Friday, May 19, 2017

Cherem sha! Eating wild plants on Kamchatka

Mostly what I remember as a child was being afraid of the possible poisonous nature of wild plants [I do remember collecting black walnuts from the tree up behind my grandma's house].  That all changed when I started working in the field on Kamchatka.

I did not go skiing yesterday in order to pick cherem sha -- two activities that are basically mutually exclusive.  I was on my last day of lowland skiing, knowing today it would rain heavily.  After a long, wonderful day of classic cross-country on snowy trails as well as nearly snow-barren ground that had been thick with snow through April, I broke through a snow bridge into a big puddle, and that was the end of my skiing.  As I removed my skis and cleaned them up, I noticed green shoots poking out of the ground on the side of the trail -- was it? It was!  --cherem sha, aka wild garlic, or ramps.  I became so enthralled with my gathering that I almost missed the last bus back into town, leaving behind hugs patches of cherem sha.
19 May 2017 on the Lesnaya sport ski trail (snow
patch in distance).  Snow retreats, wild garlic advances!
I first learned about cherem sha on a wayward backpacking trip in June in the early 2000s.  It was to be a recreational trip to Nalichevo hot springs, with a trail along the Perevalnaya River. But we -- my friend Sasha Storcheus (RIP) and I -- started on the wrong side of the river, crossing a bridge we should not have crossed, and wandered the back country for three days.  I had packed typical American-style backpacking food, mostly dehydrated, including "soyevo myasa" (dried soy meat).  I carried a liter of water, Sasha carried none because Russians don't, especially when the hike is planned along a river valley.  Instead we spent much of the day on a dry ridge, descending into a dry valley.  That's when I learned about birch sap.  Sasha took his axe (Russians always have an axe), slashed a birch, put a piece of grass into the slash and dripped sap into a cup.  We went on to camp in a wetter spot, and as I prepared supper, I said I wished I had brought some condiments, and Sasha pulled up some cherem sha that was within reach of the campfire, and our soy meat became much tastier.  Finally, on our way back down the trail, we came across paparotnik -- fiddlehead ferns, and I collected a bunch which Sasha taught me how to prepare once back in town.

Beach pea
Cherem sha is the first to sprout up in the spring and can be found in cool spots at least into July.  I remember a salad we made of cherem sha leaves when we were at Mutnaya Bay.  We had salt and oil, and a squeezed lemon had washed ashore from a nearby ship, and we managed to get some lemony flavor out of it for our salad.  The other "local salad" that's common in our field is morskaya kapusta, (literally sea cabbage) -- a kind of kelp, Laminaria.  I remember the first time I had it, in our 1998 field at Soldatskaya Bay, prepared by Vanya Storcheus.  A third potential salad ingredient is the beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) -- the name for pea in Russian is "gorokh," but we always just call this "beach pea."  Mostly we just shuck the peas on the spot and eat them, but occasionally we bring some back to camp to add to soup or salad.  There has been some question about edibility of beach peas; unless they are your staple diet, they are not dangerous.

Puchka grows really tall.  This picture is from the web:
A food I haven't eaten but which has been used as a food staple by indigenous peoples is the bulb of the local lily, sarana or saranka.  Another of their commonly used plants, puchka (Heracleum dulcewe have on occasion cooked and eaten--the stems are are celery-like. Puchka is one of bears' favorite vegetables.  It is also commonly our nemesis in the field, especially on sunny days -- its leaves produce a phototoxic chemical -- a reason you have to cover your skin while bushwacking and hiking amongst tall plants, even wearing gloves.  I tend to stomp it down in front of me--take that, puchka!  Only once I got a burn on my shin when we had a "vacation day" and I wore pedal pushers around camp. I have heard others' horror stories, though.

A fire-blackened teapot with a compote mix of
rose hips (shipovnika), ryabina (mountain ash), and a
few blueberries (I think golubika but many zhimolost')
photo by Bre MacInnes, 2005 Mutnaya Bay
If I maintain a relatively seasonal narrative, I should mention that the fresh tips of kedrach (Pinus sibirica) a shrub pine, are edible and supposed to be good for you.  I've tried them, I'm not a big fan. And kedrach is terrible to bushwack, it pariticularly challenged us in south Kamchatka.  On the other hand, in the autumn, kedrach cones generate wonderful pine nuts.  Another shrub with an edible part is a wild rose whose species name I thought I knew (Rosa nootkatensisuntil I read this.  In any case, I was told early on that rose petals from this rose make a good jelly/jam, but I never have been successful making it, so instead, in the field, I commonly just pluck the leaves and eat them--especially good when spotted with dew; careful to exclude insects...  This is another plant that have an autumn bonanza, in this case, rose hips, which are collected by locals for winter tea and vitamin C.

What's left (in my incomplete knowledge) are two giant categories -- berries and mushrooms/fungus (the latter including chaga).  Each one deserves its own write-up/blog (not to mention fish, fowl and meats), especially my absolute favorite brusnika, so I will just write about that one for now, after a short introduction to other berries.  In order of appearance/ripeness, in my experience the first berries we can pick and eat are shiksha, or crowberries -- another staple of indigenous diets, not very sweet or tasty, though with ripeness they are better; make excellent ingredients in berry pancakes, when that's all you have.  Next come blueberries, I can't determine which first, but the first I picked were zhimolost', a blimp-shaped blueberry with a fabulous taste and a deep purple stain; the other is golubika, a low-growing, classic-appearing blueberry [note that my experience is mostly coastal].  In the peat bogs, relatively early, you can find maroshka, known to us as cloudberries; they are ripe when they become pale pink-yellow, from a darker red-orange, and they taste a bit like yogurt or ice cream.  A late bog berry is, of course, the bog cranberry, kliukva -- I only managed to harvest kliukva once in a September field in Soldatskaya Bay, 2003.  Another later berry is ryabina, or mountain ash -- not particularly edible but can be used in jams and compote; commonly quickly gets riddled with bugs; grows in bunches that bears just trim off the bushes, including really near my tent one year.  Most of these berries are familiar in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, especially Alaska, but I was surprised that Kamchatka does NOT have salmon berries.

These brusnika are not quite ripe...
photo by Bre MacInnes
Finally, my favorite brusnika -- best known in the western world by its Swedish name lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).  It is also called "low bush cranberry" and a bunch of other names, it grows in tundra-like conditions, including on our old beach ridges.  It ripens in the late summer, and you have to pay attention, because it can look red above and still be quite green on the underside.  A deep red is what you are looking for.  
Bre with fresh brusnika,
inset of freeze-dried version
And/but if you are lucky earlier in the summer, you can find brusnika "freeze-dried" from the previous year -- I remember at least a couple times where there were enough naturally freeze-dried brusnika that we could collect them to share or to cook with; they can be a bit fermented, which is fun, too.   Brusnika have a flavor akin to bog cranberry but more intense.  When freshly picked, they have lots of pectin, so the only decent thing to do is add a little sugar, bring to a boil (no water!) and eat by the spoonful with tea.  Second best is to do the same and put on bread or pancakes or in blini -- with smetana (sour cream, which we don't have in the field), omg.  Brusnika freeze well and are commonly available in markets here in Petropavlovsk, so I am enjoying them here this winter.

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