Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint
Yesterday, Doug and I went for a walk in the Issyk Ata gorge, about one hour’s drive from Bishkek. I had forgotten that we had just spent 16 days at sea level and that my body greatly prefers generous amounts of oxygen, so we did not get far into our hike. As always, the scenery was magnificent, the sun warm, the breeze cooling, and the company fine. Add to that cold beer at the end, and it was a near perfect day.
Giving the option of a do-over in life decisions, I would have liked to pick up a degree in botany along the way. If I hadn’t been convinced that girls cannot do math, I would have probably become a doctor rather than a lawyer. But, as I constantly remind my students, the physical sciences are indeed part of the liberal arts. I’m a sucker for plants.
One of my great loves whilst living in the US was wildflower and edible plant identification. Travelling through Nova Scotia one visit, I met a Parks Canada ranger who was from the M’icmaq people. He and I gabbed for hours over edibles and medicinals on that amazing island. We each parted with a book neither had, an exchange of like minds.
A colleague of mine, Valeri Hardin, is an encyclopedia of the natural world. If I could go hiking with him, I’m sure my brain would be overwhelmed with raw data on what one can eat and what one can cure from the natural bounty of this place. I cannot hike with Valeri, however, because he is just so damned fit. My seal level-bred oxygen needs just will not allow me to follow his mountain goat speed. Luckily, Doug will let me set the wheezing pace, so I can spend a lot of time looking at plants.
So far as I can determine, there is no book published in English, French, or German to assist one in identifying wildflowers in this country of such rich flora. There is one book on medicinal plants of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (and it’s available in a Kindle version!), but even the e-book is $150. Luckily, many of the plants in the Tien Shan and Altai regions are similar to other alpine regions around the world, and I have been able to pick up some tips from Valeri and from what I see in markets.
Yesterday’s walk turned into a foraging expedition for our tea. I have a deal with Doug: when we go camping, he’s responsible for catching and cleaning the fish; I’ll do the cooking and gather the rest. If yesterday’s uniformed forage (I only eat what I’m sure I can identify) is any inclination, we’ll eat quite well.
The path lines with mint and wild sage
On my first gasping stop, I sat down in a grove of wild sage. It has a much more delicate flavor than the European sage that Americans use for their poultry, Turks for their çay, and Brits for their pork. The first thought that leapt to mind: “pork chops wrapped in wild sage and baked in wine with a savory strawberry glaze.” Yum. As I looked around, I realized that I had stumbled (literally) into a wild herborium. I found three distinct varieties of mint and thought “mojitos!”
At this point, I was crawling through the low growth wrinkling leaves and sniffing my fingers. I can only imagine how I would have appeared to any passers-by on the trail, much like truffle-hunting boar, I suspect. Doug has the patience of a saint.
Wild oregano grew in vast patches, as did wild rosemary with its lovely lavender flowers; wild thyme grew nearby. In addition to various potherb vegetables, I stumbled upon clumps of wild garlic (no ramps alas). I managed to dig two clumps while Doug liberated ten. At that elevation, we were just on the cusp of collecting bulbs over the strongly flavored and woody stalks (great for cutting into sections and storing in olive oil). Since the tomatoes are coming in from the Fergana Valley, I decided on a foraged spaghetti fresca (molta fresca!) for our evening meal.
Doug convinced me that perhaps we had rushed into the land-without-air and should turn back before I developed cerebral edema or something. My hiking boots were getting tight from my swollen feet. I’m much happier at depth than at altitude, but I love the mountains. Slow acclimation is the key.
On the way back down, I continued to rub leaves, sniffing for essential oils, when Doug stopped and looked at a plant. He doesn’t usually do that. He usually has hunting on his mind in the outdoors. Next thing I know, he’s pulling this waist-high plant out root and stem. Only then did I see the delightful purple on the stalk. He found our dessert. Although I had seen strawberry plants, we were too high for ripe berries. But, the lowland collection had begun, and our local souk had freshly picked mountain berries by the kilo.
Our evening meal was quite delicious, finished off with a strawberry rhubarb crumble served right out of the oven. Given more time, say on a camping trip, I could have made everything from what we were able to scavenge, including flour made from dried angelica and cattail roots (very labor intensive). Olive oils and wine would be a problem, but if we camped up there, we’d have horses, so I could travel with those and other bare necessities.
Fields of poppies, without the slaughter