Hank Shaw, a Jersey boy who grew up eating self-picked blueberries, is busy schooling me on my backyard, the Sierra, as I try to collect gooseberries without encountering their sharp spines, an assignment at which I am failing.
"Stuff!" I say.
Actually, I didn't say that, but instead used a four-letter word that Gov. Jerry Brown uttered at a recent news conference. My guess is Jerry would say it repeatedly while foraging in a gooseberry thicket.
"Stuff!" I say, multiple times.
I am wearing garden gloves, but they are not enough to save me from the porcupine known as gooseberries. These are marble-sized fruits, some approaching the size of golf balls, with quills on both the berries and the bush branches. If American Indians ever ate these berries, they must have been practicing self-flagellation. Birds apparently eat them, which might explain the decline of certain bird species.
Nature is a wondrous thing, and on this day I am spending it with Shaw and two friends who are also curious about foraging. We are on the hunt for food that might have sustained native peoples centuries ago, in the month of August, at an altitude of 6,000 to 7,000 feet in the Sierra.
There is plenty to sample, even with the gooseberry challenge. There are elderberries, thimbleberries and manzanita berries, which Hank says can be turned into a delicious cider.
Shaw, a recovering newspaper reporter who lives in Citrus Heights, is the author of the book "Hunt, Gather, Cook" and the blog, "Hunter Angler Gardener Cook." Through a lifetime of learning, he's carved out a niche as an expert on foods you can harvest in the wild.
After picking gooseberries in a burnt-out expanse of mountain near Ice House Lake, we descend and ascend to a much wetter and shady spot. Down in the Valley, the temperatures top 100 degrees, but up here, the air is cool and sweet with the smell of conifers. Here we harvest a type of mentha mountain mint which I'll later transform into an aromatic ice tea.
We drive further down the road to our picnic spot. Shaw has brought along a lunch of sandwiches, filled with salmon he caught and smoked himself. There are Hank Shaw pickles and figs from his garden and a soda made of gooseberry syrup. We enjoy our picnic looking out at a field of yampa.
Yampa is the common name for perideridia, a member of the parsley family that was a staple of Indians. It produces clusters of white flowers that in their early stages taste like carrots.
After eating our lunch, I am tempted to take a nap in the shade, but instead follow Shaw out to the meadow, where we collect green yampa flowers. There's no way the Indians could have made a meal of these, and they didn't. The real prize of yampa are its roots, which can grow into morsels as large as an unshelled peanut. The roots are sweet and crunchy, and were a good source of carbohydrates for early hunters chasing game before the harsh winter arrived.
Apparently, Indians enjoyed yampa so much that they eradicated them from some meadows. Yet at this spot, it is growing with a vengeance.
Sometime in the fall or spring, Shaw will return to the nearby forests, in search of one of the Sierra's most exquisite delicacies porcini mushrooms.
Springing up after rains, porcini grow at the base of certain conifers, under a carpet of forest litter and pine needles. Shaw says he hunts them by looking for slight mounds in this carpet, which can sometimes lead him to his prized porcini.
"When life gives you a basket full of buttons so beautiful you could just weep over them, you simply must cook them simply," Shaw wrote in his blog (http:// honest-food.net) last May.
Obviously, amateurs have no business going into the forest to find porcini. Make a mistake, and it could be your last hike in the woods, ever. But more and more people are learning how to safely forage them, which is why Shaw and other mushroom hunters are discreet about their favorite funghi spots.
We end our excursion by foraging some mountain pennyroyal, Monardella odoratissima. This is another mint that looks like sage but tastes somewhat like oregano.
"It makes an excellent chimichurri," referring to an herb-garlic-olive-oil-lime-juice sauce used by Argentinians on grilled meats.
I pride myself in being knowledgable about food, but my expertise tends to end at the grocery and the garden plot. Foragers like Shaw are reminding us there's a vast food emporium out there in the wild as he calls it, "the forgotten feast."