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maine: hiking, chaga and gnome homes

RH: Sometimes I find I can get a bit fixated on one food. It typically starts by reading about the newest superfood or delving into a book on folk medicine and recipes and the next thing I know I’ve spent too much money at the health food store and everything I eat for the following three weeks is sprinkled with exotic blue-green algae and acai powder.

This summer Alle and I had the luck to spend a few months on the Maine coast. During this time we took full advantage of what the local scene had to offer - and being Maine, those activities included a lot of hiking and foraging. Maine definitely had me on a full-on mushroom fixation... actually I’ll call it a fascination, because mushrooms are seriously fascinating. Seriously.

We were both in the midst of a mushroom kick so of course our first thought was - let’s go find some chaga.

Chaga grows wild and quite plentifully in the Northern United States, Canada, Northern Europe and Russia and, knowing that, our hope was that it would be easy to find on our own.

What is chaga?

Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is a fungus that is not a fruiting body like many mushrooms we’ve come to know and use, but a parasitic growth commonly found on birch trees. It is considered a medicinal mushroom that has been used in traditional Russian and Eastern European folk medicine for centuries. Recently, chaga has regained popularity among the health conscious community for its many immunity bolstering health benefits.

Chaga is considered a potent adaptogen in medical herbalism. Adaptogenic herbs are classified by their ability to help the body cope with and respond to stress. In other words, adaptogens produce a nonspecific response in the body by increasing the ability to defend against multiple stressors such as physical, biological and chemical irritants.

Chaga is also classified as a tonic, meaning that it can be used over long periods of time to support and maintain health without any negative side effects or risk of toxic levels of the herb accumulating in the body.

Why you should try it?

Chaga has been used for centuries in folk medicine. However, laboratory studies have only recently begun to verify the efficacy of the mushroom as a treatment for cancers due to its high antioxidant levels, and anti-inflammatory and immunotherapy properties. Studies show that chaga supplies a list of antioxidants and minerals, B vitamins, pantothenic acid (B5) and riboflavin (B2), high amounts of saponins, beta glucans and amino acids.

The parasitic chaga mushroom is said to absorb and concentrate the immune compounds the birch tree produces in response to an infection or wound on the tree.

While all of these components on their own would make for an incredible health supporting supplement, perhaps the compound which chaga is most prized for is betulinic acid. This compound, which is responsible for chaga’s immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, and antiretroviral properties, is also currently being studied for its ability to inhibit the growth of certain malignant tumors and human melanoma.

To top it off, culinarily speaking, chaga also happens to be delicious! It tastes nothing like a mushroom, but more like an herbal coffee with notes of chocolate and vanilla due to its naturally occurring vanillin, the same compound found in vanilla beans. This makes chaga a natural choice for creating delicious tonics and teas.

Ethically sourcing and harvesting your own chaga:

Rule number one: never harvest chaga from a dead birch tree! If the tree is dead, then so will be the chaga and it will have little to no nutritional value. Chaga foraged from a dead tree will also have a very unpleasant and bitter taste. Yes, the chaga will eventually kill the tree, but always be gentle and careful when removing the chaga in order to prolong the life of the tree as long as possible. A birch with a small wound or infection may live for many years to come if it is not further injured.

When looking for chaga in the wild, look for birch trees only. They are the trees that will be growing what you're looking for. The photo above shows a birch tree with a large space where someone has harvested an enitre chaga burl. The darkened charcoal-looking spaces around the edges are what are left of the growth.

Chaga grows at an incredibly slow rate. It can take many years to garner just a few inches of growth which means that ethically harvesting it is very important. Ideally, only a burl that is the size of grapefruit or larger should be harvested - around 5 to 10 pounds. Not allowing the chaga to grow to a mautre size before harvesting it only reduces the amount left for it to continue growing and therefore depleting the harvest for the following seasons.

Fall is when the trees will gather their water and are full of nutrients, preparing for Winter, so the ideal time for harvesting chaga is late Fall or early Winter.

