Foraging, to most New Yorkers, prompts thoughts of farmers market tasting menus, and that one friend you might know that goes upstate every year for mushroom season. Few of us think it’s something we can readily do right in our own backyard. Marie Viljoen, one of New York’s most prominent foragers, knows it can be done anytime, anywhere, here in our city.

Last month, I joined one of Viljoen’s forage walk picnics to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Three trains and a quick cab ride separated our remote destination from the density of the city, the top of the Whitestone Bridge just visible in the distance as a reminder.

We followed our lead into the forest, stopping when she did to pluck and taste young marzipan-like crabapple buds, or scratch-and-sniff sassafras saplings that smelled like root beer. We spent an hour or so strolling through the deciduous forest of Hunter Island before it opened into grassy windswept marshland, with a narrow boardwalk curving towards the rocky outcropping, where we’d stop for lunch.

While we watched egrets glide over Pelham Bay and listened to a channel-marking buoy ring nearby, Viljoen pulled stacked metal tins, tumbler glasses, and a picnic blanket from her bag. She dropped ice cubes flecked with frozen cherry blossom petals into each glass, over which she poured mugwort raspberry cordial and tonic.

“I see foraging as a hook of sorts. I’m saying, ‘Look, these plants are edible!’ And they’re delicious.”

Nearly every element of our picnic spread Viljoen had made herself, either from foraged ingredients or ones she had grown on her terrace in south Brooklyn. Packed into one tin was a smoked trout pate she had seasoned with field garlic, sumac, and sorrel, the bright, lemony herb — or weed depending on who you ask — that grows all over the Northeast. In the other tin, a schmear of roasted carrots that had been whipped with tahini, gochujang, salt-preserved Meyer lemons, and earthy Japanese knotweed. This one was brightened with black locust flower vinegar and a hint of sweetness from pine cone syrup.

“I see foraging as a hook of sorts,” says Viljoen, who leads around thirty walks a year, with destinations as local as Central and Prospect Parks, and as distant as the far edges of the five boroughs. She also leads a few private walks by request.

Viljoen is, of course, well aware that foraging can be a dangerous activity for an untrained eye. Throughout our walk, she pointed out a few common misconceptions, and stressed the importance of triple-checking one’s harvest before consuming it.

“When I feed people at the end of a walk and they taste these things, it’s very visceral. That realization: ‘Oh, I can eat this!’ My hope is to introduce everyone to the nature that surrounds us, even in the city.”

On paper, Viljoen has lived many lives. Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, she moved to the States in pursuit of an operatic career. Whooping cough pivoted her plans. It was a job at Chelsea Garden Center that led her back towards plant life – an admiration and curiosity that she had cultivated in her childhood, when Viljoen would watch her mother transform what was plucked from their prolific South African garden into dinner each night.

Fast forward, and years later, Viljoen has established herself as a sought-after design mind and wealth of botanic knowledge, consulting on commercial landscape builds and curating kitchen gardens on top-dollar New York City rooftops. Her work caught the eye of Eleven Madison Park chef de cuisine, Dominique Roy, who approached her to partner on developing a special forage-focused menu.

Viljoen has also two published books: Her first, 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life, is an extension of the blog she started years ago – an ode to growing in small spaces.

Viljoen’s second book, Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisine, homes in on 36 edible plants New Yorkers may be surprised to find right under our noses, and provides over 500 seasonal recipes.

Her writing has inspired more foragers than the internet could likely catalog. Alexis Nikole Nelson (@blackforager) credits Forage, Harvest, Feast as an early inspiration, saying, “It made my neighborhood seem so magical that I could have three square meals a day from what was around me.”

Today, Viljoen writes a weekly column for Gardenista, and occasionally contributes to publications like Martha Stewart and the Edible magazines. If she’s not teaching at the New York Botanical Garden or hiking with her husband through the Catskills, she’s likely leading one of her hallmark forage walk picnics.

Each picnic employs fresh and fermented ingredients with a hyper-seasonal focus of course, but Viljoen also tailors every meal to the dietary restrictions and requests of those joining her.

A dairy-free April walk through Green-Wood Cemetery included tea sandwiches with avocado butter, fermented ramps, slivered cucumber, and chickweed. Dessert was sweet clover hot milk sponge cake with strawberries and cherry mahlab, a floral, almond-scented spice blend Viljoen makes with wild black cherries. There was also a chocolate roulade filled with Nanking cherry jam, and a dairy-free cream made with Japanese knotweed.

