At Vinland, David Levi’s restaurant, coming to 593 Congress St. in Portland this summer, customers can expect innovative creations using locally sourced ingredients. Some of those ingredients, David will be sourcing from local forests. After all, as Levi reminded me more than once on our foraging excursion, wild foods are all around us. Levi’s resume includes apprenticeships at Noma and Faviken, both of which stress the exclusive use of regionally sourced ingredients on their menus. He is what one might refer to as a “wild foods advocate.”
Before we get into the fun side of foraging for forest greens, let’s set down the serious side. Never eat any part of a plant unless you are 100% positive of the plant’s identification and certain it is edible. Note, some plants are not edible until cooked, so know about a plant’s preparation as well. Everything in moderation, don’t overdo tasting something once you know it is edible, because you might have an allergic reaction.
Equipment and tools:
Basket – Ideal for hunting mushrooms, because they (should) allow for the spreading of spores. With desirable wild mushrooms, Levi explained, one can help extend the range of where they grow this way. He said this is why more chanterelles are found along paths.
Knife – Levi’s advice is to keep it sharp. Cheap is okay, you actually don’t want anything nice, because you could lose it. Levi said it’s much more important to keep a good edge on it.
Knee high waterproof boots (I found this out the hard way while walking on a “waterbed of cattails” and ended up with soggy trail shoes).
Plastic bags (reuse these, provide convenient storage)
Where to forage:
Levi advises looking for places to forage almost anywhere not heavily trafficked or private property.
It is possible to forage in some public places as along as you abide by the rules. Some National Parks may allow a limited amount of foraging, just be sure to check on your way into the park. (here is a link to Acadia National Park’s “rules of the road”). If you are not sure of the rules/law don’t forage until you can find an official representative to inform you.
Right and wrong way to eat edible plants (parts, preparation):
First, know what you have. “People are not used to eating wild edibles,” Levi said. “People are more scared of mushrooms than they should be in this mycophobic culture, and less afraid than they should be of plants.”
Levi reminded me in Jon Krakauer’s story Into the Wild, Christopher Johnson McCandless (the young man who died in the Alaskan wilderness a little over 15 years ago) foraged for wild edibles – one theory goes he weakened himself on these and thus didn’t have the energy to make it out of the Alaskan woods.
Scour books and websites looking at a lot of pictures and have expert foragers point out the plants. Levi favors Steve Brill’s site for information (check out his App and wild food harvesting tours with a focus on safely identifying greens, bark, wild mushroooms).
What you can find in the woods around the Portland, Maine area between mid-April and early June: dandelion, nettles, chickweed, chicory, fiddleheads, lambsquarters, burdock root, watercress, cattail, some mushrooms, and nettles.
It has been really dry this year so we could not find any Vetch (tastes like peas) during our outing. It should be up, but it’s just too dry.
Good quality ingredients and techniques:
Like any ingredient, Levi noted it is about edible items foraged from the wild, it is about their shortcomings, and what is delicious.
Levi’s suggestions for a few commonly found wild edibles:
Nettles – Cook with a little garlic, lemon or condensed yogurt (something acidic), and salt. Do not cook till turns brown. Do not eat raw.
Japanese Knotweed – lovely acidic element and earthiness to it. Juice, serve cold and sweetened = use as a dessert. Japanese Knotweed – want to get while looks like asparagus (fat), while stalks are tender.
Personally, I’m already thinking about my next foraging venture so I can make this refreshing dessert as told to me by Levi.
Recipe: David’s Japanese Knotweed Granita
Juice Knotweed, mix with honey
Mix it up every 15-20 minutes so it is loose, like a sorbet but with larger ice crystals so a fun texture.
Top with just a bit of flaky salt like Maldon and one or a few frozen mint leaves.
It’s important to note that the granita should only be served when fully frozen, and is best served in a chilled cup with a chilled spoon.
Conservation and the responsibility of a wild food gatherer.
Ethical harvesting, Levi said is when one does not take more than 20% of something in an area and always harvest in a way that does not damage the plant or its surroundings.
Japanese Knotweed, he explained is the exception to the rule. It cannot be overharvested, so take as much as you can. He joked, the forager would be doing a favor to the ecosystem.
One of the most hard hit foraged items are ramps. Levi explained, people make the mistake of uprooting it. Ramps take 8 years to harvest, just cut at the base.
Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial that is not abundant. With this plant you do harvest the root when foraging, but should not take more than 20% in any one place (and less if in a heavily foraged area).
Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat by Ellen Zachos
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas
Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, with 88 Recipes by Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux
The Forager’s Harvests: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
The Joy of Foraging: Gary Lincoff’s Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying a World of Wild Food by Gary Lincoff
Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada by David L. Spahr
National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Mushrooms
For cooking with wild foods, David recommends:
Faviken by Magnus Nilsson (Offers insight into head chef Magnus Nilsson’s approach to sourcing and cooking with ingredients that are farmed and hunted in the immediate vicinity of his restaurant Faviken, and how he creates a seasonal cycle of menus based on them.
Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by Rene Redzepi (His sources some of his ingredients for his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, by foraging in local fields for wild produce.)