Connie Green: The Fine Art of Wild Foraging

27 Dec, 2013

You may never have heard of Connie Green—but some of the world’s top chefs, among them Thomas Keller, certainly have. They turn to her exclusively for their gourmet mushroom requirements, and she has been meeting their needs for several decades, foraging right from the woods around her Northern California establishment, Wine Forest Wild Foods. Interestingly Connie is not only a top supplier, she helped establish the market for wild mushrooms in the first place. When California cuisine began its evolution in the 1970s with its focus on fresh, local ingredients, Connie was right there to provide the wondrous mushrooms foraged from her own virtual backyard. Suddenly delicacies such as local black trumpets, porcini and chanterelles were all the rage—and Connie has never looked back.

“Finding Things”

It seems that foraging was in Connie’s blood. “I grew up around an Ice Age spring in Florida,” Connie told Organic Connections. “Florida is pretty famous for a lot of fossils. I grew up finding fossils all over that area and knew the joy of discovering things on the ground, and that little treasure hunt.”

Foraging for food was also not new to her. “On my family’s farm in Florida, there were just always edible items that didn’t come from the farm but came from the wilder country all around: sassafras, wild grapes and poke salad—things like that. It was part of the reality of life. Today foraging is very fashionable, but it’s nothing new. This activity has been integral to human life for a very long time and was certainly a part of my family.”

But her passion for hunting wild mushrooms developed when Connie got married. “My late husband was from Estonia,” she continued. “As with many Eastern Europeans he had a love of hunting wild mushrooms—it’s kind of like a religion. So it was from him that I learned about picking them.”

Oversupply Leads to Market

Connie didn’t start out with the idea of creating a business from wild mushrooms, but she suddenly discovered that she had far too many of them for her own culinary use and consumption. “I fell in love with foraging and became very, very good at it,” she said. “I was soon finding more than I could possibly eat, and so in the late 1970s I began taking them to some shops and restaurants.”

However, in calling on chefs who she thought would certainly want to purchase her mushrooms, she discovered she was dealing with an uneducated group. “Somewhat to my horror, I found they didn’t really know what they were,” Connie related. “They’d heard of them in French cookbooks, yet weren’t really familiar with them.”

But Connie knew who had heard of them, and that was where she expended her initial effort. It paid off. “At that point I went directly for the French guys and for a lot of Europeans. They were cooking here in the Bay Area, and they of course knew what wild mushrooms were.”

California Cuisine

Shortly after Connie’s business got underway, the culinary revolution known as California cuisine began—and Connie was right at its heart. “In the late seventies and early eighties when California cuisine (as it now tends to be called) was coming into its own, I was one of the early sources of unusual ingredients that these people could go crazy with,” she recalled. “There were the Jeremiah Towers and the Joyce Goldsteins, and so on, who became my customers as we all grew very excited about the food available in California.”

The Expert Eye

Since Wine Forest first opened, Connie’s clientele has been a culinary who’s who. Why do these top chefs keep coming back to her? It’s because—well, all mushrooms aren’t equal.

“As you walk through the forest, you don’t pick everything that you see,” Connie remarked. “Many people do and they’re completely undiscriminating. We may only gather half of what’s growing. It isn’t a conservation thing—in fact, there are many benefits to the mushrooms from picking them. You’re harvesting the fruit of a fungal body that is underground, and by picking it you actually become a human vector for the fungus to help spread its spores.

“But we avoid mushrooms that are not in good condition, are too large, too small or too crappy looking. We select the mushrooms that are beautiful; something that we always have in mind is that people are going to look at, admire and eat these. We also pick them very carefully and cleanly; mushrooms picked poorly and in bad condition are very labor intensive to clean and prepare, and the texture is not as good. So it starts in the woods.”

Why Can’t They Be Farmed?

Given the state of science and technology today, one might wonder why foraging is still necessary; couldn’t these mushrooms be commercially farmed? It turns out that for many varieties this will never be the case.

“There are two general categories of edible mushrooms,” Connie explained. “One group is called saprophytes, and these are mushrooms that will grow on decaying matter. They are our grocery-store button mushrooms, shiitakes, and Grifola frondosa, which is the “hen of the woods.” Their life cycle is such that they feed on decaying matter, and these by and large are the ones for which breakthroughs in cultivation have occurred.

“The other—and probably the sexiest—mushroom category is mycorrhiza. This means that their fungal networks grow underground in a marriage with a tree; the tree and the mushroom have a symbiotic relationship. In the case of a chanterelle, for example, the fungal body is interwoven—in my area—with the roots of an oak tree. If you are in Nova Scotia, it could be a jack pine; they have different tree hosts depending on where you are.

“But they cannot grow without a tree host. The same is true with porcini and black trumpets; these things need a tree that they depend on, and the tree actually depends on them. Foresters have learned the hard way that when they clear-cut a place, they actually kill off all the underground mycelia too. When they go back and plant trees, the trees do not thrive. It took a mycologist [a scientist specializing in the study of fungi] to show them the truth of the matter, and now they plant all of these trees with a mycorrhizal partner. That fungal body is what breaks down a lot of nutrients that the tree cannot access on its own. The mushroom is feeding the tree and the tree is feeding the mushroom body. The tree provides carbohydrates and water from the roots deep in the ground, and the mushroom is breaking down and making various nutrients available to the tree.

“So it’s a win-win situation, and they cannot cultivate it. Perhaps forever these wild mushrooms will come only from standing forests.”

Economy of Forestry

In that forests host such a normally unseen economic boon, Connie has acted to preserve them instead of cutting them down. “We like to pose to the National Forest Service the economic benefit of leaving a forest standing,” she said. “If you have a forest over a period of, say, a hundred years, that forest is going to be of greater economic benefit to humanity being left alone and taking the mushrooms from it than harvesting the wood once.

“If all of the conditions are right, mushrooms come back every single year. There are places in Europe where they’ve recorded mushrooms growing from the same tree for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’ve picked from the same trees for over thirty years.”

Seasonal Aspect

In addition to knowing where certain mushrooms can be found, there is also a very seasonal aspect to them. “All wild mushrooms have a particular climatic condition that they like the best and is the thing that triggers them to fruit,” Connie pointed out. “Right now in California we’re at the end of our dry phase and the beginning of the rains that will come. The mushrooms will emerge after that in a sequence. In the first drenching rains porcini are one of the first things to appear. As it gets colder and later in the season, we will have black trumpets, hedgehogs and yellowfeet.

“In the Midwest, people have known about this and have been hunting morels for generations. They come out in the spring, so in May the woods are filled with farmers and townsfolk looking for morels. It’s one of the rites of spring.”

Sharing the Love

While she highly specializes in mushrooms and probably always will, Connie has also become expert in foraging for many other edibles over the years. These include such naturally available ingredients as purslane, sheep sorrel, burdock, stinging nettles, wild fennel, huckleberries, elderberries, and even Douglas fir branches. She sells a variety of these items alongside her mushrooms.

A few years ago Connie realized that the wealth of native bounty she was party to was not being made properly accessible to the world at large, so she took this upon herself with an amazing book entitled The Wild Table.

“When I started working on The Wild Table, there were field guides,” Connie said. “Some of them had a few recipes in them that were really quite bad, and none of them had very practical information about preparing a lot of these ingredients. So I wrote this book. I broke it into five seasons: the standard four plus Indian summer. I then selected the ingredients that are the ones I love dearly and are the particularly seductive ones that come at those times of the year.

“With each ingredient I wrote an essay that’s sort of a combo of a love letter and practical nitty-gritty stuff about that wild food. It’s followed by specific information about washing it, storage, preparation and cleaning. It’s very succinct and clear, and it’s information that’s not been available elsewhere.

“Then there will be a recipe or two, and they were picked specifically for complete deliciousness. There are things like corn chanterelle chowder, which is very simple and incredibly good. The persimmon trees are all ripe now in many parts of the country, and I have some very special persimmon recipes in there; but I wanted to do one that nobody does that preserves the gooey, yummy, orange, luscious tropical fruit flavor persimmons have. So I’ve included one that I call persimmon-praline parfait. It’s persimmons, mascarpone and pralines broken up in layers.

“I hear from many people I know that they’ll make a lot of these recipes over and over again—stuffed morels, for instance.”

Learning It Yourself

Given this wonderful insight into wild foraging, there will likely be many readers who will wonder how to get started themselves. Connie has practical advice for them.

“In terms of mushrooms, there are mycological societies all over the country. There is a website called mykoweb.com that has links to mushroom clubs in every state. There are also native plant societies online. In addition, there are plenty of great books out there on regional foraging, such as my own.

“One really good way, of course, is to find somebody who knows. Many of these wild foods, particularly the greens, are invading species and grow all over the place. Most of them are very easy to identify, and any gardener that is worth his salt will be able to point out what they are.”

Personal Passionate Mission

For Connie, following and sharing her love of foraging will always be her path.

“I love making my living this way, even though there are certainly ways I could make more money,” Connie concluded, laughing. “But I am so glad to have introduced wild mushrooms and other wild foods at a time when the cuisine of the United States was changing very dramatically. Now a lot of these wild foods have a real chance of helping preserve some of the wild lands. We’ve already had a degree of success in stopping various logging operations and clear-cuts because of the value of the mushrooms that come from those areas.

“I love showing people that they can play a part in experiencing nature in a way that isn’t like going to the gym; they’re not going out just to hike. When people go out and start recognizing food in nature, it creates an intimacy that is not the same as mountain biking, for instance. One of my favorite activities is to take chefs, who are locked in kitchens and work extremely hard in very harsh conditions, out into the woods to find things that they’ve never seen in their natural state. It makes the experience of nature a very, very rich one.

The joy and delight that comes from seeing and finding and recognizing elements in our environment is built into us. We are the descendants of hunter-gatherers and we’re not that far away from it. It still resides in us—some of these trigger points of joy in discovery, the sheer delight of it. It is something that children are exceptionally good at, and it’s a joyful activity to do with little kids because they’re low to the ground—they see things. They feel empowered by this; they’re very good at it, and it gets them away from the computer screen and out into nature.”

resources

For more information, please visit www.wineforest.com.

Connie Green’s book The Wild Table is available from the Organic Connections bookstore.

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