This story was originally published on GreenFriar.com.
The instructions said to meet beneath the 210 freeway overpass in the L.A. foothills neighborhood of Lakeview Terrace. We get out of the car, unbuckle the children, and head toward a group of 15 people huddled at the base of a cement embankment. A soft-spoken man collects the $20 fees and hands out small cups filled with a red liquid—a fermented soda made with wild blackberries, cherries, manzanita berries, tarragon berries and raw honey. After a morning of foraging, we will sample more of the wild aromatic infusions created by Pascal Baudar, all as pretty as they were refreshing.
Welcome to the “Wild Food Walk and Wild Aromatic Infusions Tasting” hosted byUrban Outdoor Skills, which aims to connect city people with the natural environment all around them.
“Most people who live in larger cities are disconnected from nature. Nature was part of my life from the beginning, it was my world,” said Bauder, who writes and teaches about wild food and self reliance. Baudar founded Urban Outdoor Skills in 2006, and leads weekly classes on foraging and wild edibles that range from three-hour plant identification walks to daylong desert explorations.
This interview with Pascal Baudar was conducted via email after the “Wild Food Walk and Wild Aromatic Infusions Tasting.”
Steve Coulter: How did your childhood in Europe influence your decision to pursue foraging?
Pascal Baudar: I grew up in a tiny farming town in Belgium, so there was very little to do beside spending time in the forest. As a kid, I was already fascinated by the flavors I would encounter. I would forage all kinds of nuts (chestnuts, hazelnuts) and read books about the use of plants. So I really didn’t think in terms of “foraging,” it was just a normal activity and nothing to be scared of. It was common for us to pick up green plants like nettles or chervil to make soup.
How did you transition from your previous career in web design and consulting into foraging full-time?
It took 10 years. I never really thought I would make a career of foraging. I was just interested in learning edible plants. I really started to study the local flora, the edible and aromatic wild plants, in 1999. Originally I was more interested in the survival aspect, and I attended tons of survival classes. At one point I realized that this was not survival food, but that I was really dealing with incredible flavors and truly gourmet food. So I became obsessed with discovering the true flavors of Southern California . I probably attended over 300 classes with survivalists, herbalists and native peoples—anyone who could teach me something.
In 2006 I started to give informal classes from time to time, and in 2008 I decided to provide weekly classes. At first I was dealing with small groups—maybe four or five people. It was a mix of survival and culinary skills. Bit by bit, the classes grew, and I started to get more and more into the culinary aspects of wild edibles and aromatic plants.
Three years ago, I was working as a photographer for a company and frankly was bored to death. I just decided to make the jump and follow my true passion. I called a few of the top chefs in Los Angeles and told them about what I do and my experience. Within an hour, I had three restaurants interested.
I should have made the jump years earlier.
What are some of the restaurants you’ve worked with?
In the last two years I’ve worked with some of the top chefs in Los Angeles, such as Michael Voltaggio (Ink Restaurant), Josiah Citrin (Melisse Restaurant), Ludo Lefebre (Trois Mec), Ari Taymor (Alma), Chris Jacobson (Girasol), and as a consultant for the television show Master Chef with Gordon Ramsay. I would say that probably 40 chefs have attended some of my classes.
Urban Outdoor Skills also does private dinners with my partner Mia Wasilovich, who is a fantastic chef herself. Our dinners are quite out there, featuring mostly local wild edibles. A lot of my inspiration comes from her, she is my muse.
I start my day between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and usually finish around 7 p.m., pretty much 7 days a week. It’s my passion. I love it.
How has this passion evolved?
When I started Urban Outdoor Skills, the original vision was to teach survival skills, wild food and preservation techniques. At this point, it has very much evolved into research on the culinary aspect of our local terroir and a search for the true flavors of Southern California.
One day, Mia and I would love to have our own place where we can do workshops and host private dinners.
How often do you conduct classes? And what are some of your most popular classes and subjects? What kind of people do you tend to get at your classes?
I try to give a class every weekend. My emphasis is teaching people what they can do with the plants, and hopefully inspire them as well. My most popular classes are usually workshops such as making wild soda or beer with wild plants, how to make gourmet mustard with wild seeds—basically things that people can apply easily in their life.
Why is it important for urban dwellers to have these skills?
Foraging has become quite trendy for chefs, mostly because of some of the Nordic restaurants like Noma (in Copenhagen, Denmark) or Faviken (in Järpen, Sweden), which started to incorporate wild foods in their dishes. I actually don’t follow the Nordic movement and their culinary approach much because, frankly, we live in Southern California so we’re dealing with very different ingredients. I’m more interested in the native cuisine.
So with foraging being trendy, more people are also open to the idea that “it’s okay to eat weeds.” I don’t know if it is super important for urban dwellers to have foraging skills. I think it will always be a smaller, more eclectic part of the population that wants to know about foraging and that’s completely okay—this makes foraging super sustainable.
Have you ever poisoned yourself by eating something you’ve foraged?
No. I’m obsessed with research and making sure that I can identify something 1000% before I eat it. Sometimes I spend months researching something via books, the Internet and various groups of plant experts. There is no reason why someone should poison themselves; it’s all about making sure that you achieve certainty about what you are doing.
What is the most incredible thing you have discovered while foraging in
The flavors of ants. We have over 400 types of ants in North America. Some don’t taste good, but others taste like lemons, limes or even have floral qualities.
Also, a new spice: Rabbit Tobacco. I found this plant that had a curry smell to it and became obsessed with figuring out if it was edible. I found out that it was medicinal and, in an old book, there was a reference to it being used as a spice by the Cherokee. We started experimenting with it in the kitchen and found that roasting food with it infused some fascinating flavors. The Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold was also fascinated by it when one of my chefs used it in his restaurant.
What makes California an ideal location for foraging?
You can forage all year long. We don’t really have a winter. The hardest time is actually the summer, when everything turns into a desert, but you can still find tons of stuff such as seeds, berries and wild cherries.
How much edible wild food is growing right in people’s backyards?
I’m still learning! You would be amazed at what can be used to create amazing dishes and preserves. We have hundreds of plants and various insects, but you can go much further and play with leaves, barks, stems, twigs, and cooking in clay.
For example, did you know that in the Middle Ages there was such a thing as oak bark beer? It’s bitter and tannic, but if you use the white oak bark (which has less tannin), it’s actually quite delicious.