Foraging, aka harvesting food in the wild, was once a part of normal daily existence, and a necessary means for survival. People once knew which plants were poisonous and which were edible, or otherwise useful. There are still places in the world where foraging is the norm, but here in the States it's something of a fringe hobby, something left to the herbalists and extreme outdoorsy-types; most people don't see the point of it. And why would they? With all of our grocery stores and farmers markets, why forage anyway? For me, foraging is incredibly rewarding. There is something undeniably satisfying about the hunt for wild edibles, and it gives me a feeling of connection to the past, as well as a connection to nature.
While there are many more plants to harvest in the spring, November is the perfect time here in Santa Barbara for foraging two of my favorite things - Toyon berries and Prickly pears!
Although Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is actually not a holly, it is commonly called "California holly", and because of it's abundance in the area, it is responsible for the naming of Hollywood, California. For months and months you can see the bright red berries decorating the small trees and large shrubs that adorn the roadsides, trails and parks. The berries are bitter and dry when eaten raw, but when roasted or dehydrated and then simmered in water they are tart and delicious. We make a tea cider by simmering the berries in water with a few cinnamon sticks and star anise pods and adding some honey. If you really want to make a delicious dish with your Toyon berries, try Emma's recipe for "Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls with Roasted Toyon".
Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is another plant that grows in abundance in southern California. Both the paddles of the cactus, as well as it's fruits are edible, but both are covered with protective spines and glochids, respectively. There are many ways to remove the glochids from the fruit, and I've tried a few of them. You can scrape them off with a knife, burn them with flames over an open stove or fire, or brush them off with a little brush. I usually de-bristle my prickly pears by first harvesting with a pair of tongs, tossing them into a bucket, and then carefully skinning them with a knife at home. I trim off the top and bottom, and then peel the skin off with the knife. If I am not gathering as many, I brush the glochids off with a little brush. Making sure I brush up and down, side to side, until they are all off and I can handle the fruit with my hands. Then I put them in my apron or a basket to bring home. Stay tuned for Emma's Prickly Pear Pie recipe, coming soon!
*As always, please make sure you are positive you are harvesting the correct plant. A good plant identification book for your area is a must!