Foraging can be a dangerous and delicious game, taking us on a primal treasure hunt with ancestral motivations and leading us to a hidden haven of feral food holding unbound culinary potential.
Dine out in the Flathead Valley, where a clutch of local chefs have integrated their passion for wild food foraging into their seasonal menus and nightly dinner specials, and your palate is apt to unwittingly detect nutrient-packed hints of spruce buds, nettle, mint, watercress, pearly everlasting, currants, salsify, wild onions, and more, all procured in the mountain ranges and river bottoms that radiate throughout the region.
Besides knowing which wild species are safe to eat, foraging in the forest poses other risks, like jumping a bedded-down moose or getting skunked after days of scouring densely thicketed mountainsides and valleys, bush-belaying down steep pitches carpeted in devil’s club and alder to inspect a shady clearing, and still leaving the woods empty-handed yet hungry — literally and figuratively — for more.
It can also be an immensely rewarding experience, particularly after a productive day when crates teem with a wild harvest and sizzling sauté pans eagerly await the cook’s return.
The Rocky Mountain region’s diverse geography melds the plains, the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest into a peculiar ecological potpourri that overflows with edible plant species, the perfect complement to the region’s stable of talented chefs and top-rated restaurants, where the verve of innovation and the momentum of the farm-to-table movement mixes with an earthy array of wild-caught ingredients.
For foraging foodies like Wayne Sheffield, a seasonal chef at Walking Lightly Ranch near Whitefish, the ground is a grocer, a wilderness Whole Foods brimming with flavorful delicacies — an outdoor oasis and living mosaic of wild food that fluctuates with the seasons, the hodgepodge of geography and the erratic rhythms of Rocky Mountain river systems.
In addition to the bounty of sweet, tender greens, there are, of course, mushrooms. Every forager is well versed in the mycological gradation of the forests, and while the morels of spring are the best-known wild culinary mushroom species, many other even more coveted varieties can be found throughout the year.
In Montana, Sheffield hunts a handful of mushroom species, including boletes, which taste like an earthy mixture of smoke and coffee, as well as white chanterelles and chicken of the woods. Then there’s the squat, fat-bottomed Montana porcini and, perhaps most famously, the matsutake.
If you don’t know your hierarchy of prized wild mushrooms, matsutakes (matsies for short) are revered in Japan and the most expensive mushroom in the world (since truffles aren’t technically a mushroom).
In Japan, they’re collected in the fall, but harvests there have begun to dwindle, and now matsutakes are harvested and imported from a number of different places, including the Pacific Northwest.
If one hasn’t had the pleasure of eating a matsutske, it’s prized for its aroma — a cinnamon-spicy-cedar combination that’s hard to describe. Young mushrooms picked before the veil that covers the gills breaks open are the most cherished, and typically have the strongest flavor.
“One of the fun things I love about Montana is finding new spots and exploring different ranges to forage,” said Sheffield, who has foraged throughout the Mountain West, including Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Arizona. “That has really further inspired my love of the state. It’s just so different here. People hear the Northern Rocky Mountains and think it’s so homogenous, but these landscapes are so diverse.”
In his free time, Sheffield treks to the Yaak and the North Fork Flathead River, the Bitterroot, Beaverhead and Belt mountains, and he keeps his finger on the pulse of the weather.
On the clock, Sheffield designs farm-to-table forage dinners for the guests at Walking Lightly Ranch, which offers yoga and writing retreats and features a vegan, raw food kitchen.
The culinary importance of wild food isn’t just a means of survival, Sheffield said, but a way to promote health and wellness, enhance flavors and enjoy the experiential thrill of discovery.
“Today we don’t have a lot of opportunity to eat totally unadulterated food anymore, or to see firsthand the chain of life of the food we eat,” he said. “If you envision the life cycle of a cow from a major dairy or slaughterhouse, you’re not going to be inspired. But when you think of the lives of wild plants and mushrooms, you see a great life. How can these things not be an empowering food and a critical ring on the chain of life? It’s an intimate connection.”
Like a gardener, Sheffield watches his crop closely. He’s memorized spots where certain species grow, and he crisscrosses swaths of wilderness in search of fresh discoveries, never afraid of stumbling upon a new realm of possibility.
A recent dinner at Walking Lightly Ranch featured Big Belt porcini mushrooms and morels from the Salish mountains, with pasta and squash scallopine, a toasted walnut cream with chervil, huckleberries and a pine nut whipping cream, and a virgin cocktail infused with blackberry syrup from berries picked along the Hood River in Oregon.
“I think we have a very sophisticated food palate here,” Sheffield said. “Young chefs are moving here with progressive ideas and encouraging interest in foraging, and there’s more of an acceptance here than in other places. People aren’t afraid to eat wild food. In my experience, people are just good, adventurous eaters here, but some do have a fear of wild foods.”
Editor’s Note: Read more of our long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley. Or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.