Summer is the best season for foraging, when beach plums and wild grapes are ripe for the picking, and black walnuts fall from the neighbor’s tree. Violet Cabot would know. She spent much of the summer foraging with her family, scouring the landscape for rare berries and searching the swamps of Aquinnah for watercress.
A sixth grader at the West Tisbury school, Violet has been preparing for the big event of the fall — the Local Wild Food Challenge, which will be held at the Edgartown Rod and Gun Club on Columbus Day. Foraging is hard work, she said, but it pays off when the dish is served.
“It’s just like it’s come full circle. You went out to pick the food and you made the food and now you get to eat it,” she said in a telephone conversation Tuesday.
It’s New Zealander Bill Manson’s fourth year presenting the culinary arts challenge to Islanders. The event invites contestants to prepare creative dishes featuring local foods and compete against each other. Dishes are evaluated on the quality of the ingredients, presentation, taste and effort. And this year the contest includes a kid’s category, where they will be judged separately from adults.
While it was cool to rub shoulders with some of the most talented chefs on the Island last year, it was also a bit intimidating, Violet said, to compete head to head with them. Last year, Violet’s striped bass with a side of acorn squash and watercress salad, which she prepared with her friend Rose, won her a prize of a hot chocolate mix. This year, she’ll be joined by a group of Island kids organized by the Island Grown Schools group, a nonprofit that teaches farm-based education to students. Her mother Nicole works for Island Grown Schools at West Tisbury School, and has recruited a group of avid foragers to mentor the kids on foraging trips. Mrs. Cabot discovered that wild food epicureans are all around her — they’re people she’s known for years who forage in their free time.
“Once you start going to the wild food challenge, you connect with people who you know on a different level,” Mrs. Cabot said. “It kind of brings together unlikely combinations of people for the sake of what is locally sourced, and [learning about] what is growing all around us.”
Mr. Manson’s goal is to get people to interact with their environment in a new way.
“It gets you to look at your resources in a different way, so that you want to protect and nurture them,” he said. The result is better-tasting, healthier food, he added. To qualify for the competition, the dish need only contain one wild ingredient.
“I want to make this as easy as possible,” he said. “We want them to feel there are no barriers to having a go at it.” He’s interested in the foraging stories contestants tell when they present their dishes, and the knowledge gained from those experiences. Last year, the contest drew 50 competitors, and many more spectators. This year’s guest of honor will be the winner of Mr. Manson’s most recent wild foods challenge, which he held in Finland.
The chef, Simo Saarimaa, earned his title with a wild pike dish served with chanterelle croquette, a mushroom soup, along with wild leek confit, purÃ©ed red sorrel and sun choke chips. He won against stiff competition from his fellow Finns who concocted meals featuring fried wood ants, reindeer meat and cuts of goose. As a reward for his superior culinary arts, Mr. Saarimaa won a trip to the Vineyard, where he will judge the Island’s offerings at the Monday contest.
Mr. Manson says there is a surprising amount of edible herbs and berries lurking in unexpected places here on the Island, if you know where to look.
“There are resources that are so abundant and a group of people who are willing and quite keen to look after those resources,” he said. For example, dogwood berries are edible and delicious, he told a crowd at the Living Local Harvest Festival on Saturday. He also urged amateur foragers to experiment with goldenrod and fennel pollen, which he paired together in a mustard-like sauce and served to the crowd over venison sliders. But if ever in doubt while foraging, leave the ingredient out, he said. Better to forage with an experienced gatherer who know’s what’s safe, or consult Google.
In the past, dishes have featured a host of wild Island plants, and meats such as squirrel, venison, rabbit and black bear sourced off-Island. You can also expect shellfish, crustaceans and a variety of finfish to appear at the judging table, Mr. Manson said.
Even though it’s a competitive food event, the atmosphere’s not cutthroat, Ms. Cabot said. ”Everyone is cheering everybody on, and I think that’s why it’s so great for kids.”
“A lot of kids are watching those [cooking] shows on TV and this brings it to a local level and makes it doable and non-threatening in a really healthy way,” she added.
The Local Wild Food Challenge is from 3 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 14 at the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown. Visit localwildfoodchallenge.com for more information.