Forage and Feast
Getting food the old-fashioned way, in the wild
On a sunny day in June, a small troop of scientists, amateur mycologists, and diehard foodies gather on the Appalachian Trail in Sheffield to wander the woods in search of mushrooms. Between mentions of blue amanitas, black trumpets, dead man’s fingers and various other polypores, you might hear John Wheeler, president and founder of the Berkshire Mycological Society, talk about the Red Hot Chili Peppers or his severe distaste for any and all country music.
An outing with John and his crew is a true forest adventure full of gentle jaunts off trail, softly upturning decaying forest floor, and forays into the rhythmic staccato of Latin phrases that wraps these gelatinous bulbs in verse. Someone bursts, “Boletus affinis!” Another calls out, “Trametes versicolor!” and excitement bubbles around the edible finds.
“Mushroom hunting is really just an Easter-egg hunt for adults,” says Wheeler. “We carry baskets and root around for colorful treasures to eat or simply marvel upon.” This particular Sunday gives rise to 42 varieties of mushroom with “approximately six or seven being edible,” according to Wheeler, who shares his fascination for fungus with good-spirited giddiness and a pocketful of anecdotes. Now this is a true Berkshire experience—foraging in the forest for fungi with a light-hearted crew of naturalists.
There are many reasons why foraging has seen a resurgence in the last few years. With the regional propensity for organic farms and the proliferation of writings from food activists such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, more people want to reconnect with their food. As consumers become wary of conventional farming, agribusiness, and genetically modified food, there is a burgeoning fervor for all things wild, wonderful, and close to home. Reconnecting to nature is actually an investment in our Berkshire infrastructure as it helps support locals who produce artisanal foods. Our symbiotic relationship with the environment is growing in popularity. We are being drawn into the woods and shown what to eat with a plethora of classes, events, and programs that empower the hearty scavenger in search of wild foods.
Angela Cardinali, co-founder of Berkshire Farm and Table, shares her passion for wild edibles: “Cultivated foods, although sometimes delicious, do not hold the same mystery and intrigue that foraged foods do.” Berkshire County is a region of untouched and protected land, she adds, making it an excellent location to forage. “We created the wild-edibles walks to teach community members how to forage safely and sustainably and put a focus on the non-native and invasive species,” Cardinali says. Berkshire Farm and Table, a local nonprofit founded with the mission of supporting the culinary arts in the Berkshires, sponsors events such as Where the Wild Things Are, a popular series of wild-food walks that focuses on responsible and sustainable harvesting methods as well as the social and ecological history of foraging in our area.
In the spirit of exploration and enjoyment, there are other local organizations and experts supporting this call to the wild. Project Native, a 54-acre farm in Housatonic, upholds its mission to protect and promote heirlooms, organics, and all things indigenous. People visit Project Native to harvest nettles, purslane, dandelions, berries, and garlic mustard, among other wild edibles, and they have plentiful resources in their onsite shop. This year, Project Native is sponsoring a Wild Edibles Walk with foraging legend Russ Cohen, who guides participants in determining identifiable characteristics, edible portions, seasonal availability, flavor, and nutritional value. In his 40 years of teaching how to harvest the great outdoors, Cohen has become a staunch advocate for ethical practices, conscious awareness of ecological habitats, and embracing nature’s seasonal rhythm as opposed to buying what we want any time of the year.
Cohen leads foraging walks throughout New England from March through October, and his book, Wild Plants I Have Known … and Eaten, is a useful guide for novices. “Searching for wild edibles reconnects and reacquaints us to a sense of seasonality in a profound way,” Cohen writes. “To be outside and perform the act of foraging is the joy of observation.”