Wild food expert Pascal Baudar says the fact that we can buy tomatoes in the store year round “is freaky.” We should be eating food in season, and we’re ignoring the plethora of sustainable cuisine available in nature, edible food hikers overlook and cities destroy.
“One of the things I started realizing doing foraging is it’s really about food preservation techniques,” says Baudar, author of four books on traditional food preservation. “As a forager, plants go through different phases, but I have to find a way to preserve it so I can still eat my plants in the winter.”
Baudar and Sandor Katz, author of multiple books on fermentation, shared an intimate stage at cookbook store Now Serving LA in Los Angeles to promote Baudar’s latest book, Wildcrafted Vinegars. The two rockstars of fermentation encouraged the crowd to connect with the resources around them.
The Foraging Craft
Baudar learned foraging as a child from his grandmother. He grew up in Belgium, France in a rural town of just 1,000 people. “I really enjoyed this connection with the environment and the forest,” he says. He wanted to study it more – but, at the time, the only books on the subject of foraging wild plants and living with the environment were about witchcraft. He studied fine art instead, eventually becoming a graphic designer.
Nervous about the much hyped Y2K scare, he began foraging again in 1999. But this time he decided he wanted to really live it. In just a few years, he took hundreds of classes from native people, botanists and survivalists, learning about native plants and how to find and eat them.
Today, Baudar lives in the Angeles National Forest in San Bernardino County. He teaches classes on subjects like eco-friendly foraging and plant identification. He admits he had no desire to get into fermentation when he began foraging. But eating wild plants meant he had to master food preservation techniques to eat the food year round, which he covers in his books (like Wildcrafted Fermentation). He learned there are three bacteria types that can be foraged locally – lactic acid, acetic acid and yeasts – their transformative microbial power harnessed through fermentation.
“My main job is to rediscover what people did in the old days,” Baudar says. “I’m not a crusader, I’m a teacher more than anything else.”
Biodiversity of Fermenting
Katz, meanwhile, was drawn to fermentation from gardening. Raised in New York’s Upper West Side, Katz eventually moved to a rural, off-the-grid community in Tennessee as a young adult. He planted a garden and learned to live a slower lifestyle.
“I was such a naïve city kid, I didn’t realize all the cabbage would be ready at the same time,” Katz says of his first garden. He learned to ferment sauerkraut first – garnering the nickname “Sandor Kraut” – and become a self-described “fermentation fetishist” from there.
“My interest in fermentation stems from my desire to get closer to where my food comes from. A lot of people have a craving to be more connected to their food,” says Katz. “Learning about common, wild plants and accessing them is a great way to do that. You get to know your environment better.”
Katz is known worldwide as a fermentation revivalist, bringing a renewed interest in the ancient food craft, especially in the U.S. He always preaches on fermentation’s safety.
“Fermentation is above all else a strategy for safety,” he says. “In the realm of raw fruits or vegetables, there are no cases of food poisoning from fermentation.”
Immersing vegetables into salt and water allows the lactic acid bacteria on the vegetables to thrive. If there were salmonella on a vegetable, for example, fermenting it creates an acidic environment where salmonella can’t survive.
“Acidification and alcohol are really strategies for safety because they make it impossible for the pathogens to grow,” he adds. “Everything we eat raw has incredible biodiversity on it that we don’t even recognize. The question of which of those organisms are going to become dominant for the fermentation, that’s what it’s all about, really. Manipulating the environmental conditions to encourage the ones we want and discourage the ones we don’t want.”
Hunting for Wild Plants
There’s an element to safety in foraging, too, “you really have to know what you’re doing,” Baudar cautions. “There are some plants that will definitely kill you. You have to go with certainty.”
Baudar will not forage in the city, though, especially along major roadways. The pollution in major metropolitan areas gets in the plants – he hunts in more pristine environments.
“You have to know where to forage,” he says. Still, people have healthy urban gardens. “Modern agriculture in my opinion is way worse than whatever you can forwage, with the amount of chemicals they put on there”
Baudar currently lives in an RV on property over 130 miles away from the city of Los Angeles. He moved from the city during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“One of the things I learned doing this is Los Angeles is really the capital of wild food,” he says. “Los Angeles is incredible in terms of wild, edible plants. What is fascinating is 90% of the wild, edible plants around Los Angeles are actually native and invasive.”
He points to the foothills and mountainsides surrounding Los Angeles and Southern California. In the spring, they’re a bright yellow color, covered with roughly 12 different types of wild mustard. Mustard could easily be preserved and put in the food stream – Baudar says other countries do this with wild mustard – but in California, the mustard is sprayed with Round Up and ripped out.
“The biggest food waste in Los Angeles is wild plants,” he adds. “But no one ever looks at wild food as food waste.”
Noma restaurant in Denmark is an excellent example of foraging. There was no Nordic cuisine based in native native plants until Noma revived it. “They practically rediscovered cuisine from scratch in the early 2000s,” he says.
Think of California cuisine and a modge podge of food from other cultures comes to mind – Mexican or Vietnamese food. California doesn’t have an identity with their native food. Baudar says every state could have their own sustainable cuisine based on edible, wild food.
“If you cook California cuisine in 2023, cuisine that is actually good for the environment by cooking those non-native and native plants, cuisine that’s sustainable because you’re replanting the plants, that’s native cuisine. And you do it without cultural appropriation because it’s native plants,” he says. “And it tastes really, really good. But foraging is not part of the big picture (for governments).”