Saturday, July 9, 2011

Intro to Wild Edibles

 Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed.
Slightly altered.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Mike Hebb and his wife Kathy live in a log cabin on a steep wooded hillside in South Strafford. He built the cabin from a kit in 1971, “because I didn't know that much about building back then.”
  When you meet Hebb, the setting makes sense. There's something in his countenance, his careful gait and quiet voice that suggests he belongs here. In the 40 years since he first laid the groundwork for his home, Hebb, 64, has learned a great deal -- much of it from simply observing as he walks the same paths day in and day out, in every type of weather, collecting firewood, watching the forest grow and die back around him.
   Much of what Hebb does is intertwined with the woods: He handcrafts exquisite violins, lathes bowls and vases and patiently sands cedar canoes in his garage. And he knows a lot about local plants -- especially those that taste good.
   After he posted on the Strafford listserv to remind neighbors that the highly sought after black morel mushrooms were making their brief appearance on the ground in hardwood forests, I asked Hebb if he'd mind going for a walk in the woods with me. The next morning we headed out on his 15 acres.
   We begin the day sitting at the table in Hebb's cabin, looking out into the woods. Hebb doesn't talk much at first; he's like an old engine that takes a while to warm up. I ask him if he's lived here all his life.
   "Not yet," he says seriously.
   He pulls a small piece of paper out of his pocket. On it, scrawled in pencil, is a list of what he plans to tell me about: fiddleheads, ginseng, mushrooms, dandelions, knotweed, ramps, wild ginger, wild asparagus, spring beauties. First on the list: maple syrup.
   "Maple syrup is the first wild edible of the year. It just takes more cooking than most," he says, noting that he boiled about 40 gallons this year.
  We get up to walk. Just behind the house, a cluster of ferns are unfurling. Though it's only mid-May and the last patches of snow in the shadows and hollows have only just melted, the ferns are already nearly a foot tall. They're the bright, almost neon green that distinguishes plants in early spring from those in August's maturity. Outside, stretching his long legs, Hebb starts talking more.
   "The fiddleheads are mostly gone by," he murmurs as if to himself, bending down to brush aside the feathery plants. "Look, there's one. See that scaly business -- only fiddleheads have those. Some have a furry covering."
   Though all ferns start as fiddleheads -- the tightly coiled spirals that line roadsides and streambanks in early May -- only the ostrichhead fiddleheads are really edible. Steamed, they taste like asparagus. I ask Hebb about the possibility of picking the wrong kind and getting sick.
   "There's no danger," he says. "If you're really insecure about it, try to go with someone else the first few times, or go to the supermarket and observe."
   A book on wild edibles I read recently dedicated pages and pages to warnings so dire it made me afraid to pick even the plants I knew. But Hebb's approach is nonchalant.
   "See, this looks like fiddleheads but it's not, because it doesn't have the little scaly wrapper," he says, pointing to a fiddlehead with fur instead of chaff. "You just have to be observant."
   "There's a lot of edible foods out here -- you could eat the grass if you wanted to," he continues. "But there's a big difference between edible and good to eat. Like when they talk about mushrooms, 98 percent are edible but maybe 5 percent are really good to eat. In the books, they call them 'choice.' But edible just means they won't make you sick."
   Walking with Hebb through the still-brown woods is like being given a new pair of eyes. He notices things most people overlook.
   "These are spring beauties," he says, pointing to tiny whitish-pink flowers with long, narrow leaves. Once you know what you're looking for, the flowers are everywhere. He picks a bulb about the size of a shelled almond.
   "The bulbs are kind of like little potatoes. They're small but they're a good survival food if you don't know what to eat. They just happen to be there and if you knew about them, it wouldn't take too long to get a few cups."
   Walking up the path, Hebb, who grew up in Thetford, talks about his background with wild edibles.
   "Well, you start as a kid picking berries, and you just go up from there, you know. ... It's a natural progression. You start reading books about it, then you get influenced by other people, just like any other interest," he says.
   Quiet and unassuming, Hebb doesn't seem to care much for talking about himself. If it were up to him, the plants would talk about themselves, and he could stand off to the side and admire them, out of the spotlight.
   "If I lived on a city block I would probably not go out of my way very much to (harvest wild plants)," he says, continuing to walk. "I don't try to make it a big part of my diet. ... But I'm here and they're here, so I try to promote them and they feed me."
   Hebb reaches the spot he was looking for and stops. It's a south-facing slope dominated by hardwoods, morning sunlight filtering through tree branches and lighting upon hundreds of low-lying, leafy plants.
   "These are ramps," he says, looking around with a faint trace of pride. "They can be hard to find."
   He bends down and picks an unadorned, roughly 6-inch leaf off a plant at his feet. He rips it in half and hands it to me. It smells just like a garlicky onion.
   "Now, nowhere have I seen ramps like this." He gestures at the blanketing of plants around us. "Those are all ramps."
   The bulbs of ramps, also known wild leeks or spring onions, were an important food for Native American and white settlers alike, from the Appalachian mountains to Quebec. They can be eaten like any onion: pickled, fried with potatoes, chopped in a salad.
   "They come up like that," he says of the elongated, drooping leaves, "and then the leaves die and you think they're all dead. But couple of weeks later a big stem comes out and a flower comes up on top and creates a whole mess of little black onion seeds. And if you're in the woods when they're in bloom, they'll be just humming with bees all around."
   I ask Hebb how many ramps someone should pick, were they to stumble upon a hillside like this. He thinks for a moment, then answers slowly.
   "If everybody went and picked only 10 percent of what they saw they'd still be gone. There's just no way for the last people to know how many there used to be. So basically I'd say transplant a few and manage your own patch. That way they wouldn't get wiped out in the wild."
   "Another thing I found up here that's very rare is ginseng," Hebb says, bending over a small plant that he's encased in a wire fence to protect it from deer. It doesn't look like much -- sort of like a small basil plant with toothed leaves. But the plant has been hunted nearly out of existence, Hebb tells me: today, you need a state license to pick it.
   "There used to be big money digging that up. Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, there were whole families that lived in the woods searching out ginseng. They were called the 'sengers' and the 'sealers' because they went for ginseng and golden seal. They were both pretty valuable back then.
   "The root is generally sold as tea," he continues, noting that it's particularly popular as a stimulant in China.
   The sun is rising and it's turning into a warm spring day. So far, Hebb has talked about wild asparagus: "If you've ever picked asparagus from the garden, those big fern-like tufts, if you're awake when you're driving you'll see them along the roadside and you'll recognize them. Then you come back in the spring and you get them before they get like that because they'll be in the same place the next year."
   He's talked about dandelions: "They could be the most harvested wild edible this time of year. I often see people out off the road, in the fields digging them. Every part is edible, the crown, the leaves, the root."
   But he's only hinted at his knowledge of wild mushrooms. And those are the things I'm most eager to learn about. Apparently, they're his favorite too -- he's been saving the best for last.
   Black morels are said to be comparable to French truffles, a culinary delicacy and a fungi that inspires passion in both nature lovers and foodies. I ask if he can describe what they taste like. "How do you describe a flavor?" he asks, shaking his head. "They're not like anything else."

