The 2011 CHOW 13

Connie Green: Foraging

Young Brooklyn vegans are blogging about picking garlic mustard in Prospect Park. Guys in Seattle are dropping out of college to hunt porcini mushrooms. San Franciscans are fishing for brown rockfish in city storm drains. But long before the current fad of foraging—in fact, before many of today's foragers were even born—Connie Green was harvesting the forests.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

Green's company, Wine Forest Wild Foods, based in her home in the Mayacamas Mountains along the Napa Valley's western barrier, has supplied high-end chefs with everything from huckleberries to chanterelle mushrooms for the past 30 years. (Her 2010 book, The Wild Table, cowritten with Sarah Scott, boasts a heartfelt foreword by Thomas Keller.) Benu chef Corey Lee, a rising talent in San Francisco, has been calling nearly every day, Green says with a little smile, to ask when matsutake mushrooms will show up.

The 61-year-old Green still goes out to gather elderflowers, blackberries, and above all chanterelles (her main love), but these days she acts more as a broker, guiding a network of moonlighting loggers, hippies, and freelance foragers as they follow the seasons from Alaska down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco Bay, and from as far east as Idaho and Colorado. She sells between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of wild mushrooms per week.

On the day I show up at Wine Forest, Green is emptying linen bags of golf-ball-sized Burgundy black truffles into a Styrofoam box, ready for delivery to restaurants. Foragers she knows in France were here yesterday, she explains, trading truffles for things to take back to Europe. —J.B.

You started foraging in the 1970s, even before you began selling to chefs. How did you get into it?
I like to say I'm a seventh-generation forager: I'm a Floridian, from the Panhandle. We always gathered wild stuff—that's rural South. Blackberries, wild grapes, mayhaws. We had to dig sassafras, and we'd get tupelo honey from the swamps.

Is it satisfying—vindicating, even—to know that searching out wild foods has become popular, even for beginners?
I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it's ludicrous in the extreme for a Californian, for example, who's not gone out to pick blackberries—it's just pure laziness for anyone not to. But I just worry that people will be driven by their ego and their desire to find things, and that will carry them to be overconfident and foolish out here. Anyone interested in foraging should do a lot of observation first, a lot of walking and looking. The thing I have in common with someone harvesting purslane in a city lot is we're both turning a sensitive, keen eye to the world we live in. I was in New York recently for the first time in 30 or 40 years; I saw things everywhere. I was on a balcony on a 17th floor in Tribeca, and I was picking up juniper berries! They were all over the place.

NEXT: ADAM FLEISCHMAN