe tips on our newly bagged harvest. Even with threatening thorns nearby, he easily rattled off a list of tasty ideas. Later, I learned that he'd found a Swedish recipe and turned the rose hips into a cold soup served with almond cookies. If the fragrance of the pink and white flowers that also adorned the bush made it to the soup, then it must have been spectacular.
While bad foraging jokes got lofted about "extra protein" in beach plums that sported burrowing holes, our conversation moved between marine conservation issues to periods of bird-watching in seaweed clumps that had recently washed ashore. No one on the nearby beach could have mistaken us for sun worshipers – we were far too pale. Some of us were decked in wellies, long sleeves, and hats. (It's impossible to pull off "cool" while you have your pants tucked into your socks.)
My hands, stained purple from beach plums, are like a calendar on their own. Now I know that summer has ended, and fall's foraging treats are already lining up, waiting to be collected. Fortunately for me, I'm eyeing a bush bursting with nearly ripe, ruby-red autumn olives across the street from my home. Plenty of tempting wild grapes dangle nearby, too – and if I stretch far enough, I'm pretty sure I can reach them through the undergrowth without falling in.