My journey began collecting wild mustard greens from the fields near home. I was 8 and dressed in a yellow rain coat and red rubber boots in a warm wet “pineapple express”. A kind of storm that makes the frogs start up, the air fill up with the smell of wet grass, and heralds in the first meadow larks to song. These are fond memories of my first solo foraging foray. On those journeys I would find and collect the most tenderest leaves and make bundles to sell to the neighbors. Luckily enough one of my neighbors was a talented French chef and had just opened a cooking school at her house. Her backyard garden was impressive and her passion for using fresh ingredients inspired me. My backyard was open space that stretched for miles, a place where wild things grew; sweet mustard greens, dry farmed apricots, wild walnuts and liqurice flavored fennel. My foraging and her passions collided and I found myself hiking the hills in search of fresh things. It was 1975 and suburbia erupted, paving over vast acres of orchards, the bay area food scene was a mere blip on the radar, and Mrs Wicks represented a beacon in a food desert.
What really got it going was my early impressions at the age of 5 on a family trip to Europe. I witnessed first hand an abundant food and food culture. I was quickly seduced by fresh hot Parisian baquettes and the many cheese carts bearing stinky French camenbert, and wowed by baby Nantes carrots in Belgium. The stores were filled with charcuterie, prosciutto, olives and olive oil, and real swiss chocolate. In Barclona, on a beach with bonfire and Flamingo dancers, we dined on saffron infused Paella followed by copiuos bowls of fruit and flan. This wasn’t a show it was the real stuff. On my second trip to Europe at age 10 we traveled through Switzerland, all of Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia. The vibrant Italian food culture was alive with farmers markets, tratorias, expresso bars, and pastries and cakes of unimaginable sophistication. Every eating place had it’s backyard garden were they grew tomatoes, cucumbers and onions to make the most delicious fresh salads that were signature to every town and region.
Years later I settled in Calaveras County and moved into a neighborhood right our of Po Valley, Italy. Two sets of neighbors practiced the traditional lifestyles that I witnessed in my early trips to Europe as a boy. Their lifestyles mimicked the old ways and it was said that all they needed was flour, buckshot and salt. Everything else they grew themselves. Ernie Vogliotti moved to the ranch at age 13 and never held a job outside of the farm. Famous for their tomatoes and onions (of which we still continue to grow), they foraged for mushrooms, hunted quail and deer, raised chickens and hogs and made wine and proscuitto. Josephine, Ernie’s sister, told me that she thought the “whole world had gone crazy and how can you stay healthy without growing vege-tables”.
Eric Taylor, Farmer