The Hunt For Chaga
From mushroom collecting to underwater training, we’re sharing yet another activity we managed to squeeze in during our Labour Day weekend in Northwestern Quebec: playing with the mystical, magical mushroom called chaga. Here’s what we learned about chaga’s heath benefits, where to find it in the wild, and how to prepare it (even in cocktails!).
Chaga’s Health Benefits
As wild and natural medicine is becoming more mainstream, we’re hearing more about this fungus and it’s apparent health benefits. Of those, none are gaining more popularity than chaga. Here’s a quick history of chaga’s health benefits, its use, and why it’s sometimes referred to as “Black Gold” or “The King of Herbs.”
The Khanty people of West Siberia commonly used the fungus back in the 16th century to cure ulcers and gastrointestinal pain. Chaga tea was also popular among hunters and gatherers in the region as it improved energy levels and alleviated hunger. Do you remember Otzi, the Iceman? He was discovered with 5,000 year old birch polypore in his leather pouch!
In Japan, the Ainu people of Hokkaido have been drinking chaga tea to treat upset stomach and inflammation. Infusions were also used for the treatment of skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.
Today, chaga is popular because of its ability to reduce degenerative disease and boost the immune system. Chaga contains a high amount of beta-glucans which are sugars (polysaccharides) found in cell walls of funghi, bacteria, yeasts, algae and other plants. They help boost the immune system and activate certain cells and proteins that attack pathogens that don’t belong in a healthy body.
Secondly, chaga is particularly good at preserving youth and healthy organs because of its high SOD content. SOD (superoxide dismutase) is a powerful enzyme which prevents tissue degeneration. As we age, the levels of SOD in our bodies decline and make it harder for us to fight against disease.
Identifying & Collecting Chaga
Now that you know some of chaga’s health benefits and just want to run into the forest and harvest some for yourself, here’s a little information about identifying this super fungus. Katie, Chris’ aunt showed us where and how to properly identify and collect these little pieces of black gold. Why pay $4/oz if you can find it in nature, for free?
Chaga is a black fungus body that grows on white birch trees that favour cold weather. You can find chaga throughout Northern Canada, the US, Asia and Russia.
Commonly confused with tree burls (those big bumpy knots and growths growing off the side of trees), here are some of the distinguishing features of chaga:
- Ecosystem: chaga usually grows in boreal deciduous forests
- Host tree: you’ll find it almost exclusively on white birch trees
- Color: the outside of chaga is dry, cracked and black while the inside is an unmistakable golden-orange
- Shape: chaga has a cone-like extension whereas tree burls are generally rounded. This being said, the shapes and appearances for both chaga and tree burls can differ greatly and should not be determined solely by this feature!
Be aware that over harvesting is becoming a problem so don’t be too greedy, as it takes 5-7 years for chaga to grow!
Following a day of collecting chanterelles and lobsters, Katie showed us the tricks of the chaga trade. For years, she’s been preparing tea and infusions for chaga’s health benefits around her hometown of North Bay, Ontario. Katie spotted this beauty on a run (okay maybe not so beautiful) and helped us carefully remove it using a hatchet.
So you have your chaga. Now what?
The first step is to chop it into smaller and more manageable pieces (around 1 inch or less). Leave it out to dry for at least a couple of days (sunlight is ideal), or over a warm fire or in a dehydrator. Make sure it’s completely dry before storing to avoid any mold growth.
Use a spice or coffee grinder to break it down into even smaller pieces (it doesn’t need to be powder). Bring 1 tablespoon of chaga with 4-6 cups water to a boil, and simmer for 30mins to 2 hours. Strain and reserve chaga. You can actually use the same chaga up to four or five times as only about 20% of the bio-active compounds are released with each brew! And, if you don’t want to use it the next day, just pop it in the freezer.
Introducing the “Mosquito”: A Chaga Cocktail
Have you ever heard of a cocktail made with mushrooms?
Neither had I. Except for that time I was in Bali…,but we’re not talking that sort of mushroom cocktail.
Maybe that’s what opened our minds to experiment with a chaga cocktail?
This is our Northern Canadian take on the tropical Mojito which we all know and love. Check out the recipe below:
- 4 oz chilled and prepared chaga tea
- 6 oz white or dark rum
- 4 oz maple syrup (more or less to taste)
- 4 oz lime juice
- Soda water
- Handful of fresh mint leaves
Muddle mint and maple syrup. Combine the rest of the ingredients (except for soda water) in a larger shaker or mixing bowl with ice and stir (or shake) for 30 seconds. Remove ice and pour into cocktail glasses about ¾ of the way full. Top with soda water and serve.
There’s So Mushroom To Learn
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