Find Your Own Food – Foraging in New Hampshire
The secret to a healthier connection to the natural world (and a healthier you) may be hidden in plain sight
On a sunny morning in the Capital City, the street outside the Concord Co-op is a mess of construction and frustrated drivers as a multi-million-dollar facelift is being given to the downtown. Inside, the scene is calmer. Only a handful of customers inhabit the space, which makes it easy to spot Rob Wolfe.
Tall, slim and friendly in a button-down shirt and a scruffy beard/bun combo, he would be easy to spot anyway. Wolfe is a music teacher (an alumnus of the Berklee College of Music) and a forager. When he isn’t giving guitar lessons, he’s exploring woods, fields, hills and abandoned properties to harvest wild plants and fungi. He harvests them for food, but stresses that some wild native plants can have profound medicinal properties — like the chaga mushroom.
All wild mushrooms have their mystiques, but the chaga is special to Wolfe. It was the first plant he foraged.
“The first time I went chaga hunting was in January 2013,” says Wolfe, “Winter is an ideal time to search for chaga because it’s often found in deciduous forests” and is easier to spot without leaves in the way. Despite this, after hours of searching, Wolfe returned empty-handed and would not find the fungus until weeks later on a hike farther north.
“Chaga is one of the few things that can be harvested any month of the year,” he says, but it’s still a challenge to forage since it only appears on one in 50 birch trees. To harvest it, some people will use a hatchet or a saw, but Wolfe recommends a simpler method: “The easiest removals I’ve had involved just taking a big rock and hitting it, and the whole thing will usually just come off.”
Chaga is typically used to make a medicinal tea packed with the “highest level of antioxidants of any living material found in the northeastern landscape,” says Wolfe. Chaga is also known as an anti-diabetic as it slows the absorption of glucose in the body. Some cancer patients drink the tea post-treatment, hoping for an overall boost to their immune systems.
There are a number of steps in order to process the chaga into tea (see sidebar on the opposite page) but fruits, berries and salad greens all grow wild in New Hampshire.
“One of my favorite salad greens is called purple orpine,” says Wolfe, noting that it stays tender long after other plants have turned bitter — all the way into mid-to-late July.
Basswood leaves are another great addition to any salad, he notes, not only for being tasty and tender but for their “mucilaginous” properties. “That’s really beneficial for the digestive tract,” Wolfe explains. “There are so many digestive disorders that exist currently and people suffering from them can benefit from mucilaginous foods.”
Some plants offer different edibles throughout the seasons. Common milkweed produces young, green shoots in early spring. Wolfe says to steam them for about five minutes and treat them like you would asparagus or spinach. The milkweed flowers bloom in later spring and can also be steamed, used in soups or even deep-fried. In the late summer, you can harvest the unopened, juicy seed pods.
“You just kind of pull the seed pod off and then separate the exterior,” Wolfe explains, “If you sauté them in butter, it almost turns out like scrambled eggs.”
Other wild foods only appear for a brief period of time before the opportunity to harvest them vanishes. “The black locust flowers, there’s only really like a week and a half that they’re around,” says Wolfe.
The black locust tree is easy to identify when it is in full bloom. The abundant clusters of white flowers produce a powerful smell Wolfe describes as “sweet peas with a hint of vanilla.” They can be consumed raw in salads, desserts, hot or cold cereal and even as a flavorful topping on a hamburger. As Wolfe puts it, “They’re a quick and easy way to add an impressive touch and boost up the visual element of a homemade dish.”
There is also a local abundance of fruit-bearing wild plants. One of Wolfe’s favorite wild fruits is called autumn olive. “You can pick it like you would pick wild blueberries or blackberries,” he says. “The berries come up generally late August into early and mid October, and they tend to be better later on.” The autumn olive boasts an enormous lycopene content — on average four times that of tomatoes — and its seeds are high in vitamin E. It’s a tart, soft, fleshy berry that is enjoyable on its own or in cereal or oatmeal.
A bonus to foraging this berry is that it is an invasive species, so there’s plenty of it. Wolfe will sometimes find stands as long as a football field.
Any story on foraging comes with caveats. The general rule to follow is that if you are not 100 percent sure what the identity of the species is, then you should just leave it alone. Of the autumn olive, Wolfe warns, “There’s only one plant that could really be confused with it, honeysuckle. But they’re pretty easy to tell apart. Autumn olive has kind of a tart taste to it like an apple and honeysuckle is just unpleasant.”
