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Fermenting and Foraging
Students foraged for meals and fermented foods as part of the permaculture pre-orientation trip, which focused on how to build ecological resilience within the modern human landscape.
Hiking along a trail to Unicorn Lake, Melia Greene ’20 brushed against a plant with tiny prickles that stung her arm. She gathered nearby plantain leaves and crushed them into a poultice, alleviating the stinging within moments. Later that evening, she joined her fellow foragers in collecting more plantain—along with dandelion, curly dock, violet, shepherd’s purse, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, and wood sorrel—for use in a wild food salad.
“Wild grapes took me by surprise,” says Greene. “They’re smaller than the ones at the store but are way sweeter, almost exactly like grape-flavored candy. So did pepperweed, a plant in the mustard family that’s like a fun cross between mustard and radish—I believe it belongs on hotdogs.”
One of the more adventurous pre-orientation programs offered at Washington College in August, the permaculture trip ties in directly to the College’s new Eastern Shore Food Lab, which will be based in downtown Chestertown next year. The four-day course, led by permaculturist Shane Brill ’03 M’11 and naturalist Kathy Thornton ’13, brought students through the farms, fields, forests, and waterways of Kent County.
Along the way they visited Figg’s Ordinary to speak with owner Ingrid Hansen P’14 about local food and waste reduction, toured Infinity Recycling with Ford Schumann ’72, and picnicked at Calico Fields with Jay Falstad to learn about pollinators in food production. They identified pollinators while harvesting tomatoes and potatoes from the Colchester Farm Community Supported Agriculture program, and took advantage of the campus BikeShare to cycle with President Kurt Landgraf along the College waterfront.
The students camped overnight at an animal rescue farmstead, where they made a variety of fermented foods for an upcoming Eastern Shore Food Lab dinner. They worked with microbial cultures to transform tea into kombucha and organic milk into kefir and yogurt. They drained the whey from the kefir to make a creamy salad dressing, and used pineapple vinegar to create cortido, a Latin American sauerkraut.
“Fermentation has always fascinated me,” says Doug Kurtz ’21. “I have recently become a huge fan of daring flavors—ones that tend to unapologetically compete with others in your mouth—found in foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut. The method of fermentation we were exposed to opened my eyes to a realm of food production that is sustainable, healthy, and uncomplicated.”
Emily Castle ’18 says she’s already started brewing her first batch of kombucha after what she learned at pre-orientation. An environmental studies major, she was a student leader on the trip.
“Fermentation is a very accessible skill that encourages creativity and experimentation,” says Castle. “It gives one a way to learn about cultures from all around the world. Fermentation has been an important part of humans’ relationship with food for a long time, and I can’t wait to cultivate this new kind of relationship with my food, personally.”
Castle, who recently completed a summer internship in ecological gardening at Mt. Cuba Research Center, was already familiar with many of the wild plants the students encountered in their travels.
“Wild foods force one to look around, rather than ahead,” she says. “They’re very much on the periphery or on the edge of people’s awareness and surroundings, which is exactly what makes them valuable for identifying and harvesting. They allow one to connect more deeply with one’s immediate environment and, with their deep roots, reward one nutritionally with trace vitamins and minerals not found in conventional and industrial food. Without sounding too dramatic, I think wild foods are actually at the heart of human survival.”
Kurtz says he was amazed to learn how accessible wild foods are, even though initially he was afraid of foraging something poisonous.
“But I quickly learned that there are distinctions between edible and non-edible plants, and that eating wild foods is indeed safe and helps form a bridge of intimacy between nature and our dinner plates,” he says.
Jimmy Looper ’21 agrees. “After foraging in the permaculture pre-orientation, I am absolutely a proponent of wild foods. My favorite wild food encounter was definitely clover because everyone knows what clover is, and it is pretty easy to identify. What people (myself included) don’t know is that not only are the flowers edible they are actually really quite good.”
The ecological immersion touched on medicinal plant uses as well. “I happened to get a cut on my finger, and to stop the bleeding and heal the skin we used a wild plant! I used comfrey leaves on my cut and sure enough it healed!” said Nicole Hatfield ’21. “We simply hiked through numerous trails and discovered what nature had already put in place. There was no set of rules or specific steps to follow; instead, we were able to observe our surroundings and use the natural resources around us.”