Asheville Goes Wild for ‘Find Dining’

lobster and honey mushrooms
NowU
January 9th, 2015

The parks and forests of Asheville, NC offer a lush buffet of blueberries, mushrooms, chickweed, chanterelles, sassafras, violets and dandelions.

springtime bonanzaGrowing wild in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the flavorful edibles are more than just part of the landscape- they’re popular ingredients in the thriving local food scene.

“Asheville is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and the Garden of Eden for wild edibles,” says professional forager Alan Muskat, who leads foraging tours through his organization, No Taste Like Home. “We have the ‘graze of God’ in our backyard.”

Foraging Tours Have Taken Root

Throughout Asheville, chefs have embraced the forage-to-table trend, integrating wild edibles into their menus to create a true regional taste.

forage to table

“You could call in ‘Survivor’ meets ‘Iron Chef,’ but we call it ‘find dining’,” quipped Muskat.

No Taste Like Home runs tours from April through October, with Muskat trekking into forests and parks in the Asheville area to educate participants about identifying the bounty of wild foods that are safe to eat.

He recites mushroom poetry in the woods and uses well-rehearsed puns such as “pick-nic” to explain that foraging is how we ate “BC”- “Before Costco.”

“Now that ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ have become household words, the next step is to recognize that the most local and sustainable food is available, free for the taking, right outside our door,” he says. “Nature’s supermarket is open 24/7.”

Introducing participants to wild foods is a passion for Muskat.  He converts skeptical tourists into edible enthusiasts during the “woodland buffet”- a portion of the tour that includes samples of foraged foods such as sassafras tea and fresh burdock root.  The flavors often surprise novice foragers.

“Wild food is healthier, fresher, and more flavorful than its garden variety descendants,” he says.

On the Menu: Chefs Incorporate Wild Edibles

On private tours, Muskat partners with local chefs to create an entire meal from wild edibles. Using the bounty from tours, he’s helped prepare dishes such as wild greens salad, nettle fritters, stuffed daylily leaves and mushroom ice cream.

nettle, black walnut cream, & wild grape tentrilsNo Taste Like Home also has partnerships with several local chefs where foragers can take their bounty to restaurants. At The Market Place and King James Public House, forage-friendly chefs incorporate found foods into appetizers.

The Market Place owner and executive chef William Dissen serves pickles and pesto made from local ramps and dries the berries from dogwood trees to use as seasonings. He also forages for wild sumac to make a Moroccan spice called zaatar, which adds a citrus zing to salmon.

“When we make dishes with foraged ingredients, we take our guests on a walk through the woods,” says Dissen.  “We like introducing different textures and tastes that are only available locally; the abundance of wild foods is one of the unique parts of Asheville’s culture.”

The Market Place is just one of the popular Asheville restaurants that features foraged foods on its menu. Chefs at Zambra, Curate, Rhubarb, Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Estate and Lantern also work with local foragers to source wild edibles for their restaurants.

On the Shelves: Markets Offer Found Foods

The Asheville Wild Foods Market sells foraged greens and prepared foods made from wild edibles, including pesto, salad dressing, teas and pickles that make excellent edible souvenirs.  It’s held in conjunction with the River Arts District Farmers Market, which takes place on Wednesday evenings from May to November.

Milt manages the market, handing out samples of foods made with wild edibles and educating shoppers about the bounty of foraged foods available around town.

“A lot of people are intrigued by the trend but, at the same time, afraid of wild foods,” he explains.  “Offering samples of prepared foods made with foraged ingredients is a great introduction.”

Alan teaching in cashiers

Muskat believes there is no substitute for getting out into the woods to search for wild edibles.

“There is a growing back-to-the-land-ness and DIY-ness in Asheville that has people excited about foraging.  The best way to learn is to use the ultimate field guide: experience,” he says.