Foragers Find Plenty to Eat in Connecticut's Forests
If you see a guy in a white button-down shirt on the side of the road in Waterford extracting a large mushroom from the ground, that’s probably Sam Schaperow taking a break from his day job. The East Lyme resident is an avid forager who wants to spread the word on the benefits of this ancient way of eating. He’s not alone. Foraging for wild food is seeing a resurgence. Experienced foragers are leading foraging and cooking tours, chefs are cooking with stuff like wood sorrel, sumac berries and sassafras, and blogs and discussion groups are gaining more hits and members.
In June, Schaperow will lead a foraging tour and cooking demonstration at White Gate Farm in East Lyme. Well-known author “Wildman” Steve Brill will lead tours in May, June and July in Canton, Newtown, Danbury and Redding. The number of people signing up has never been higher. “There’s definitely increased interest,” says Brill, who’s been foraging since the ’70s and recently developed a Wild Edibles app.
When Norwich resident Karen Monger started foraging eight years ago, “There weren’t many resources other than Steve Brill and Euell Gibbons,” she says. “It’s easier now; there’s been a huge uptick in books, like the Falcon Guides” (Foraging New England and Nuts and Berries of New England). Three years ago she started a blog, the3foragers.blogspot.com, which provides lots of photos of plants and recipes. It now gets about 200 hits a day, she says, and is featured at the Norwich Bulletin online.
Renée Allen, director of the Wine Institute of New England, forages for mushrooms and is a member of the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society (CVMS). She organized a “Forest to Table” foraging tour and wine-pairing dinner at Sunset Meadow Vineyards in Goshen last spring. Former Norwich Inn chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez created a salad of dandelion greens and goldenrod tips with blistered grapes and sumac-berry vinaigrette and vanilla bean crêpes with sweet autumn olives in syrup for the event. On May 4, Steve Brill will lead a foraging tour and cooking demo at the vineyard that will also include wine pairings by Allen.
Schaperow says the allure for him is experiencing “unusual flavors and textures.” He sells foraged foods online (sites.google.com/site/foragingct), and gives extensive information, based on his experiments, on how to make these nutritious foods not just palatable but delicious. He transforms garlic mustard leaves into crispy chips or pesto. He recently discovered a way to use the violet-gray bolete, a mushroom not recommended for eating because of its bitterness, in an earthy, curry-scented maple syrup that could flavor desserts like flan.
But when Schaperow got some publicity about providing wild edibles to chefs, he sparked a health department investigation. After an article appeared in The Day, area health inspectors descended on restaurant kitchens, looking for ingredients from “unauthorized food sources.”
How safe is it to eat foraged foods? Brill jokes that he “hasn’t lost one yet,” and teaches beginners about plants that do not have poisonous look-alikes. Of the one in four Americans who are sickened by food poisoning each year, the majority are caused by viruses or bacteria like campylobacter and salmonella in institutional and industrial food. Still, “There are things that can kill you,” says Monger. “You have to know the very specific characteristics.”
In Connecticut, last October, a family was hospitalized after picking and eating the poisonous “death angel” mushroom (Amanita bisporigera). Many of us can forage in our own back yards. Schaperow says you can “find a lot”as long as your property is herbicide-free. Fields at the edges of woods are good sources of edible invasive species like wine berries, a raspberrylike fruit that originated in the Orient. Fruity, astringent autumn olives “make a nice jelly,” says Monger, “and are full of licopenes.”
She’s also made flour from acorns, though she admits the process requires “an awful lot of preparation” (soaking to remove the tannins, drying and grinding). “It was very nice, nutty, starchy,” she says. She mixed it with regular flour and made cupcakes.
Schaperow wants to teach more people to gather and cook wild edibles. “Anyone can learn it,” he says. And, best of all? It’s free!