Winter Foraging with Clay Morris

Written by Victoria Peace

Photos by Kaitlin Hill

        When people think of Hunt Country, they usually picture foxhunting – galloping at an exhilarating pace through rolling hills to keep up with hounds. However, on a cold morning in early December, I found myself getting ready to set out on an entirely different type of hunt. I was about to participate in my first-ever winter foraging class at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg.

December is usually around the time of year that I stop going out to my garden. My vegetables and herbs have long since wilted and died, the trees are bare, and the hedges that border my yard have become brown and prickly. So, I was curious about what I would be able to forage. However, over the course of instructor Clay Morris’ three-hour class, I was amazed at how much nature still had to offer. I tried heirloom pears, chokecherries, wild grapes, rosehip, and hairy bittercress greens while learning about the ecology and history of foraging in Virginia. Afterward, Morris served a spread of homemade foraged delicacies including dandelion coffee, acorn cookies, pickled wild onion flowers, and roasted burdock root. His culinary skills coupled with his contagious passion for wild plants made the time fly by – I am already looking forward to signing up for one of his spring classes.

Morris is a botanist, history enthusiast, and consummate foodie whose ultimate goal is to “reinvent, explore, and find new ways to enjoy foraged foods.” He has been teaching foraging classes at Salamander since the spring of 2021. While foraging might seem intimidating at first, Morris wants people to recognize that “we have been eating these foods for 10,000 years and have just recently moved away from them.” By reintroducing these natural foods into our diet, we get the opportunity to explore new and interesting flavors.

        During the week, Morris serves as the environmental services section chief for Prince William County. In addition to this role, he works with the Pamunkey community in King William County, helping them rediscover how native plants were traditionally used by their tribe. “Understanding human history and how cuisines have evolved over millennia is fascinating,” Morris says. “I believe that food is the one great commonality amongst all cultures, and all humanity can come together over a plate of food and gain an understanding of one another.”

Foraging at Salamander

One of the main reasons that Morris likes to teach foraging classes at Salamander is that the resort has made a point of restoring large sections of the grounds to their natural state and encouraging the growth of native plants. During his foraging classes, Morris tends to stick to the outskirts of the property’s wooded areas. This surprises many class participants, who expect that the best plants are probably found in the most isolated and hard-to-reach places. However, “from an ecological point of view, the most productive region in terms of energy flows and diversity are the edges of the forests,” Morris says. “The most productive plants are not in the woods, not in the fields, but right here.” 

        Before starting the class, Morris emphasized that in order to stay safe while foraging, “the most important thing is identification – that’s the big challenge.” But he also tries to make his classes approachable, even for those who don’t have a background in botany. Many of the plants he uses are those that we have learned to identify since childhood, like dandelions.

        Dandelions were the first plants that we saw on our walk and are Morris’ favorite plant in terms of utility. “It’s an amazing plant – you can use every bit of it,” Morris says. The greens and flowers are both edible, and he makes a coffee out of the roots. Dandelions are an invasive species brought over by the colonists. But when it comes to invasive plants, Morris believes that “if you can’t beat it, you should eat it!”

        Next, Morris pointed out hairy bittercress. It is a small, hearty green plant that is a member of the watercress family. Much like its more popular relative, it has a peppery, vegetal taste. According to Morris, it’s a great plant to look for because “it grows everywhere.” Greens like hairy bittercress, dandelions, and mustard greens have historic importance because traditionally, there was no way to consistently access fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter. When these greens emerged in the spring, people were extremely excited to add these fresh foods back into their diets.

        While Salamander has made an effort to reintroduce naturally occurring plants into the landscape, there are also several heirloom pear trees scattered throughout the property that were planted when the land was still used as a horse farm. To Morris, they are one of the most fascinating things about working at Salamander. Despite their lack of pruning, the trees have kept on producing over the years and were absolutely dripping with pears at the time of our walk. Morris explained that old-timers would call them “keeper pears” because their thick, sandy skin meant that they would keep in the cellar all winter. They also provided a crucial source of vitamin C throughout winter months when other fresh fruits were not readily available. Unlike the pears in the supermarket, these pears need a frost to set the sugars in them – cold weather makes them sweeter. When I tried one, it tasted like an Asian pear although a bit grainier and with a somewhat tart aftertaste.

        In addition to the pear trees, Salamander has five different varieties of blackberry bushes – two native and three non-native. Since it was winter, they were not producing. However, I did get to try chokecherries which look like berries but are more closely related to cherries or plums. Though they hit their prime in November, there were still some left on the bush for me to sample. Morris explained that you can extract the juice, or create a pulp out of them. But because of their small size, it takes a lot of work. “What I want to try to get you to think about is the time and effort required to do this type of foraging, the seasonality of it,” Morris emphasized. Collecting and processing foods like blackberries, chokecherries, walnuts, hickory nuts, and wild grapes was a labor-intensive process. Furthermore, what foods were being collected and processed changed depending on the time of year, so people needed to be in tune with the rhythms of the natural world to know what to forage during each season.

