Famine Foods Workshopping

American in Paris Jeffrey Greene recently contributed a piece to our blog about his pursuit of an elusive oyster known as the pied de cheval. In this latest piece, Greene—who is currently at work on a book about wild edibles—travels to the Polish Carpathians to learn the finer points of foraging…

The first time I learned of Lukasz Luczaj was in a message sent from a log cabin in the Polish Carpathians. At the time, I was writing The Golden-Bristled Boar: Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest, a book about the astonishing world of wild boars, highly intelligent and elusive animals that have played a significant role in human civilization. A friend had written, “I am sitting on the porch with a bunch of people drinking beer, dusk falling, and we’ve been talking about two fires on the far hill that we’ve seen burning almost every night.  Lukasz just told us that one of the village drunks—a woman who meets her lovers in the woods—is burning tires because someone pays her to sleep up there and keep the wild boars out of the potato field.”

Two years later, I find myself plunged into writing a book on wild edibles, inspired by some of my childhood experiences from growing up in the New England woods and summers spent at the shore. My passion for gathering wild edibles was renewed later in life in France, a country rich with forest and shoreline wild foods and a long culinary tradition of eating anything that hops, gambols, or slimes along. I learned that Lukasz Luczaj was not only a botanist and author of books and numerous scientific papers but also a reputed authority on edible plants and insects who hosts workshops on foraging for wild edibles and cooking them. To see this man in action, I drove 1200 miles in two days from Paris, via Prague and Tarnów, and found myself sitting on the very same cabin porch above the village of Rzepnik, if you can call it a village, with a Polish group that included wilderness survival buffs, food bloggers, a film producer, and assorted escape-to-naturists. They were all equipped with cameras and note pads, ancillary to the critical tools for wild food gathering: baskets, spades, and pocketknives.  Lukasz, a solid man with shoulder-length hair and a two-week beard, ladled coffee with ginger and gobs of honey from a well-worn white enamel pot into an assortment of mugs.

At the peak of autumn, the lower Carpathians were in the midst of what Americans call Indian summer, deepening yellows with spots of red flaring leaves on rolling wooded land mixed with limited agriculture, a few docile cows chained to roadside lots of warm grass. Polish traditional songs mixed with Rock and Roll drifted from the lively beginnings of a Polish wedding held at a pink municipal building that looks like a modest private home.

“Weddings are taken seriously here. They can last three days,” a young, brunette food blogger counseled me.  ”The young people set up a ‘passing gate,’ and the reception guests must bring a bottle of vodka. You know, it’s a kind of toll fee.  It’s special, no?” The “passing gate,” I’m told, evolved from an old tradition of raising a dowry if the bride happened to be an orphan.

When I first arrived at the workshop in Rzepnik at 8:30 a.m., the group had already been out collecting an impressive array of herbs, nuts, and mushrooms. Lukasz was busy preparing breakfast in what he called his rectangular woks. His stove was a wood fire laid between two logs that supported a large sheet of steel mesh over the flame. Everyone was tasked with chopping nettles, slicing mushrooms, and picking nearby herbs.  Knowing well the perils of mushrooms, I scanned for the killers but quickly understood that eating at the workshop would be an act of pure trust. Or should I say faith?

My driving all the way from Paris nearly to the Ukraine border to attend a workshop in Polish baffled Lukasz. After all, France has many of its own experts on wild edibles. Villages offer tourists wild food festivals, particularly for mushrooms, fruits of the sea, and even wild boar. One French wild food guru conducts workshops and runs four restaurants featuring wild edibles. From all counts, he appears to be getting rich on French weeds.  I knew what Lukasz was thinking: why come to me? You don’t speak a damn word of Polish.  I came because Lukasz was unique, with interests ranging from researching foods in rural China for how peasants survived the great famine to studying Thai methods of fishing for dragonflies with a spider web on a stick. Besides, even the French wild edibles guru made a pilgrimage here!

The Carpathians are a 1000-mile range of hills and mountains that crosses parts of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, and finally Romania. The range is home to boars, bears, and wolves, and perhaps most famously Transylvanian vampires, all lovers, one could say, of wild edibles of varying sorts. To my good fortune and mild sense of shame at my own cultural limitations, everyone spoke English, along with at least three other languages. Some information would invariably filter through to me. And it was true, a young blogger, a naturalist, and a former Polish judge who got his start painting houses in Chicago took me under their collective wings, interpreting for me.

For two days, we followed Lukasz tearing at leaves like goats; yanking up networks of fern root; spading wild garlic, carrots, and parsnips; plucking prickly hips and tart red berries, and pinching off greens that are better known in these parts as “famine food.” Famine food was important in this very place as recently as the years when the Soviets controlled Poland and guerrilla fighters hid in the woods after the villagers were relocated. There are even monuments in the middle of the forest for Resistance fighters from World War II.

Above all, this was the season for mushrooms. Locals already satiated in their hunt by noon, poured vodka and smoking cigarettes stood beside enormous baskets full of cêpes. The film producer had taken a one-and-a-half-hour course in wild mushroom gathering and was exuberantly collecting almost everything she could find, Lukasz tossing many aside as fast as she could find them.

Lukasz offers different cooking workshops: some are for purists who only prepare foods with what is found in the wild and others include certain outside ingredients. Ours was of the latter sort. We cooked a chicken underground surrounded by cattail and fern roots and Jerusalem artichokes that hunters introduced to the area.  We sliced through the putrid, spiny shells of water chestnuts—for sweet white-blue inner hemispheres. One survival fanatic and I washed tubers while kneeling by a lovely brook and talking about the culinary peculiarities of African wild edibles. The wedding had moved to the onion-domed church that seemed marooned at the end of the road with a blasted, albeit still living 500-year-old oak beside it still producing fresh acorns.

We were summoned to dinner with many clay-covered roots and tubers yet to clean. At the camp, acorns were boiling in ash from the fire.  Rose hips simmered for soup. Mushrooms steeped for broth. Two of the dishes were truly exceptional.  The first was a Thai stew that was based on thistle leaves. It included soy sauce, shrimp paste, galangal, tamarind, kaffir leaves, and lemon grass as the main flavoring. The second was sarma rolls, an ancient Middle Europe and Middle Eastern dish, wrapped in coltsfoot leaves that we collected, rather than grape or sour cabbage leaves. Inside there was wild onion, rice, and mixed mushrooms. But who knows which ones?  In fact, Lukasz accepted some lovely lilac-colored mushrooms that the film producer had picked. He was 99% sure of what they were but nevertheless cell-phoned the president of the Polish Mycology Society while we stood together fireside, the stars emerging and the wedding by this time cranking to full blast down the road. The answer was Clitocybe nuda. The three young women in our group could not have been more delighted. They decided the Latin name sounded more like a delicious Italian obscenity and began chanting of Clitocybe nuda, Clitocybe nuda over our boiling brews.

Without exaggeration, the workshop altered the way I look at plants now. It’s not simply that the edible species are so abundant and have wonderful stories behind them, that they possess medicinal and nutritional powers, but we also saw through Lukasz’s discerning eyes the beauty of their structures, from their roots to their leaf patterns. The meals were delicious, with a wide range of bitter and sour to sweet, belying what skeptics might say about wild edibles tasting dull. We learned too how our tastes and culinary imaginations are restricted by our own cultures.