I'm an urban forager, one of those loons who dig up dandelion greens in May and in October scrutinize parks for shaggy-bark trees in hopes of finding hickory nuts. In recent weeks, if you came across a riderless brown Schwinn lying near the Capitol City bike trail, with leaves rustling close by, that was me hidden in the foliage, plucking mulberries.
A big reason I seek out semi-wild foods is the variety and nutrition they add to a local-focused diet. Fruits, especially, are limited in our northern clime, so a fully loaded juneberry tree can be a welcome find. In coming years, however, if Dale and Cindy Secher have their way, I won't have to go hunting for a wider range of regional fruits.
The Sechers, who operate Carandale Farm near Oregon, are long famous for their strawberries, raspberries and Concord grapes - pick-your-own and sold at the Dane County Farmers' Market on Saturdays.
This year, in fact, Carandale Farm is celebrating 40 years of growing environment-friendly fruit - they use spray minimally and follow other sustainable practices. For the last five years, they've also been test-growing and evaluating dozens of little-known fruits for possible introduction into the local supply.
Dale Secher likes to think there could be "a local substitute for everything that comes from 1,000 miles away."
Seaberries, for example, are citrus-flavored berries that might stand in for lemons or limes. Along with aronia, American elderberries, gooseberries and currants, seaberries have shown the greatest potential for local cultivation. They're tasty, highly nutritious, grow well in this climate and can be processed for year-round consumption.
Secher is thinking big. He's not looking to create niche products, but a new fruit market "we can mainstream regionally - one that's sustainable environmentally, economically and socially." He dreams of regional processing and marketing and the infrastructure to make it happen.
Cindy Secher's goal is much more immediate: "I just want people to try the fruit," because she knows that will build demand. She points to Concord grapes as an example of marketing through tasting: "When we first brought them to the market, it was 'Eewww! Do they have seeds?' But now it's 'Oh, yay, the Concords are here!'"
Recently I lucked into two varieties of their fresh currants and did a little experimenting of my own. First, I briefly cooked the tangy, pale rose variety with a little sugar and water, then pureed and strained it and mixed it with yogurt for a batch of lip-smacking smoothies.
With the more intense European black currants, I made a thicker, fruit-studded sauce and used it as a topping for ice cream tarts - and learned that ice cream and black currants are soulmates.
The best dish, though, was adapted from a recipe Cindy gave me: cooked, sliced beets and minced red onions marinated in that same sauce. Ice cream and currants may be soulmates, but this was a ménage à trois made in heaven - a rousing balance of sweet, sharp, earthy and fruity I won't soon forget.
There are other ways to enjoy fresh currants - as a sauce for lamb or pork, a topping or filling for cake, as jam, jelly, liqueur or sorbet. Indeed, Cindy can reel off cooking tips and recipes for any of the trial fruits they sell.
The couple have high hopes for aronia, which is gaining a reputation as a superfood because of its high antioxidant content. Also called chokeberry, aronia looks like a blueberry but has so much mouth-puckering tannin it's rarely eaten fresh. Yet, says Cindy, "it's just awesome when baked into cookies or juiced and blended with dairy products."
The summer currant season is about over now, but as August leans into September, the Sechers may have limited supplies of some trial fruits at market, including seaberries, aronia and more currants, as well as "regular" raspberries, plums and blackberries.
Carandale Farm is located at the end of Fish Hatchery Road, 8-1/2 miles south of the Beltline. For more information about the Carandale test fruits, visit www.carandale.com or call 608-835-3979. The Carandale stand can be found at the Dane County Farmers' Market most Saturdays when their fruit is in season.