Maine’s Wild Edible Plants
Traceability: How Dining is like Reading a Map
Locally sourced, sustainable, farm fresh: In recent years, this has become the mantra of food culture. The recycled, rice paper menus in 5-star restaurants are filled with dishes that promote and detail, in verbose Renaissance language, a particular food’s traceability. The shaved black truffles on your risotto were foraged in the Vauclose region of France. The subtle glaze on your pork tenderloin is made from blueberries that were stumped in Downeast Maine.
The chefs who creatively devise these bold menus want to lead you to the exact field or forest where the ingredients were found. In a sense, these culinary wizards are tour guides, and they seem to be implying that understanding a menu is like reading a map, and you better have a cartographer’s knowledge of geography if you really want to appreciate what the dish is all about. It is interesting how food movements and restaurants can take something that has been practiced since the dawn of time, wrap it like a Bay of Fundy scallop in organic, grass-fed pig bacon, and resell it as a new concept. Of course, in the old days it was about survival and not $50 appetizers, but didn’t we all start out as hunters and gatherers?
Foraging for mushrooms, berries and wild edibles has taken place for centuries in North America. From the wet, coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest to the Appalachia region to the fields and meadows of New England, people have always lived off the land. Today, we are once again discovering that our forests and fields are their own type of farmers’ market, and the back-to-the-land movement has greatly affected what we find on the menu when we go out to eat.
Blueberries are to Maine what baseball is to America: a summer pastime. Maine grows 98 percent of America’s low-brush blueberries. How are the stats broken down? Around 65 million pounds of blueberries are harvested in Maine each year from an estimated 25,000 acres. That is a mind-blowing batting average. Furthermore, all of the blueberries are wild. There are no human-planted fields in Maine. The Pick-Your-Own blueberry farms that you see throughout the rest of New England are non-existent in Maine. In other words, you go berrying along towpaths, hiking trails and country roads in the summer. However, there is one exception to this rule. Staples Homestead Blueberries, in Stockton Springs, allows the public to pick blueberries once the commercial harvest is over. In Maine, this is known as stumping, which is a fancy term for letting the locals pick through the leftovers in the fields.
Mushrooms and Fiddlehead Ferns
Mushroom season is short in Maine. It only lasts eight weeks. However, when you traipse through the forest you can find a variety of different kinds of mushrooms. The most popular and well known types include chanterelles and porcini, but you will also spot morels, wood ears, Ponderosa and maitake, which is known as the Hen of the Woods. While learning how to identify mushrooms is a rite of passage in Europe, it is not as culturally widespread in America. In other words: do not simply strap on a rucksack, grab a walking stick and head into the forest like a character from a Brothers Grimm fairytale looking for something to eat. You need to either have a thorough and accurate guidebook that differentiates between edible and poisonous mushrooms, or go on an expedition with a registered Maine guide who has the necessary knowledge.
If you want to go mushrooming without tromping through a damp forest, then visit the Oyster Creek Mushroom Company. Located in Damariscotta, Oyster Creek has wide selection of dried mushrooms, powders and mushroom-infused oils. In a good season, Oyster Creek picks around 40,000 pounds of mushrooms.
Whether used in soups, salads or a main dish, fiddlehead ferns have been eaten as a leaf vegetable in New England for countless generations. When you venture into the rural areas of Maine, it seems that every family has their own special fiddlehead dish, and they guard these traditional secrets like an Italian family guards its gnocchi recipe. Fiddleheads are easy to identify. The tops of the ferns curl just like the ornamentation at the end of a violin. Fiddleheads can be found in Maine in the spring.
Off the Grid….and Beyond
Berries, mushrooms and fiddleheads are the most popular wild edibles, but natural harvesting does not end there. From purslane and orache to seaweed and wild leeks, if you know what you are looking for, then chances are you can find it in Maine. You never know: the next time you sit down for a meal, the chef might go completely off the grid and garnish your entree with dandelion greens and cattails.