Last October, she led a walk through Staten Island’s Mount Loretto Unique Area. That picnic showcased a pulled chicken smoked with bayberry leaves and tossed in tangy pawpaw marinade. With it, there was buckwheat focaccia with goldenrod and sweet white clover, and a salad that included pickled carrot, dried persimmon commonly known as hoshigaki, and sumac.

A November excursion to Breezy Point — the remote beach at the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula — found layered-up walkers enjoying beach plum-whipped Brie, hot carrot soup with hardy orange and yuzu, and hand pies stuffed with smoked trout and the indigenous herb known as rabbit tobacco. Pinecone thumbprint cookies capped things off.

Winter is no deterrent for Viljoen and her fellow walkers. Last December, deep in Prospect Park, she ladled a choice of two stews into mugs for her companions — one, a pork pozole with black trumpet mushrooms, bee balm, and hominy made from scratch, and the other, a vegan hominy stew with black beans, roast squash, and pickled chanterelles. There was field garlic sour cream to dollop on top, and cranberry juniper hand pies for dessert.

Summer walk menus might look like the one she served at Fort Tilden beach last June: seeded plantain crackers, brined beach plum olives, fava beans with field garlic slicked in Marmite vinaigrette, and smoked haddock hand pies with baby potatoes, caramelized garlic scapes, and bayberry.

We were a mixed bag on my early spring walk: among us, a botanist and her chef partner, a frequent walker and her father visiting from Austria, and a couple in tech.

Aside from the focaccia and its two accompanying spreads, there was a compound butter flecked with tiny-budded wintercress flowers. Crunchy pickled Japanese knotweed sat submerged in its tangy brine next to planks of burdock root that reminded me of pickled artichoke hearts. “Particularly good for invasivores,” she notes.

The last bite was a polenta and almond flour olive oil cake stippled with peppery ground spicebush berries, indigenous to the Northeast. We had stopped by one of these saplings not yet showing its budding fruit on the way to lunch and an hour later, were enjoying it prepared in a cake that outshined many I’ve paid an arm and a leg for in coffee shops all over the city.

The cake took well to an herby citrus syrup made with trifoliate orange, a hardy species native to East Asia. Viljoen had found the thick-skinned fruits just fallen from trees planted in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and knowing how their bitterness deters local fauna, decided to scoop them up to experiment with back at home.

Next to the cake sat an Altoids-sized tin holding cornelian cherry varenye that Viljoen had threaded three to a toothpick. Varenye are whole-fruit preserves — soft, juicy, and popping with concentrated flavor, ubiquitous throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Viljoen’s resume doesn’t include a stint at culinary school. That said, one look at her menus and the expansive knowledge around global culinary traditions she has accrued becomes evident.

“I’m at my happiest when I have a whole bunch of ingredients in front of me, and I have no clue what I’m going to do with them.”

“I learn so much from the people that come on my walks. Connections will be made between different people from different backgrounds and nothing excites me more.” Viljoen remembers a frequent walker connecting the dots upon spotting a shrub of the citrusy, mildly numbing North American prickly ash — a tamer relative of the Sichuan peppercorn. In Japanese cooking, she learned, it’s often employed to season grilled meat and fresh seafood. Our picnic included prickly ash-topped deviled eggs with umeboshi, the tangy Japanese plum Viljoen salt-cures herself.

On another walk, Viljoen learned from an attendee that mugwort, in Korea, is called ssuk, and is spotted in stews and steamed rice dishes. We learned from the Austrian attendee on our walk that it’s called beifuss in parts of central Europe, and is commonly brewed into tea or used to season roast poultry.

Viljoen rolls out new walk dates via her newsletter and on Instagram, directing those interested to reserve a spot on her site. She likes to cap attendance in the teens, and tickets ($80), especially for beach walks, are often quickly scooped up. Frequent walkers are a frequent occurrence, and to celebrate their loyalty and continued intrigue in the program, Viljoen offers a free walk for every five purchased.

The elusive morel mushroom was the white whale of our walk. No amount of searching the leafy forest floor uncovered a single one of the honeycomb-like fungi that appears on restaurant menus all over the city come spring. We did spot a thin patch of young ramps, which prompted discussion around commercial overharvesting, a real problem for things like fiddlehead ferns, and one particular it-status allium. Viljoen, an advocate of forest-farming, mentioned that she’d never foraged from this particular site.

We learned that if we’re not careful, native plants deemed high in value, like ramps, may very well end up endangered at some point. With that in mind, my fellow hikers and I had no problem leaving the young patch alone. Besides, now I know there’s an entire boundless catalog of delicious, wild plants out there for me to explore and thanks to Viljoen, I now know how to spot them.

2024-06-12T16:04:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd