Chaga: How this foraged food has become sought after by foodies … and rum lovers

After enjoying a cup of chaga tea, contributor Andie Bulman wanted to know more about this trendy fungus. (Submitted by Alex Wilke)

Foraging is trendy right now.

I get the appeal. Exploring the woods and stumbling upon a chanterelle patch is the most fun. It makes me feel like an old-timey prospector who finally struck it rich. I also consider an afternoon stirring wild berry jam or making a nettle pesto time well spent.

As far as trends go, foraging for wild ingredients is way healthier for our bodies and minds than feeding a Tamagotchi, planking, or calling a song a “bop.”

The risk of trendy foraging is that when a foodstuff becomes hot and popular among bloggers and foodies, there’s a chance that item will become overharvested. That’s happening with chaga right now.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a fungus that grows on the bark of birch trees in cold climates.

To me, they look like big, black bumpy ears.

Chaga can take 40 years to grow, so taking the whole piece doesn’t make sense. It’s important that people leave at least a third. It’ll grow back faster and it’s just more sustainable.– Shawn Dawson

For decades — perhaps longer — chaga has been a traditional medicine in Russia and other northern climates and herbalists often recommend chaga for a whole variety of ailments, although some of the claims about it cannot be substantiated. (There’s also controversy. During this pandemic, Health Canada has flagged products that are being sold as miracle cures against COVID-19, and “chaga mushrooms” is one of them.) 

All that said, chaga is rich in antioxidants and can be flavourful if you take the time to play with it.

Blog after blog will give you step-by-step instructions on how to make chaga teas, powders, and coffees. Influencers and celebrities sip it every morning. You can buy pricey tinctures online. 

Newfoundland is ripe with it — but not everyone is harvesting this fungus in a safe or sustainable way.

Hacking into a tree is unnecessary

On a recent trip to central Newfoundland I noticed that people were hacking into birch trees, leaving no trace of the chaga, and cutting directly into the tree.

This winter — before the pandemic descended upon us — I met up with Shawn Dawson, forager and owner of the Barking Kettle, to learn how to harvest chaga safely.

A chaga fungus split open. (Grant Lauzon/greenfoot.ca)

#1 Identify correctly:  Chaga tends to form domes and odd horns on birch trees.

It’s not usually a symmetrical growth, it’s black and crusty-looking — but the real tell is its golden interior. It gleams likes fool’s gold. The most common look-alike is a burl. They are outward growths that tend to be symmetrical. Burls can be caused by physical trauma to the tree, insects, or other fungal growths.

See for yourself: In pre-pandemic times, Andie Bulman went foraging for chaga, and then met up with Peter Wilkins of the Newfoundland Distillery for a rum tasting: 

#2 Harvest at the right time, in the right place: “First, make sure the tree is alive” is Shawn’s most important piece of advice for us. 

Chaga is a parasite of the birch tree. The relationship is truly symbiotic. When the tree dies, so does the fungus. Obviously we don’t want to eat dead, rotting chaga, so Shawn recommends looking for winter buds to make sure the tree is alive.

Similarly, chaga tends to act like a big sponge and absorbs pollutants in the air. “Best to go deep in the woods and leave the chaga on the side of the highway alone.” Finally, Shawn harvests in the late fall and winter. The sap isn’t running yet, so the chaga is more likely to be dry.

#3 Harvest correctly: Chaga usually grows somewhat high up in trees. Shawn always climbs the tree carefully and doesn’t wear spikes.

“Chaga can take 40 years to grow, so taking the whole piece doesn’t make sense. It’s important that people leave at least a third. It’ll grow back faster and it’s just more sustainable.” He also points out that you never want to slice into the tree. Slice into the chaga instead.

Shawn Dawson forages for greens, mushrooms and other edibles in the woods all over the province. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

#4 Dry it, freeze it, get creative with it: Chaga can get mouldy quickly, but it does freeze well. If you can’t clean and dry it quickly, then freeze it until you’re ready to tackle the chore. If you’ve got the time, ensure you begin by dusting the chaga with a mushroom brush. There’s going to be some forest debris on it that you might not want to ingest.

Cut the chaga into two-inch chunks. This part might be tricky, so do use a sharp knife. You can dry at room temperature, or speed up the process by dehydrating the chaga at 50 C in your oven overnight. Shawn turns his dehydrated chunks into powder using his coffee grinder. I followed his instructions and made chaga tea, but I did want a few more ideas.

Shawn often pairs it with chocolate, as the full flavour of the chocolate rounds out the chaga. He also loves it with other woody, rounded flavours and mentioned that the Newfoundland Distillery had been making an award-winning chaga rum, while the Mill Street Brewery uses chaga in a stout. Play with it!

#5 Try chaga before harvesting: It would be a shame if you found the flavour repulsive and tossed your chaga harvest into the trash. If you want to try it, but aren’t sure if you’ll like the flavour, try some of the Barking Kettle’s products (available at the St. John’s Farmers Market) before taking a whole piece of chaga off a tree.

#6 Only take what you need: So, if you do like the flavour and want the experience of chaga harvesting, make sure you only take what you need. “A little chaga goes a long way,” Shawn said, “A piece the size of a grapefruit will see most people through a winter.”

Trends tend to come and go, but chaga is a finite resource that we need to protect. The best way to do that is to harvest it sustainably.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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