Chronological / Destinations / IFWTWA Trips / United States / Washington

Forage-To-Table: Finding Your Food

Expert forager Jennifer Hahn explains how to find wild foods

Expert forager Jennifer Hahn explains how to find wild foods

It’s become quite fashionable for trendy restaurants to tout “farm-to-table” in describing their menu selections. It’s the “think global, act local” mantra writ large across discerning menus worldwide and the feeding frenzy has seemingly just begun. Consumers today are more discriminating and willing to pay more for fresh, organic food, are more conscious of eating healthier, and see the benefits of supporting local farms and farmers.

But would those same picky patrons barrel through brambles to forage their own food?

On a recent IFWTWA press trip to Bellingham, Washington, hosted by the Bellingham/Whatcom County tourism department, a group of discerning foodies and ravenous travel writers had the chance to dive into the “city of subdued excitement” to learn more about the quaint city nestled along the tranquil shores of Bellingham Bay, savor the local cuisine, and go foraging for food with an expert guide to gather ingredients for a gourmet group meal.

Before setting out on our wild food hunt, we met our trusted guide, Bellingham local Jennifer Hahn, an avid author, teacher, naturalist and frontier forager—a modern day Renaissance woman with the ethereal glow of an adventurer and the eternal spirit of a romantic poet. A naturalist at heart, Hahn’s love for the wilderness began at an early age when she went camping with her family, searching nearby fields and streams for ripened berries and fresh-caught fish, a childhood scavenger hunt with edible rewards. She loved the challenge and excitement of what treasures she might find and the freedom and fresh air of the outdoors.

Foraging with Expert forager Jennifer Hahn in her backyard

Foraging with Hahn in her backyard

What began as child’s play soon became her life’s passion. Hahn started out collecting plants, berries and fruits from the sea, mainly as a supplement to her diet. All that changed one fateful trip when she and a former boyfriend set out on an outdoor adventure and soon ran out of food. Forced to rely on nature as their supermarket, Hahn collected whatever edible ferns, fish and fennels she could find to sustain them.  It was then that she had a life-changing revelation: not only could she survive on what she found in the wild, she could actually thrive on it.  Since that trip, Hahn relies on gathering wild foods when hiking or kayaking in order to keep her pack light and now forages as a main food source whenever possible.

Foraging is not a job for the pampered chef. It’s buggy, brambly and time-consuming work, requiring patience, persistence and a sense of responsibility—the latter a key component in Hahn’s foraging practice. She relies on the science of sustainable foraging, a “take what you need, leave the rest” approach that helps ensure the surrounding habitat will continue to thrive. Before picking anything, whether plants or plant parts, the “1-in-20” rule must be applied: only collect one entire plant if you have identified at least twenty. If there are fewer plants, take none. Partake, Hahn says, but protect and preserve. Mindful of the plant’s life force and gratitude for the harvest, Hahn takes time to pause and offer thanks before picking anything, acknowledging the bounty that is about to be received along with blessings for continued growth.

Expert forager Jennifer Hahn displays a bucket of fresh-picked red huckleberries

Hahn displays a bucket of fresh-picked red huckleberries

Our search started in Hahn’s back yard, a magical forest dense with grand maple trees, whispering firs and ferns and carpets of lush moss. We were transported into a chapter from a Tolkien book, Hahn leading the journey with wide-eyed excitement like a wizard sharing a mystical secret. First, she pointed out the coin-sized spiral fronds of fiddlehead ferns, packed with as much protein as venison or duck, chock full of vitamins and minerals and perfect grilled, fried in tempura or dipped in fondue. Next, we were introduced to whorls of licorice fern, also called sugar root due to its sweetness with subtle hints of anise and honey and ideal for steeping in tea. The shamrock-shaped wood sorrel we sampled was sour at first taste due to the high levels of oxalic acid but ended with a refreshing, lemony lift. We carried containers to gather our goods: piles of thick-skinned red huckleberries, juicy, plump blackberries and purple-black salal berries, plucked from their branches like charms hanging off a bracelet. Cinnamon-colored curls of madrona bark were collected from the ground beneath the madrona trees, the oversize pencil-like shavings from the evergreen hardwoods carefully placed in bags for the trek home.

Wild blackberry soup with licorice fern creme fraiche

Wild blackberry soup with licorice fern creme fraiche

That night, we feasted on our foraged finds at downtown Bellingham’s premier farm-to-table restaurant, Ciao Thyme, owned and operated by Jessica and Mataio Gillis.  We savored each dish with a sense of pride and excitement, our hard work plated before us as artistic, delicious cuisine: the wood sorrel in the clam raviolini adding a citrusy pop to the dish; the hint of licorice fern crème fraiche balancing the tartness of the wild blackberry soup with a subtle, savory sweetness. The finale of our feast concluded with a delicious petite crab apple galette with dandelion root ice cream, drizzled in a sweet madrona bark caramel, the wisdom of Hahn’s words echoed in each bite: “If you do the picking, wild foraged food doesn’t get more local.”

Special thanks to the Bellingham/Whatcom County tourism department ( for arranging the trip and Jennifer Hahn for her expertise in wild food foraging.

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  1. Michael Hultquist Michael Hultquist says:

    An excellent article. Thanks for sharing. It looks like it was a great trip, very educational and a lot of fun. I’m thinking Jennifer Hahn would do well on “Survivor”.

  2. Gayle McCarthy Gayle McCarthy says:

    Thank you, Michael. I am glad you enjoyed the article. It was a foraging first for me!

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