Sara Bir is a chef, writer, and self-proclaimed plant nerd. Her new book, "The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond," is part cookbook, and part field guide.
Bir says she was often outdoors in the woods as a kid growing up in eastern Ohio, but she discovered foraging much later. One day, after dropping of her daughter at preschool, she went hiking on a nearby trail, and a ripe paw paw fell from a tree overhead. Bir says that delicious, pulpy fruit was a gateway for experiencing the woods in a different way, and the beginning of her book, though she didn’t know it at the time.
Kara Holsopple joined Bir at the edge of a park in Pittsburgh recently to learn more about it. It only took her a few minutes to find something tasty: a spicebush shrub.
Sara Bir: It has these little berries, and they start out as green. This one is gorgeous, and bright red. It’s about the size of my fingertip, and if you crush it, it has a really strong pine scent.
Kara Holsopple: What do you do with them?
SB: I like to dehydrate them, and use them as a spice. I think it goes really well with rich and fatty meats, because it cuts through. It’s got that resinous, rosemary-type flavor. You can also use the leaves to make a tea. But I like fruit, so I just stick to the berries. This year has been bonkers with these. Also, the wildlife enjoys these berries. If you love birds, you can plant spicebush in your yard, and they will come and enjoy the berries.
KH: This is probably a bush I’ve passed by so many different times, and never even realized what it was.
SB: Yes! And that’s the wonderful thing. If you want something new in your life, instead of changing where you are, you can change how you perceive things. And there’s always something new to learn, even if you’ve been at it for years and years. You definitely want to know what you’re doing if you’re putting strange plants in your mouth. Sometimes I’ll just bring a sample back with me, or I’ll take a picture, and then I’ll ask someone I know is an expert. Or, I like using reference books, and there are databases on the internet. That’s a great way to identify plants.
KH: I love a lot of the history that you put into your book, and some of the words around foraging. For example, what is “scrumping?”
SB: Scrumping is, first of all, just a very fun word. And I hope it doesn’t end up getting overused the way “bespoke” has. That’s a great word, and I think people use it way more than they should. They’ve taken all the fun out of that word. Scrumping is petty theft of fruit. And it originated in England, specific to apples. So if you’re in an orchard, and you just nab a few apples as a snack, it’s like the most innocent theft. And I definitely scrump.
KH: Why fruit?
SB: Fruit is really attractive to me because it’s colorful, if not on the outside, on the inside. I like the way fruit tastes. It’s easier to identify, because it’s just there. Whereas with greens, which many people forage for, you need to be a little more on your game. But fruit is just like an advertisement. It wants to be noticed. And you can use it in so many different ways. It’s not always dessert-y. As a chef, I appreciate that. It’s a prompt for me to think about ingredients.
KH: What are some of the other things people can forage now, and in other seasons in this region?
SB: I really love black cherries, and I’m not talking about the black cherries you get at the grocery store. There is a native cherry tree called black cherry. You see these trees in forests, not so much in yards, and they can get really big. They are about the size of a pea, and they’re about 50 percent pit, so you don’t get a lot of flesh from them. They are very, very dark when they’re ripe, and they just fall from the tree when they’re ripe. So, if you shake a tree with a tarp underneath, they’ll fall down on the tarp, and you can gather them that way. I see them a lot when I hike in cemeteries. And when you get a good one, they’re really good. You would never want to make them into a pie. It would take years. But you can use them in infusions. So I have a cherry bounce recipe, which is brandy, sugar and cherries, and I’ve done that with the black cherries. I also have a cherry balsamic vinegar recipe, where you just get cheap balsamic and steep the cherries, including the pits in there, and then eventually strain those out. They do take a little while to harvest, so you can do these things where that flavor intensity is maximized, and your labor is minimized.
KH: I read in the book where you say foraging is flipping the bird to industrialized food. What do you mean by that?
SB: I think it doesn’t even occur to us, and it didn’t to me, that food isn’t something that’s completely removed from us. Having worked in the food service industry, it’s always fascinating to me how differently somebody perceives something once it’s in a package. That means it’s safe. But you can go out and get your own food, and I think that makes you a little bit bolder about being informed in making choices about the food that you buy. It empowers you to make decisions about your own health, and what you’re offering to other people you’re cooking for. It’s a good reminder that even though we rely on products, we can feed ourselves. And even if that’s just a tiny handful of berries that you got when you were out in a jog, it doesn’t matter. It’s just nice to have those reminders.