   Many people who hunt mushrooms as a hobby are protective of where they find them, like surfers defending local waves from outsiders. It's not that morels are inherently better than other kinds of wild mushrooms (though some would argue that they are), but they're the first to poke out from the mat of dead leaves on the forest floor after a long winter, when avid mushroom collectors sit longingly at their windows and dream of the day the snow will stop falling and the scent of morels frying in butter will again fill their kitchens.
   Morels are found in mature hardwood forests. A good place to start looking, Hebb said, is where ash, maple and oak trees rise above spring flowers like jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium and trout lilies. And when? "Usually about the first of May, when you see the ramps, a little later than the trout lilies."
   That's all there is to say on the matter, really. Finding your own morels requires time, patience and a strong dose of interest. Some Internet research or a book or two would help the beginner, along with the ability to identify other plants that suggest the presence of morels.
   Perhaps most important, searchers need a sprinkling of luck. Mature hardwood forests are common. Healthy morel beds, like the one Hebb is about to reveal, are not.
   Walking along a pleasant path carved into a hillside, Hebb suddenly stops. Out of his back pocket come a handful of orange stakes.
   "Stay up there a minute," he instructs, stepping around gingerly like he's dancing, planting the orange stakes in the ground where clusters of morels hide in the brown leaves.
   "OK, now," he says, and I step down carefully. There are morels everywhere: black and buff, maybe 40 of them in all, each about three inches long and perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the crinkly carpet of leaves.
   "These mushrooms are pretty small. Later on they'll grow as much as a foot high, the big ones," he says. "That's unusual, but very usual is eight inches.
   "But they don't all get that big, the slugs go into them and start to work on them within a week. If I see the bugs start to go after them, I'll cut them." He cuts one at its stem. "Smell -- it smells like a mushroom," he said, handing it to me.
   It does indeed smell like a mushroom, faintly pungent, redolent of dirt. Morels have conical, deeply pitted fruits atop a firm, whitish stem. Tilted at an angle, they look slightly comical, like a cartoonist's depiction of a mushroom. And the sight of someone on all fours, nose to the ground, in the moist spring forest admiring a morel specimen might seem comical as well -- until you try one.
   If you become a convert, Hebb said, it's crucial to harvest morels carefully.
   "It's important not to leave a big opening where the stem is cut off, because the mycelium -- that's the parent of the mushroom -- can grow 10, 20, 50, 100 feet underground, practically invisible. They grow very big. And that's prone to infection like any living entity."
   Making a clean cut without leaving a gaping wound in the "stump" of the mushroom will help protect the underground mycelium -- which can be thought of like the bulk of an iceberg hiding beneath the surface of water -- so that the mushrooms we see aboveground will return next year. If a mushroom hunter finds a productive bed, he or she can sell the morels to fine restaurants or local food co-ops. They go for $46 a pound on eBay.
   But most people interested in hunting wild mushrooms don't do it because it's lucrative. The pleasure is in eating something that can't often be bought, and in the thrill of finding something so elusive.
   While there is certainly a danger in picking wild mushrooms, Hebb said, the main thing is to stick with easily recognizable varieties.
   "There is a false morel," he said. "But it's a really ugly thing, very asymmetric with deep whorls, not conical usually, like the regular ones, and they're just inconspicuous. If you've seen morels you'll know it's not one. You'll know it's really questionable. If something is questionable, just leave it alone."
   After admiring the morels for a while, there's little left to do but make our way back toward the house. As I'm getting in my car to make the white-knuckle trip back down Hebb's steep, switchbacked driveway, he calls to me from the porch.
   "I forgot to tell you," he said, pointing toward a commotion in the woods. "One of the best wild edibles is wild turkey!"

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