East Lyme - You'd think foraging would be easier than this.
But here is Sam Schaperow, bending over an old wooden fence on a side road off Route 161 with white socks rolled over khaki pants to avoid tick bites and poison ivy, struggling mightily to pull a 20-pound Berkeley's polypore mushroom out of the ground.
For a while, it looks like the funny-looking member of the fungi family is going to win.
"The mushroom is getting some help from vines that are holding it down," the wiry Schaperow explains.
Finally, Schaperow is able extract the huge mushroom, holding up a prize that could net him up to $300 from a local restaurant if he could sell all of it. The white dress shirt Schaperow donned for the foraging expedition is a little the worse for wear, but he doesn't seem to notice as he goes on excitedly about storing the edible delight in the family's refrigerator and eventually running it through a meat grinder.
"It's a lot of work to clean," he confides.
For Schaperow, foraging in the woods near his East Lyme home is both a passion and a way to make some extra money. Now a family and marriage therapist, he learned foraging techniques from a professor at the University of Connecticut 16 years ago and has been enjoying the fruits of his expeditions ever since.
"It's a living, and I get exercise out of it," he says. "You get to experience flavors you can't get at the grocery store."
John Schwartz, head chef at the Niantic restaurant, acquired five pounds of the Berkeley's polypore that Schaperow pulled out of the ground just a few hundred yards from his home and cooked it eight hours for use in a pasta sauce. He says the unexpected and affordable products Schaperow brings in provide a freshness and flavor he can't find in commercial foods.
"My imagination just starts going crazy - that helps me," Schwartz says. "It's nice to see something new."
Schwartz, who buys products from one other East Haddam forager, appreciates that Schaperow often has tested his own recipes and has advice for how best to use certain items.
"He's a wealth of information," Schwartz says.
Schaperow acknowledges that foraging requires some experience, because the difference between delicious and deadly can be a close call when it comes to mushrooms. He demonstrates by doing what he calls a "taste and spit" technique on a Russula mushroom found during a 45-minute walk.
"Even the deadliest mushrooms in the world, you can taste and spit," he says.
It usually takes Schaperow only about 30 seconds to determine if the mushroom is edible. Most mushrooms need to be cooked to reduce their bitterness, he adds.
Other foods encountered on Schaperow's foraging expedition included purslane, which tastes great in salads; wild sassafras, the flavor base for homemade root beer; wood sorrel, which provides a tangy taste for a variety of recipes, and wild bay leaves, which he says are more versatile than the commercial product because they can be ground up into many recipes rather than needing to be cooked.
"A lot of wild foods, people don't know how to use them," Schaperow says.
Schaperow enjoys experimenting with his own recipes, and has developed a maple syrup flavored by the Violet-Grey Bolete mushroom that he finds quite enjoyable and which adds a curry-like kick to the traditional taste.
"This is good stuff - I really like it," he says.
He also has developed a technique for extracting sea salt from water harvested in Long Island Sound near the Atlantic Ocean that he pronounces is as good as the high-priced French equivalent, fleur de sel. The sea salt production is time consuming, since it takes a month for the water to evaporate.
Schaperow has taught foraging to friends who claim they have cut 20 percent off their grocery bills by hunting for food in their own back yards, he says.
He believes more people should try to live off the land in these difficult economic times, and he stands ready to lead foraging tours for anyone interested.
Some people such as "Wildman" Steve Brill can even make a living out of foraging, by writing books and giving tours.
"Getting in touch with nature ... combats obesity," says Schaperow, who enjoys foraging with his 3-year-old daughter, Talia. "Working for the food makes it more appreciated and can stave off the desire for fullness."