Immediately beside the I-210, mid-way between Santa Clarita and Pasadena there is an extensive area of public land that includes the Hansen Dam Recreation and Aquatic Centre, the Lake View Terrace Recreation Centre, and the smaller Orcas Park. Between them they offer a vast array of activities, including fishing, boating, kayaking, picnicking, hiking, jogging, bird-watching and horse-riding. There’s a baseball diamond and a soccer field, basketball and tennis courts, an indoor gymnasium and children’s play area. Managed by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, it occupies an ambiguous position between rural and urban, offering a quasi-pastoral retreat for countless urbanites who flock there by car, determined to leave the city behind.
But what is perhaps the most delightful aspect of this large and busy recreation area is something that most visitors wouldn’t even notice. Despite the crowded freeway, numerous visitors and organised activities, the environment also offers a myriad of edible wild greens, aromatic plants and other wild foods. Revealing one hidden – and often delicious – surprise after another, Pascal Baudar regularly leads foraging hikes here (and in other similar locations), on Friday mornings. Pascal was brought-up in rural Belgium, where sourcing and preparing food from the local environment was simply the way of life for his family. Over the last twelve years he has been formalising this knowledge in Southern California, where he has acquired both extensive practical experience and professional certification in wild food acquisition and preparation, as well as traditional preservation methods.
A small group of us met at 10.00am for this morning’s forage – each hike costs $10 – and just steps away from the gravel car-park, Pascal was kneeling on the ground pointing out lamb’s quarter – wild spinach – enthusing about the ways in which the entire plant (leaves, stem, seeds) could be used. We stopped to look at a different variety, with tender leaves that are apparently even more delicious, before experiencing the mixed pleasure of sourcing giant nettles (which are inseparable from their giant sting). Shortly after that we got our first tantalizing glimpse of watercress, followed almost immediately by (rose bay) willow herb. At this point we’d been ‘hiking’ for about 10 minutes, had journeyed approximately 100 yards, and I was totally astonished at just how much we would have missed without our guide. At each stop, Pascal took time to talk about the plant, discussing identification, which parts are good to eat, those that have a stronger taste, and which might be bitter. Stopping to look at the powerfully fragrant California sagebrush, he told magnificent stories about the wonderful beer that can be made from it. Sweet white clover came with a warning to eat it only whilst extremely fresh, to avoid the toxic white mould that can develop on older leaves. But adding it to a foil parcel with potatoes evidently produces a dish that is so delicious I’m going to have to try it. We saw epazote (which smells – and apparently tastes – like gasoline), mugwort (also used to make a very fine beer), curly dock (which prefers to grow in water and tastes good raw in salads), black sage, California buckwheat, radish and olives. Pascal talked enthusiastically about seeds, leaves, flowers, and stems, about raw ingredients, preparation, cooking, and preservation techniques. He spoke animatedly about beers, wines, vinegars and infusions, making flour, and the possible medicinal properties of certain plants. There was discussion of psychotropics, hallucinogens and spirituality. And all the while he was throwing seeds – from plants he had collected previously – into the undergrowth in order to encourage his sustainable lifestyle.
The two hours that we had been guaranteed stretched into three. Advertised as a foraging walk (“wild food hunting”), this was so much more and although it was only an introduction, it really was an education. I’m really pleased with what I collected – a relatively small but impressive selection of various wild greens, aromatic plants and olives – and am looking forward to experimenting with them. And I hope that a walk in the park will never be the same again!