Connie Green doesn’t just see the forest for the trees nowadays — she sees lunch. And dinner.
She sees food everywhere. On a walk through the woods, she smiles when she sees loofah-shaped mushrooms, knowing they are morels prized by gourmet cooks. From her Napa Valley porch, she can see the apple-green tips on nearby firs and knows they taste like grapefruit. Even the mushrooms in a Ramada Inn planter once caught her attention — and she can’t help it. “It’s like a perennial Easter egg hunt,” she said.
The blond-haired scavenger loves the hunt. And more and more foodies are beginning to fall for the romantic notion of eating what’s found in the forest. Today, according to multiple chefs and restaurateurs, foraging has fast become one of the hottest trends when it comes to dining.Green is a professional forager, an expert who supplies restaurants with food picked in the wild. Now age 60, she has been seriously foraging for nearly 40 years after spending her childhood in Florida digging up sprouts and sassafras for fun.
“It’s definitely become a trend in restaurants,” said Mitchell Davis, 42, the vice president of the James Beard Foundation. “Everyone is happy be adding foraging onto their menus, especially where entrees are $35 to $40.”
Chefs of note are, well, taking note. Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali are big fans of the craze. Thomas Keller, chef at the three-Michelin star French Laundry in Napa Valley, sometimes calls Green to chat about foraging local ingredients. Green said she recently took him into the woods to search for wild mushrooms.
“This is one of the last frontiers in food for people who are hardcore foodies,” said Green, who recently co-wrote a book about foraging, “The Wild Table.” “It’s a Stone Age activity, but some of the things I pick will end up in the mouth of the president of the United States.”
Big-name restaurateurs with household names aren’t the only ones purchasing foraged food. Thousands of North American restaurants now buy from professional foragers, said Vancouver native Tyler Gray, a supplier. Like Green, Gray is a colorful personality who forages professionally — but on a much larger scale.
Gray, 34, is the co-founder of the foraging company Mikuni Wild Harvest, which boasts an army of professional foragers — one of whom is a 72-year-old Cherokee, Running Squirrel, who collects greens for a special $15-per-pound salad mix. Mikuni started some 20 years ago, but began focusing sustainable wild food in 2001. Gray has been surprised by how quickly the foraging craze has taken off.
Only a decade ago, “I used to live in a truck or a van or a tent under the stars. I wasn’t making much money,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s been a wild ride, a really insane adventure. This industry is so new in North America, and it’s still on the upswing.”
Foragers like Gray can tell what grows where by season, sea level, rainfall and countless other variables. Morels sprout after wildfires, chanterelles can be found in mossy patches near Douglas firs, and wild ramps group together neared shaded areas by rivers and streams. Green, Gray and other foragers can rattle off dozens, maybe even hundreds, of similar tips — such as that elderberry trees grow in the south, can be spotted by creeks (especially when its white flowers bloom in early summer), and the berries make for sweet jams and pies.
This trend may be new to the U.S., but it’s hardly unheard of in other parts of the world. European restaurants have been foraging for years, and it used to be much more common in U.S. households before the 1940s. The reason for the rebirth here, said chef Adam Kopels and food writer Ruth Reichl, can likely be traced to one specific restaurant: Noma, a Copenahgen eatery that serves a 12-course meal for $268.
Noma, which relies heavily on foraging, has been making headlines since 2007 when it was named Restaurant magazine’s 15th best restaurant in the world. With a menu that includes such dishes as radishes in edible soil or pickled vegetables and bone marrow, its rating has climbed every year like a Nordic hot-air balloon. Restaurant magazine recently named the minimalist restaurant — whose chef Rene Redzepi once worked at The French Laundry — the best in the world for 2010 and 2011. Chefs the world over are hoping to bottle up some of Noma’s greatness.
Castagna, a high-end restaurant in Portland, Ore., has a menu replete with foraged foods. “I’ve been doing this for almost two years,” said chef Matt Lightner, 30. “The quality’s just not as good unless you go out and pick it yourself. It’s just a growing trend right now; cuisine always shifts — it’s gone from molecular to natural.”
Foraging has become a way of life for Green and other foragers. Green remembers hiking around Hurricane Ridge in Washington and picking mushrooms with her late husband. When a French chef lectured her about the impossibility of finding funnel-shaped mushrooms, called chantrelles, in the Pacific, she triumphantly brought him a basket. He ate his words — and then they feasted on some fresh, gourmet mushrooms.
But foraging is also not for the faint of heart. Gray recalls getting lost in a Yukon forest with 90 pounds of morels — and having to huddle with a friend overnight in the freezing rain without shelter. And Kopels swears by dandelion fritters. “Isn’t it ironic,” he asked, “that people spend thousands of dollars putting chemicals on their lawn to get rid of these things and then go to the farmers’ market at 14th Street and pay $15 for a quarter-pound?”
But, for Green, it’s more than just food. That straight-from-the-soil-to-the-stomach feeling is unique.
“There’s something very primal and childlike about foraging that gives you a certain joy,” she said. “You don’t get that if you go to a grocery store and find things in little packages.” She added: “There’s just so many moments with foraging: It’s just a massive wonder.”