If a large enough piece is found, a small axe or hammer and chisel will easily remove the burl from the tree. Remember to never cut into the trunk of the tree at a perpendicular angle. Cut away the burl at a parallel angle, leaving a small amount still on the trunk to ensure you do not injure the tree.

The usable portion of the chaga mushroom has an irregular shape and the appearance of burnt charcoal and typically will be found growing on a damaged area of a birch tree. The black coloration is a product of a high concentration of melanin found in the mycelium, which acts as an antioxidant. Underneath the blackened coating is a light warm brown interior, which is also a useable portion of the mushroom.

Once harvested, the chaga still needs to be dehydrated to preserve it and ensure that mold does not begin to grow on it. To dehydrate the chaga, use a hammer and break up the burl into large chunks, about 1 to 2 inch pieces are fine. Larger pieces are better treated in a 150-degree dehydrator for around 8 hours, or small pieces can be spread out in an open and airy location to dry naturally at room temperature for 3-4 days. Always store your dried chaga in an airtight container and away from sunlight.

Because chaga has recently grown in popularity it has become much easier to source. Many health food stores as well as online suppliers now carry pre-packaged ground chaga mixtures and chaga teas. These are great options if you want to travel with a reserve, to brew up a cup while at work, school or on the road.

Chaga can also be sourced whole, just as you would find it in Nature. It will usually have already been cleaned and dehydrated for you, which you can then process yourself for various applications.

Dual extraction: the best of both worlds

A dual extraction is the process of obtaining the maximum amount of benefits from a medicinal plant, in this case chaga, using both water and alcohol-based menstrua to pull specific components from the plant. The two types of extraction methods used on the chaga mushroom are water and alcohol-based.

The water extraction is made by preparing a chaga decoction for the Chaga Chai Latte (recipe below). The alcohol-based extraction is done by preparing a basic tincture.

The purpose behind preparing both types of extractions is to make sure that all of the available medicinal properties are obtained from the plant. Each beneficial compound found in chaga can be removed through either water or alcohol, so we use both. The alcohol used in the tincture is the most effective way to specifically extract the betulinic acid compounds from the chaga, which is why this method of extraction is important and common when preparing chaga.

Tincturing dry plant material:

When preparing tinctures for home use, we prefer to use the ‘folk method’ that requires no measuring. The other option is a ‘weight to volume’ (w/v) method that requires a few more kitchen tools and measuring of ingredients. Neither method is superior to the other but purely a matter of the maker’s choice.

When choosing an alcohol for your menstruum, be sure to use a high proof alcohol. We like to use vodka for its clean taste but other alcohols such as brandy work well, too. The easiest menstruum to commercially purchase is 80-proof or 100-proof vodka, and remember to always choose an organic source. Not only does the alcohol help to remove the medicinal properties from the plant you’re using, but it also plays a major role in helping to preserve the extracted components. An alcohol percentage of twenty to thirty is the lowest amount you’ll need to effectively preserve a tincture, so choosing an 80-proof (which is 40 percent alcohol by volume) or 100-proof vodka (50 percent alcohol by volume) is sufficient.

Equipment needed:

16 ounce sterilized Mason jar plus tight fitting lid

Hammer and tea towel or food processor

Funnel

Fine mesh strainer

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons or more dried chaga, ground into a moderately coarse powder

At least 16 ounces of organic vodka (eighty-proof or higher)

Steps:

1. Grind the chaga into a moderately coarse powder. We find that placing a few dried chunks of chaga in a folded tea towel and gently breaking it apart with a hammer works very well for this. Alternatively a strong food processor will work, just be careful with your equipment since dried chaga can be very tough!

2. Place the powdered chaga into the Mason jar.

3. Add a small amount of vodka to the jar. The chaga will begin to float on top of the menstruum (vodka, in this example) at first so be sure to pour enough vodka to wet the chaga plus extra so that a quarter inch of vodka is underneath the floating chaga. This is the hallmark of the folk method - no measuring required. Any amount of chaga can be used as long as it is saturated with the menstruum and surrounded by the necessary quarter inch of extra menstruum while soaking.

