Trail food | VailDaily.com

Trail food

Cassie Pence
Arts and Entertainment

AE Berry Bread PU 9-24

BEAVER CREEK ” Not every meal in Beaver Creek has to cost a fortune.

Bob West, who’s lived in Beaver Creek for 19 years, and his friend Mindy Feldman spend the summer and early fall picking berries, currants, chokecherries, rose hips and even crab apples to cook in gourmet recipes. Trail food, as West calls it, grows not only on bushes right outside his home, but up and down the valley as well, from East Vail to Gypsum, along roads, trails and rivers.

West’s family were homesteaders, and his parents and grandparents taught him how to find and use wild food. As an at-home chef who throws frequent dinner parties, West has taken his folk knowledge a step further cooking up such delicacies as choke cherry liqueur and wild currant sauces for game he hunts himself.

“It’s a real joy,” West said of picking food right from the land. “It’s an opportunity for people to get something really pure and wild as the country we live in.”

West has found wild asparagus, wild rhubarb and even edible yucca. If you find those plants, West said, it’s probably because you’re standing on remnants of an old homestead.

Berries were the bumper crop this year. The fruit grows with August rains, West said. Serviceberries are the most prevalent. Also called juneberries, serviceberries grow on a shrub or small tree near edges of woods, moist ravines and in valleys. The fruit is round, red when young and purplish or almost black when mature. The plant peaks in August and is going into a raison phase now, but there are still some ripe ones left. Serviceberries can be made into jams, jellies and sauces or cooked in sweet breads.

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“As a cook, you’re looking for new flavors, color, texture and uniqueness in presentation,” West said. “These wild foods have all those characteristics.”

“It’s using gifts that nature has given us,” added Feldman, who berry picks with West. Feldman uses service berries in quick breads.

West has found six different kinds of currants in Beaver Creek. They range in color from bright red to deep purple. They are a small, round fruit that grows in clusters like grapes. A lot of people plant them in their yard, not for the fruit, but because the plant’s foliage is hardy and beautiful when turning colors in the fall. West uses currants for sauces on top of meats.

“Some of the things you can pick from the fancy shrubs in your neighbor’s backyard are just delicious,” West said.

West picks chokecherries to make into a liqueur. It’s a very intensive process, West said, and his recipe happens to be a secret.

Chokecherries grow on a tall shrub or small tree. The fruit is a round, dark-purple berry with an astringent taste when fresh.

“Eat chokecherries after they frost, and it’s a less tannin experience,” West said.

Rose hips are prime for the picking right now. Rose hips are the spherical fruit of the rose found on the bush that produces light pink wild roses in early summer. Rose hips have been used for centuries as a source of vitamin C.

“They look like red balls with a squid-like tail,” Feldman said.

Rose hips are ready, West said, after they frost and turn translucent.

People can eat them straight from the bush or use them to make syrup or tea.

“Dry them, pound them out and put them in a tea strainer,” West said.

West suggests buying a reference book or going with someone experienced when first starting to pick wild foods. There are some plants, like the white snowberry, that can be dangerous. Forest Service permits collecting plant material only for personal use.

“Basically, you can collect plant material from the forest for personal use, and if there is any commercial use of the product, you have to get a permit to collect,” said Vern Phinney, Forest Service wildlife biologist.

The air is cooling off and bears are filling their bellies before laying down for winter, so time is running out to pick wild food. But some treasures still remain. People just need to open their eyes to the dark fruit dangling from the bushes that are now vibrant with fall colors.

“We have settled in the best bear habitat available,” West said.

“Places like Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch, highly developed areas, there is just still so much fruit left.”

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado