Regional Foraging Experts Share Secrets to Utilizing Fruits of the Forest

For many Seattle chefs, foragers play a key role in delivering fresh, seasonal fare. Yet some chefs, and many consumers, fail to understand the difference between culinary foragers and commercial purchasing agents. Often shrouded in mystery, most foragers prefer communing with nature to burnishing their brand.

Here, Foodable TV reveals regional foraging experts’ secrets to utilizing fruits of the forest.

Langdon Cook | Author & Foraging Expert

Author and foraging expert Langdon Cook wandered into foraging recreationally. A lover of the woods, Cook started hunting fresh foods ‘off grid’ as a practical way to augment his pre-packaged trail food while hiking and camping.

“In general, spring time is for wild greens, summer for wild berries, fall for mushrooms, and winter for shellfish,” Cook advises.

Eventually, the wild foods, and foragers themselves, captured Cook’s imagination, leading him to write "The Mushroom Hunters" and "Fat of the Land," as well as teach foraging classes and guest speak on the topic.

Cook has since detected a change in the foraging ‘model.’ Back in the early days of foraging, local ‘backdoor foragers’ showed up once or twice a week to sell whatever was fruiting in the woods. Restaurants would buy these goods and incorporate them into menu specials. The model lacked consistency, relying upon the schedule, and whims, of the source.

Today, restaurants require a more reliable supply chain. To that end, networks of foragers and buyers now range up and down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver Island to California, and as far east at Michigan, Maine, and West Virginia.

Many field buyers work for larger companies, purchasing from foragers directly, then trucking these fragile foods with fleeting shelf lives to warehouses for sorting, boxing, and shipping via air, often the same day, to clients all over the country.

Cook notes, “As the interest in forest-foraged edibles grows, so does the impact upon the environment. I try to instill in my students the practice of good ethics when harvesting: leaving no trace, treading lightly, and following the ecologists’ 'rule of thirds'—take one third, leave one third for wildlife, and leave one third for the organism.”

National, state and regional land managers assist in prevention of over-harvesting through regulations, permit fees, and imposing seasonal quotas, similar to those for fishing and hunting. Cook foresees possible future increases in foraging regulations, but hopes that they won’t deter people from getting out to explore.

“Foraging is a great way to develop future stewards of the land and water.”

Cook encourages. “It teaches people to slow down and recognize the nuances of the woods, to understand the inter-connectedness of the natural world, and the web of life.”

Jeremy Faber | Foraged and Found Edibles

Jeremy Faber looms large in Langdon Cook’s "The Mushroom Hunter" as an irascible, Anthony Bourdain-like driven, jaded New Yorker-turned-Northwest culinary forager. In truth, Faber lives a life best described as relentless. While an astute businessman, Faber finds solace in the woods.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Faber founded Foraged and Found Edibles in 2001 with the help of fellow chef Christina Choi, trading in his chef’s apron for a foraging bucket. Presently, Faber not only purchases wild foods for restaurants from Seattle to New York and Boston, but personally forages for edibles all over the United States and Canada.

“I’d say Seattle utilizes the most wild food of any city,” Faber concedes. “Portland is right there, but has a much smaller restaurant and market scene.”

Faber admits this higher demand for foraged goods, and an expanded workforce, sometimes results in demands outstripping supplies. And sometimes, demands may exceed seasonal availability. For example, Faber once received an order from a well-known pastry chef in New York who wanted maple twigs with the leaves attached.

“Which is fine,” offers Faber. “Except it was December.”

Connie Green | Wine Forest Wild Foods 

Wild ‘huntress’ and co-author of "The Wild Table," Connie Green founded Napa-based Wine Forest Wild Foods in 1981.

 “Foraging was a little known thing in late 1970’s in restaurants,” Green reveals. “Now picking greens and mushrooms is almost required.”

A bemused Green acknowledges that while currently a sexy topic, foraging in the United States once lingered in the shadows, lagging behind European and Asian cultures rich in mycological histories. Granted, for years Japanese immigrants in the West hunted for matsutake, while Italian immigrants picked porcini, and mid-Westerners gathered morels. But it wasn’t until the birth of ‘California Cuisine’ in the 1970’s and 1980’s that wild mushrooms catapulted to the forefront of American menus.

“Most restaurants have exotic, cultivated mushrooms as a basic building block on menus today,” Green observes. “Chefs love mushrooms because they provide that umami flavor.”

Green notes that consumers and chefs often confuse foragers and a purchasing agents. Foragers, she contends, assist “entry of foraged food into the kitchen.” Mushrooms fall within ‘special forest products’ status in national parks, which allows for sustainable cultivation with the purchase of a picking permit. Green also counsels that wild foods range beyond human control, and thus beyond the ken of “certifiably organic.”

When working with a forager, Green cautions chefs to avoid buying from unknown ‘backdoor’ sources, understand what you’re buying, and how to prepare it.

“It’s the chef’s responsibility to identify mushrooms,” Green advocates. “Don’t just take the word of someone showing up at the back door. It’s part of a chef’s education. What do morels or chanterelles look like? Which mushrooms are poisonous? For example, morels have to be cooked. Uncooked morels can cause poisoning.”

In an effort to educate chefs, Green often invites them mushroom picking with her. In the wild, chefs see first hand where various mushrooms grow, what differentiates quality, and why hunting is so difficult, yet fun. Green likens the joy of the hunt for mushrooms to the childlike glee of a great Easter egg hunt.

“I have found many a mushroom picker just by listening to laughter,” she concludes.