Portland’s Wild Side: A cuisine built on foraged flavor

In the Willamette Valley, you can thank the rain. Call it mist, heavy dew or liquid sunshine; the abundant showers translate to a magnificent sea of green. Here, where the finicky pinot noir grape thrives, wild edibles sprout with abandon. Sweet Coltsfoot. Siberian Miner’s Lettuce. Stinging Nettle. Salal.

“We still pick hikes based on the time of year, and what’s popping,” says Greg Higgins, who’s been foraging ingredients for his Portland restaurant since he opened it in the 1980’s. “There’s not a hike without foraging and vice versa.” What Higgins seeks on foot are unusual species or edibles with limited availability—greens or fungi not found in the commercial markets. He also partners with a network of local foragers, specifically, Lars Norgren who brokers wild edible for his company, Peak Forest Fruit.

“Lars and I have known each other for close to thirty years,” says Higgins. “His father was a soil scientist, so he spent his whole life crawling through every environment in Oregon, learning about all the micro-ecology.”
When Higgins talks food, he references microclimates, minerality, soil and taste of place. “It’s not an exclusive concept,” he says of terroir. “I think from a chefs perspective there’s continuity with other ingredients as well.” In Oregon, many of these ingredients are “wild.”

There’s a “reverence for things like wild mushrooms, game meats and wild fish,” Higgins says—something he found set Portland apart from other cities when he began cooking in 1984. At the time, in other areas, these items would be considered exotic. “I think it’s woven into the fabric,” he says, “as part of the whole sportsman, hunter-gather, and pioneer lifestyle that’s matured with the culture here.”

Higgins, for his part, has been foraging since he was seven. “I fell in love with Euell Gibbons back in the late 60’s,” he says. As a chef, he’s found foraging to be an integral part of his process. With foraging comes spontaneity, says Higgins, which sparks creativity, and leads to unexpected or fortuitous combinations. Think candy cap mushroom ice cream with wild berry cobbler.

Though Higgins has a hard time naming a favorite ingredient, matsutakes definitely top the list. “Either you like them or you don’t because of their pungent, musty flavor,” he says. In the fall, he’ll play up that flavor by grilling the mushrooms alongside some wild leeks and add them to an umami-rich wild ginger-miso broth. “I think the dish has an affinity for chardonnays that have seen some oak,” he says, like a chardonnay by John Paul of Cameron Winery.

“That pairing I always have a weak spot for,” he says, “the supple vanilla texture and flavor of the chardonnay against the mustiness of the mushrooms and the funkiness of the broth.” The dish is one of seven in an annual fall ode to forest mushrooms, a sold-out, wait-list feast with dishes like forest mushroom cappuccino and wheat berry “risotto” with Oregon black truffles and a tian of lobster and cauliflower mushrooms.

A lot of the restaurant staff gets bit by the bug, says Higgins, so he takes them out mushrooming. “It’s kind of infectious,” he adds. “To me it speaks of the northwest, it’s where we live.”

“In the Pacific Northwest, we really have it all,” says chef David Padberg of Raven & Rose, a classic farmhouse kitchen located in downtown Portland’s 1883 historic Ladd Carriage House. “I can go to the coast and pick beach plants and dig clams, or go to Mount Hood for morels or matsutake,” he says. “All the seasons have something to offer the forager.”

Padberg began foraging and gardening around the same time, in his early twenties. “I suppose it is the nature lover in me, and an extension of my connection to plant life,” he says. Like Higgins, he credits Euell Gibbons as his inspiration. “I remember a very early childhood experience of watching Euell talk about wild foods in a Grape Nuts commercial,” says Padberg. “He became a sort of childhood hero.”

Boot-clad in spring showers, Padberg can be found chasing wild greens like wood sorrel, woodruff, watercress, fiddleheads, and mushrooms like porcini and morels. “One of my favorite dishes is to pair porcini with pine nuts and pine tips, since porcini often grow near pine and fir trees,” he says. “A little wood sorrel goes nicely in that dish too.”

At the peak of summer, he heads to the coast for beach plants, like marsh samphire and agretti, but also lesser known plants like sea plantain, sea kale, sea purslane, and of course seaweeds. “I like to mix the succulent leaves of purslane (basically a wild weed) with blackberries, peaches and feta for a refreshing salad,” he says.

He pairs the salad with a crisp and acidic white wine to help pull together the briny feta and the sweet fruits. “The Cristom viognier has the peach and apricot notes, with a touch of spice to make the berries and peaches stand out,” says Padberg. “The succulent purslane brings a nice crisp texture and refreshing vegetal foundation.”

As much as Padberg loves to forage for ingredients, he can’t always escape from the kitchen. Instead, he harvests from his “wild” garden, where he’s cultivated many of the wild plants he once gathered in the woods. “I have several large trees in my yard too, so I can gather the tender young fir and pine tips in the spring, and patches of wood sorrel and woodruff and fern in the undergrowth.”

At chef Eric Bechard’s newest restaurant, Kingdom of Roosevelt, wood pigeon liver custard is served with elderflower and pickled huckleberries and the pickled elk tongue with a tangle of wild mustards. A seasonally changing “Forager’s Pie,” is found in a menu section spotlighting fruits of the forest and field.

When people think of Oregon, they imagine wilderness, mushrooms and foraged ingredients, says Bechard. “I wanted to open a restaurant that I thought was really symbolic of this place.” Eager to tap into a market of farmers raising “things other than your normal pig,” he sought out growers raising rabbits, ducks, elk and deer.

“I wanted to support that smaller side of agriculture and to introduce people to wild game meats,” says Bechard, who is also the chef behind Thistle, a farm-driven destination restaurant in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country.
The foraged ingredients accent plates in both restaurants. “I’ve always been interested in local, wild ingredients as a cook, says Bechard. “Foraging for me isn’t just about foraging,” he adds. “I’ll go hiking and foraging happens to be a secondary part of just being out in the woods.”

The chef most commonly harvests wild greens, wild berries and flowers because he doesn’t have to travel far from his home in McMinnville to reach some of the closer forests. “We’ll go for nettles, oxalis, wild mustards, wild garlic, wild spinach and cattails.

Late summer, he finds wapato or arrowhead (also known as duck potato) near the waters edge. An aquatic tuber, the plant name hails from the leaves, which look like arrowheads. “It’s between a Jerusalem artichoke and a potato,” says Bechard. “You can use it in the same philosophies,” says Bechard. “It’s not often the star of the dish, usually it’s more of a secondary component.”

In the kitchen, the chef will roast or puree the tuber, add it to the hunter’s stew, or as a complement to mushroom chowder. “It’s pretty versatile,” says Bechard. If you are using the wapato as the heavier component of the dish and everything else is light, Bechard pairs it with Adelsheim auxerrois or the Eyrie Vineyards pinot gris “Original Vines.”

“I love living here because we have access to mountains and rivers and forest in a stones throw,” says Bechard. “It’s what I really enjoy, being outside and walking in the woods,” he pauses, “and then as a bonus, a gift, you have edible foods you can utilize.”

Wine & Spirits Magazine, September 2013