"Going barefoot is like a massage for your feet," says Christiane Viehweger brightly. We're on a walk, both in and out of the woods, around Schliersee, one of dozens of glacially carved bodies of water sprinkled throughout the Bavarian countryside. The Alps, still veined with snow that will last until summer, loom large over a hamlet of sloping, wooden rooftops. A pale yellow church and a modest chapel stand guard over the scenery. Although the ground is only just beginning to warm, I've tentatively taken off my shoes off and am letting my toes touch the damp soil. Given the early spring climate, we opt to conduct most of our stroll with footwear on, but in the summer months Viehweger abandons it entirely. For her, these brief treks in the woods are about reconnecting with history and nature on a tactile, sensual level—sneakers just get in the way.
I've come to this corner of the region to search for herbs, vegetables, and berries that locals have gathered for centuries. Long before noma made foraging a household term and bearded, tattooed chefs began flaunting their seabuckthorn, samphire, and other bounty, rooting around in the woods for wild edibles was the norm here. As time has gone on and customs have changed though, fewer and fewer individuals remember the distinctions between the various species of flora. The differences between a toxic and a tasty mushroom or herbs are subtle, and to learn to safely forage requires more time and effort than many are willing to invest.
"It's important to me that we don't lose these old things," explains Viehweger. Despite holding a full-time job and being an active member of her small community, she conducts these nature walks in what little spare time she has. Back at home, she transforms her findings into pestos, spreads, sauces, and natural cures. Her pantry is crammed with jars of homemade liqueurs and preserves. She underwent a certification course to become a forager, but her interest and much of her knowledge predate any official training. As a child, her grandmother taught her about all sorts of plants with both therapeutic or culinary benefits. It's something her mother never picked up, as do relatively few parents today. "One time I was with a family and I found wild blackberries. The child asked me what they were and the parents said, 'No, don't eat those. They're poisonous.'"
In all fairness, I'm no better. Like many a broke college student, I once spent a summer WWOOFing, partly because I harbored romanticized notions of farming, but mostly because the idea of living in the Italian countryside for a couple hundred bucks sounded pretty appealing. Giovanni Cantarelli, the owner of the agriturismo Funghi e Fate in Emilia-Romagna, must have been born to forage—his family name literally translates to "chanterelles." He would set off into the woods and return a few hours later with porcini the size of dinner plates. But while I enjoyed the spoils of his finds—there were days when I devoured chanterelles for both lunch and dinner—when he graciously agreed to take me on some of his walks, I never managed to spot a thing. I would sail blindly past precious the precious fungi that sell for up to $50 a pound back in my hometown in the States. He would laugh and tell me, "You need eyes for this job. You need to be able to see what's hidden right in front of you."
It's an ability I have yet to acquire. When I meet Viehweger near the train station, I naively assume that we'll be starting our journey deep, deep in the forest. Instead she points to a hill directly in the middle of town. I see nothing but grass, but she bends to one knee and plucks a delicate weed with rainwater cluster in the center of its leaves like crystal orbs."This is Frauenmantel," she says, handing it to me to me to taste. It has a pleasant, faintly bitter flavor. It's hardly alone. Viehweger shows me a half a dozen edible plants just on this one expanse. To her delight, Löwenzahn, a flamboyant yellow bloom translated as "lion's tooth," are abundant. I'd spent years tossing these common "weeds," known to us as dandelions, into the compost pile, only to shell out for their bitter greens in the organic section of Whole Foods. "I know a woman who says she walks by this little patch every day with her dog in ten minutes. I could spend an hour just here."
Frauenmantel ("lady's mantel"), Waldmeister ("forest master"), Schneerose ("snow rose"), Königskerzen ("king's candles")—German may not be the most melodic tongue, but it has decidedly poetic leanings when it comes to botany. After examining the offerings in town, we venture farther afield in search of Bärlauch ("bear leek"), known in English as wild garlic. As usual, I fail to spot the patch even when standing right in the middle of it. I'm surprised when she stoops and plucks a broad, green leaf, pops it in her mouth, and motions that I do the same. Pungent and shockingly intense, the taste is reminiscent of a garlic distilled down to its essence and stripped of its bite. It's addictive, and before long I've nibbled my way through enough that my breath makes passengers edge away on my return train ride."You won't find Bärlauch in the north," Viehweger tells me as she gathers up enough for pesto. "And it's very seasonal. If you come to this spot a month later, there would be two extremely toxic plants in its place."
An hour or so later, I'm sitting back in her kitchen as she chops up our catch and tops it with fragrant olive oil. While she works, we take shots of her sweet, cloudy, and curiously delicious homemade sour cherry hooch. She tells me remedies passed down from her grandmother and stories from the small town. Onion water tastes foul, but if you combine it with honey and manage to swallow it down, it works wonders for a sore throat. Giersch, another weed that grows in abundance, makes for an intriguing parsley substitute. As I'm heading out the door, arms laden with homemade quince-jelly candy and the Bärlauch pesto I'll toss with fettuccine that evening—noxious breath be damned—I ask her how many plants in this area are valuable or offer some benefit. Perplexed, she looks at me as if I have not understood.
"But don't you see?" she says patiently. "Everything here has value."