Ever since finding that chaga mushroom on a yellow birch, Wolfe has immersed himself in the world of foraging, absorbing as much information as he can and he’s preparing to launch a new company, Yellow Birch Herbs, to sell herbal extracts to help people maintain their health and immune systems. “They’re all things that I’ve harvested here in New Hampshire that are abundant,” Wolfe explains. So far he has two fungal extracts and five plant extracts that come in little dropper bottles. “You just put a drop under your tongue and the alcohol carries the medicinal extract throughout your bloodstream,” he says.
But the true goal for the forager isn’t just food or personal health. Wolfe likes to quote one of his heroes from the foraging world, Arthur Haines, who said, “You protect what you know and love.” Taking more responsibility for our own food and health care by foraging for wild edibles makes us more self-reliant and environmentally conscious. So, for Wolfe and his mentors and those who follow his path through the woods, foraging is about more than a nature walk. It’s about a trail to a healthier human race.
— Cam Tranchemontagne
Step 1: Cleaning and Drying — First make sure there are no parts of the tree bark stuck to the specimen. After cleaning, chop the chaga into smaller pieces and leave out to dry. You can store the dried chunks in mason jars.
Step 2: Tea Prep — Break up the dried chaga into smaller pieces about an inch in diameter.
Step 3: Steeping — Drop a handful of chaga nuggets into one liter of water and bring to a boil. Let the mixture simmer until the water turns a red-brown. Wait at least an hour to extract as much of the bioactive ingredients as you can.
Step 4: Enjoy — Strain the tea into a mug. You can add maple syrup or honey for sweetness.
New Hampshire foodies and beer lovers alike are opening their eyes to things outside.
Butch Heilshorn, co-owner of Earth Eagle Brewings, started home brewing back in 2009. With an herbalist for a wife, it seems natural he would develop a curiosity about brewing with wild plants. “I’ve basically been living in an apothecary for the last 15 years,” says Heilshorn.
With that influence, he and his business partner, Alex McDonald, practiced gruit-style brewing. “Gruit,” an old German term, is made from herbs, barks, berries, mushrooms and the like. In short, it has little to no hops in it.
At a recent beer festival, they brought their now-perfected gruit to the table. “It was neat to tell them, ‘This isn’t a new beer, this is a really old beer,’” he says. Centuries old, in fact. Dominar, for example, is an imperial pale ale, which contains a lot of grain and has a high alcohol content (9.1 percent); rice, honey and an herb mix of Eriodictyon californicum (yerba santa), wild cherry bark and star anise pods lend deep flavor. Many times, people who claim not to like beer are impressed by some of these alternative brews — Heilshorn calls them “gateway beers.” Likewise, foodies with developed palates tend to really enjoy gruits.
The two use poplar buds in a highly popular brew they call “Pop IPA.” Bog or swamp plants feature in their brews quite a bit too. Sweet gale (Myrica gale) has been used in gruits for centuries, particularly in the British Isles and Northern Europe. About two thirds of Earth Eagle gruits include sweet gale. Bog Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) is a bit harder to find, but it’s out there and they use it in addition to crabapples, dogwood berries, feral pears, birch bark, pine candles and yarrow. “There’s really a plethora of usable stuff that you really don’t have to look that hard for,” says Heilshorn.
Ground ivy or alecost is something they might play with this year. Likewise, mugwort. “Both plants have names that have to do with beer,” notes Heilshorn. “For a millennia, they have been part of brewing.” Pine candles, spruce buds and spruce tips — used in Colonial times to cure scurvy — also figure into their brews, though he notes, it is easy to end up with a beer that “tastes like a Christmas tree.”
Earth Eagle Brewings is so small it affords the brewers opportunities to play. If they decide to make “some wild mushroom beer” and it doesn’t move, it doesn’t equal huge losses. They offer a tap list that completely changes every two to three weeks. “This keeps us interested. And I feel like if we are interested, we are going to have some energy around it and people catch that.”
Heilshorn has collaborated with Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth on various projects — there’s actually quite a lot of crossover between brewers, mixologists and chefs. If something is useful for one, it is generally useful for all. “We are definitely paying attention to what chefs are doing and combinations they are putting together,” says Heilshorn.
