Foraged Popsicles and a Wild Food Challenge
It’s 2am on a Saturday night during an unseasonably steamy May. I’m sitting at my kitchen table in Turin, where it feels like I’ve been parked now for days, painstakingly dipping edible flowers in diluted honey and fixing them to the inner wall of a popsicle mould with a cotton bud.
It’s the night before the Local Wild Food Challenge, a cooking competition that invites contestants to forage for edibles and whip up a delicious, wild dish to be pored over by a panel of judges. The event has so far taken place in New Zealand, Martha’s Vineyard, and now Verduno – a hilltop town surrounded by vineyards, around an hour from where I live in the north-western corner of Italy. Not that we thought we were in with a shot, but this time around the top prize was a coveted trip to Finland.
I decided to enter the competition along with my boyfriend because, if I’m being honest, his entry idea was way better than mine. I had far-fetched plans to construct a multi-layer elderflower sponge cake tinted forest green with pureed nettle, layered with wild blackberry compote, and covered in a cloud-like alpine strawberry buttercream. For which I have little proper baking equipment and certainly none of the patience needed.
As equal parts smoothie and booze lovers, we settled on a trio of wild, spirit-spiked popsicles instead: the first, a cucumber juice, elderflower cordial and gin mix studded with fresh elderflower and acacia buds; next, a dandelion root and ginger-infused homemade kombucha whizzed up with apricot, apple and vodka, frozen with fresh wild chamomile buds; and lastly, the first of the season’s cherries blended with tangy wood sorrel, alpine strawberries and gin, plus whole borage flowers.
The idea was great in theory, but the thing about foraging is that you never know what you’ll find until you’re out there, wading through overgrown bramble to reach a wild plum tree or spying for little patches of purslane growing along the edge of a dirt road. There’s no deciding what the exact recipe will be beforehand, and you can forget sticking to a shopping list.
Wild foods really force you to be in the here and now.
All that iffiness is exciting when you’re out searching for something fun to experiment with in the kitchen, but it’s kind of a problem when you’ve got to submit your recipe to the judging panel a week early. As the competition crept up, the rain kept bucketing down well past the usual shower season. A week out, the sturdy dandelions had turned droopy and the ivory elderflower petals soggy and grey. Was it warm enough for the mulberry tree to be fruiting just yet? Has that farmer ‘weeded’ that patch of pimpinella already? I crossed my fingers, and guided us to my usual plant-hunting spots.
Here’s a tip if you ever want to compete in a cooking competition an hour’s drive away in the boiling heat – don’t make popsicles. There was no time to test our fruity cocktail mixes ahead of time, or to work out if they’d even freeze properly. We spent hours that Saturday night blending, tasting and tweaking, filling up miniature plastic cones with twigs balanced inside as nature-inspired paddle pop sticks. They went into an esky, expertly packed and strapped into the car with a seatbelt, the two of us turning to check on it the whole way there like a newborn baby in a car seat.
On the other hand, if you ever want to compete in a cooking competition that’s hosting a four-course foraged lunch before the judging even starts – you really should make popsicles. While the other 24 contestants prepped their impressive dishes in the kitchen (a Piedmontese castle where the competition was held, no less), we managed to stay out in the sunshine with a nettle risotto, turning up just before our stage cue all light-headed and happy.
The kitchen was packed. Fellow contestants worked swiftly, carefully layering wild herbs atop their dish or deep-frying battered elderflower florets. We took to the only workspace left, the flat lid of a garbage bin, the popsicles softening as soon as they met the steamy air on the way to the judges. The umpiring wrapped up and I got my phone ready to snap our handiwork, but the little iced treats were all but gone by the time we collected the serving platter, fast disintegrating into a watery mess on their bed of ice cubes. Did it really happen if there’s no Instagram pic to prove it?
We ended up with a (very, very unexpected) second place prize for the most straightforward of dishes – a blended mix on a stick made from what we could stumble upon around us, and not a fancy gadget in sight.
Over the last few years foraging has become synonymous with radical chefs and sophisticated ultra-foodies running the most experimental restaurants.
It’s a movement that’s brought attention to a custom that was once more everyday – a simple act of engaging with your surroundings for nourishment, making for humble meals and simple pleasures.
Wild foods don’t always need to equal a degustation in a fancy restaurant. They just need a bit of local know-how and a set of curious eyes – maybe a trusty freezer, too.