One particularly beautiful plant that we saw on our walk was sumac. Its flowers are a stunning scarlet color, and its hearty nature makes it a favorite plant of landscapers. Sumac is also a very popular spice in Middle Eastern cuisine. When dried, it has a piquant, sour taste, and it is rich in vitamin C. Over the summer, Morris used it to make lemonade for his children. For a more adult beverage, Morris also pointed out the berries of the juniper tree which are used to flavor gin. While not edible on their own, if you crush them between your fingers, they smell just like the liquor.

         Near the end of our walk, we saw a plant that was always one of my childhood favorites because of its unique look – cattails.  I had no idea that if processed correctly, this plant could be edible. Morris explained that in the spring, you can collect protein-rich pollen from cattails and add it to your flour. In addition, when what is usually the fluffy part of the cattail is still encased in its husk, you can roast it and eat it like corn on the cob. But the utility doesn’t stop there – the roots, which are loaded with starch, can be made into flour. Native Americans also used the fluff from cattails to make diapers, and the leaves were used to make mats. One important thing to note about cattails is that they are bioaccumulators. They absorb things from the water they grow in, which makes it dangerous to consume cattails that are growing in stormwater management ponds, near parking lots, or in other contaminated bodies of water. 

Foraged Delicacies

After our walk through the grounds of the Salamander, Morris took me back to the old stallion barn to try a variety of homemade foraged delicacies that he had prepared prior to the class. This was a great opportunity because it allowed me to try some of the plants that we had talked about, but that weren’t currently in season.

        First, I tried dandelion and wild onion vinaigrette. The flavor was deliciously herbaceous with just a hint of bitterness and earthiness from the dandelions. For Morris, one of the most exciting parts of eating foraged foods is being able to taste the terroir – as soon as you put it in your mouth, you can tell that it was grown in the wild. “You want to be able to taste the dirt,” he says.

Next, I sampled a pesto made from hairy bittercress greens. The best way to describe it is that it tasted like the smell of freshly cut grass – it was both an olfactory and culinary experience. Following the pesto, I tried some roasted burdock roots, which according to Morris, are a perennial favorite. Burdock is one of the plants that leaves burrs all over your clothing when you walk through tall grasses. The roots reminded me of a cross between a potato and a carrot and had a wonderfully crunchy texture and umami flavor. 

After trying a few more spreads and vinegars, including elderberry vinegar, pine needle vinegar, and garlic mustard spread, I was ready to move on to the pickled section of this feast. Traditionally, people only had three main ways of preparing their food so that it would keep over the winter: pickling, smoking, or drying. True to this tradition, since it was wintertime, Morris prepared pickled wild onion flowers, pickled wild onion bulbs, pickled milkweed, and spiced, pickled pears. These were some of my favorites – the flavors and textures were unlike anything I had eaten before. Morris explained that on their own, wild onion bulbs would be noxious. However, when pickled, they have a lovely mellow flavor and a fantastic crunch. 

Perhaps the most adventurous food that I tried during the class was acorn cheese, which is vegan and made entirely from the meat of acorns. I was astonished at how much the flavor and texture reminded me of cheese. It had a funky, fermented taste, but it would not have been out of place on a fancy cheese platter or canapé. Even though the process of leaching the tannins from acorns is intensive, the end result is a product that is rich in healthy fats.

To finish off the day’s tasting menu, Morris gave me an acorn cookie and a cup of dandelion coffee. The coffee was a pleasant surprise – its aroma smelled like chocolate, but its taste was subtle and earthy. The cookie was also delicious with a wonderfully crumbly texture. 

The goal of Morris’ culinary experiments is to “explore old foods in new ways.” And the result he achieves is absolutely mouth-watering. The flavors and textures are so innovative that many participants are surprised when Morris explains that “this isn’t some exotic thing imported from another country – I plucked it out of the yard.” In the future, Morris is considering delving further into mixology. If the honey locust syrup and sparkling water mocktail that he served is any indication of his skill, then his drinks are sure to be a success.

How to Sign Up

Morris concluded his series of winter foraging classes in December. However, he plans to resume spring foraging classes at the beginning of April. They are held every other Saturday and can be booked through the Salamander Resort website. Because of the popularity of the classes, Morris is also considering launching foraging day trips, multi-day foraging excursions, and cooking classes using foraged food. Please reach out to jclaymorris@hotmail.com to express interest and to be put on his mailing list. ML

This article first appeared in the January 2022 Issue.

X