Years ago, Mallett, a former food writer, became interested in the classification of mushrooms, which evolved over the course of a decade into a keen interest in vascular plants. It took eight years, however, before the chef felt confident enough in his identification skills to ingest anything he collected from the wild. “I didn’t have a guru [or a] field guide or any of the tools I highly recommend people have before they call themselves foragers,” notes Mallett. He has since teamed up with foraging experts in an effort to learn more and bring locally sourced wild foods into his kitchen. “This is an avocation for me,” he says, “but it happens to serve my vocation very well.”
In telling the story of Black Trumpet, Mallett recalls an epiphany he had while hiking. In 2007, he was just about to buy a restaurant he had worked in for four years, the naming of which was proving difficult. On that hike he came upon an enormous field of black trumpet mushrooms. “My admiration and respect for black trumpet mushrooms was already there,” he says. “Every aspect of things that can be done to mushrooms can be done to that one — that’s not true of the rest,” says Mallett. So, there it was: his new restaurant had a name.
Mallett puts wild food high on his list of priorities. He collects vegetation from boreal environments, meadowlands, marsh areas, coastal flats and other biodiverse habitats for use in his culinary dishes and drink program. “I’ll look for anything anywhere,” he enthuses. Marine vegetables like kelps, seaweeds and sea rockets, as well as edible invasives all figure into his menu. Sugar kelp was particularly popular last year; he used it as a seaweed wrap, and as an accompaniment for braised, steamed and poached foods.
Of special note is Mallett’s commitment to using invasive species in his dishes. “I feel a moral obligation to use as much garlic mustard as I can get my hands on,” he says. The chef uses it for making pesto or as a finishing vegetable in broth-based soups. Wild watercress is also a member of the mustard family, and one of his favorites. The key, he notes, is to find a clean body of water in which it grows. “You need to know its source, and what inputs are in that water.” As with land-based foraging, it is vital to understand what is happening beyond the harvest location.
“I think we have a reckoning ahead of us,” Mallett says, noting many agencies are actively looking to regulate foraged foods. “Right now, it is still a frontier.” Some states have begun tackling the issue — Maine is one of them. The conversation Mallett hopes to take part in is one that examines the question: What is the best system for policing, regulating and distributing wild foods? “People see the merit in it, the nutrition in it, but there are ecological implications if it gets out of control. Irresponsible foraging can lead to a lot of bad things for a lot of people.”
Though foraging is a complex endeavor with many mitigating factors and controversial aspects, Mallett acknowledges, “There’s nothing better for my restaurant than to have food I found in the wild.”
Forager Jenna Rozelle supplies Heilshorn and Mallett, as well as the proprietors of Moxy, Stages at One Washington and Portsmouth Brewery, among others. Like Heilshorn, Rozelle was influenced by an herbalist — her mother — and grew up foraging. About three years ago, she turned her skill set into a business after seeing how excited people got when they saw her materials at farmers markets. “Home chefs found it a little unapproachable,” she explains. “But professional chefs got it.” And so began her working relationship with some of New Hampshire’s top chefs.
Wild cherry, wild grapes, beach arugula, seaweeds and burdock root make regular appearances on New Hampshire menus. Burdock is another popular pick. A versatile root vegetable, it is tender in the spring — a good time to harvest it — and good raw, in a slaw, braised or roasted. During the winter months, Rozelle collects from trees like black birch (the most flavorful of the birches), pine, hemlock and spruce. “White pine is the most popular and the most prevalent,” she notes.
Citing some of the more memorable ways in which chefs have used her bounty, she recalls Mallett’s grape jelly made with wild grapes. “The flavor was mind-blowing,” she says. Chef Matt Louis at Moxy does a black birch ice cream and a root beer float. (Black birch was an ingredient in root beer during Colonial times.)
Of her professional connections, Rozelle says, “In this seacoast community, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, reassured and reinvigorated by the fact that the food community has a real interest in using our local native ingredients in a long-term, logical, real way. They appreciate it as part of our food source.”
— Kiley Jacques
Resources to check out:
- “Sacred and Herbal Beers” by Stephen Buhner
- “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz
- “Wild Plants I Have Known … and Eaten” by Russ Cohen
- “Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat” by Ellen Zachos
- “The Forager’s Harvest” by Sam Thayer
- “Nature’s Garden” by Sam Thayer
- “Ancestral Plants Vols. 1 & 2” by Arthur Haines.
- Join the Ancestral Plants Facebook group, where members are encouraged to exchange foraging information.