4. Cap the jar tightly and let it sit for 12 hours. After the 12 hours have passed, check your jar to make sure that the chaga has not absorbed the vodka. Add more to the jar to re-establish the quarter inch of extra liquid if needed.

5. Store the soaking tincture at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Gently shake the jar each day for 14 days.

6. After two weeks, strain away the soaking liquid from the solids using a fine mesh strainer and decant the liquid into a dark glass bottle. Discard the solids. Cap the jar tightly and label with the name and date made.

How to use it:

Per day, 1-2 ml of the tincture can be consumed. This can be measured through the dropper lids commonly paired with tincture bottles.

It can be taken alone or added to other beverages. If taking the tincture alone, administer the drops sublingually to ensure quick absorption into the blood stream.

We like to add it to our Chaga Chai Latte to provide a full spectrum of benefits from a dual extraction of chaga in one sitting. Keep in mind that by adding the tincture to a hot beverage such as tea, coffee, or the Chaga Chai Latte, the majority of the alcohol will evaporate with the heat of the liquid while still leaving the medicinal components of the tincture.

Chaga Chai Latte

(makes two 12 ounce servings)

1 tablespoon chaga, ground or finely chopped

2 cups filtered water

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1 cinnamon stick

1-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

3 whole cardamom pods, crushed to expose seeds

1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorn

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1 cup hemp milk (recipe below)

2 tablespoons raw honey or Grade B maple syrup

pinch sea salt

1 teaspoon virgin coconut oil (optional)

Combine the chaga and water in a medium saucepan. Bring the water over medium to low heat, depending on your stove, so that the water comes to a very gentle simmer. If the water reaches a boil, lower the flame so that only gentle bubbles are created. Cover the pot and allow the tea to simmer for 30-45 minutes; the longer the simmer the stronger the brew. Remember to cover the pan while simmering or your tea will reduce into a syrup, which is also useful, but not good for lattes!

Once done simmering, remove the pan from heat and carefully strain the chaga through a fine mesh strainer. Reserve the solids and return the chaga tea to a clean saucepan. Return the chaga tea to a gentle simmer and add the remaining spices to the pot. Simmer the tea and spices, covered, for an additional 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and carefully strain the spice solids from the tea brew. The spice mixture can be saved in water in the refrigerator for additional brews or discarded.

The remaining chaga solids will still be good for more brews. To preserve it, cover the mixture with fresh water and store in an airtight container. Keep it in the refrigerator until ready to use again. The brewing process can be repeated until the chaga no longer produces a dark brew and the simmered liquid is light in color or clear. At this point discard the solids and start the process over.

Return the spiced chaga tea mixture back to a clean saucepan and combine with 1 cup hemp milk, sweetener of choice, pinch of salt, and coconut oil if desired. Gently heat the mixture to your preferred temperature for drinking, carefully pour into two cups, garnish with cinnamon and enjoy!

If adding your prepared tincture to the latte, add it at this point and remove from direct heat. The residual heat in the liquid will be enough to evaporate the alcohol.

A note on the maple syrup and coconut oil:

If using maple syrup, sourcing ‘Grade B’ syrup is preferred. This is a bit counter intuitive. After all, ‘Grade A’ is known for being higher in quality. Grade B syrup is harvested at the end of the sugaring season before the maple trees begin to bud. It is more intense in flavor, almost like molasses, and an excellent source of iron, potassium and magnesium.

The coconut oil in this recipe is optional but a delicious addition! Adding a small amount of coconut oil provides additional beneficial fats. Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids which are easily digested by the body, providing a quick source of energy, along with auric acid, a compound usually only found in breast milk, which has strong anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.

.....

Hemp Milk (makes 4 cups)

1 cup hemp seeds, hulled

4 cups filtered water

Combine the hemp seeds and water in a high-speed blender and run on high for one to two minutes until completely liquefied. Strain the milk through a nut milk bag or multiple layers of cheesecloth (a pair a clean pantyhose works great, too!). Discard the hemp solids and store the milk in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.

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