There was no rain, no oncoming storm, no rumbling from afar growing nearer as warning. Just a crack so loud it split the night wide open and ripped us from a sound sleep. A few minutes later another harsh clap followed on the heels of a flash and then the night went silent and still. Spring weather is manic, a frenzied display. Bone chilling rain is followed by a day just balmy enough as to suggest the first gin and tonic of the season. Then battering winds start to blow.
April has ushered in the softer side of spring. We wake most mornings to the patter of gentle rain, a soothing invitation to linger longer than usual under cozy covers. It brings fog so thick it sometimes feels like we live in the clouds. When skies do clear, the days feel noticeably longer, the silhouettes of tall black pines still visible against a deep blue sky even late into the evening.
As the light lengthens, the air warms, and plentiful rains fall, the landscape awakens before our eyes. The cherry blossoms finally dared to bloom and sansai season is careening towards its peak. I can think of no better way to tune into the season than to grasp any break in the weather and walk country paths to gather handfuls of wild edibles just at their prime, knowing that yesterday would have been too soon and tomorrow would be too late.
Foraging awakens something deep and primal, a feeling of aliveness. After months of drawing inward, huddled again the cold, we walk the hills in search of sansai and in turn reconnect to the physical world unfurling after a long slumber. These wild vegetables are revered throughout Japan. They make rarefied appearances annually on the finest menus, but here in the countryside we enjoy the luxury of abundance. We select the finest and celebrate their beauty by placing them center stage in an especially considered dish. But we take just as much pleasure in the bounty, gathering bundles of imperfect (though just as delicious) ones to enjoy day after day.
Each year, on a day in late March, I step outside and smell smoke wafting from down the hill. Swaths of amber colored weeds that choke the land between rice fields and roads are torched in preparation for planting. The spring burn leaves behind a warabi paradise, spiky soot-blackened stalks poking up from ashen earth. Undaunted by overgrowth, the thick-trunked ferns crown bent neck first, their fronds bowing deeply towards the ground.
Following the old ways of countryside traditions, we use ash to draw out the bitter carcinogens before warabi are consumed. Many nights still call for a small fire in the wood stove to assuage a lingering spring chill, providing just enough ash to treat daily warabi harvests. I put the kettle on and sift a bit of ash from the previous night’s fire. Gently tossed in the finest particles, the warabi are submerged in hot water. I lay a thin layer of newspaper over the top, tucking it into the edges of the bowl as it softens and set it aside until morning.
On the following day, as I sip my coffee, I rinse the warabi clean and set the bowl under a trickle of water for a couple of hours. By dinner they are ready to eat.The finest ones are best saved for something special, perhaps to adorn a bowl of takenoko in clear broth or atop a square of white gomadofu. A large harvest can be marinated in a bit of dashi and soy with a dash of wasabi or karashi for spice and then draped with a white pillow of grated jinenjo for a dish called warabi tororo. They say the skies will clear again tomorrow. I’ll head out one more time in search of warabi but the hills are greening and the ferns will soon leaf out telling me it’s time to set my sights on the next round of sansai, takenoko and kinome.