By Tensie Whelan
I recently had the most edifying edible experience of my lifetime. Last month, I opened my family farm in southern Vermont to host a Rainforest Alliance Eco-trip for a small group of supporters and some culinary masters, including professional forager Tama Matsuoka Wong, chefs Justin Bogle, Steve Eckerd and Trevor Budny, and mixologists Bradford Lawrence and Adam Olland. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend of sustainable food, foraging and forestry.
The trip was born out of a desire to connect Rainforest Alliance supporters to our work in action. Over the past several years, we have sent donors on Eco-trips from Ecuador to Kenya in an effort to facilitate direct engagement with farmers, foresters and tourism entrepreneurs. This weekend was a chance for me to share the meaningful work that is happening in our own backyards.
We began our trip at Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park, where the Rainforest Alliance has certified 550 acres of forestland to the Forest Stewardship Council’s social, environmental and economic standards. Our group visited a horse logging operation and watched as a young logger coaxed two draft mares in and out of tight spots, sawed down a tree in just a few minutes, dropped it precisely where it would do no damage to other trees or waterways, chained it to a small cart and encouraged the mares forward at a staccato clip.
After our forestry immersion, we were ready for a foraging adventure. Tama, who started her career as a corporate lawyer and has since written the book, “Foraged Flavor,” on finding and cooking foraged food, led us on a walk through my farm. Barely 10 steps from the barn, she found galinsoga, a small leafy green with yellow flowers. It’s a gardener’s nightmare but a forager’s dream—a tasty green to sauté or put in salads. We also discovered deep purple sumac, which makes a delicious sweet juice, and my personal favorite, wood sorrel, a small plant with a crisp, lemony taste. If ever I have to go into survival mode, I am kidnapping Tama; in the meantime, I’m taking advantage of a bounty I never knew existed.
Returning to the house, we met the chefs who had been cooking all day. They had miraculously built an outdoor woodfire grill using only cinder blocks and a grill grates.
The team festooned the dining room with wildflowers, hand-written menus and a Blue Gin Fizz – truly the most delicious cocktail I have ever had the pleasure to down. And down it we did. Within minutes, everyone wanted a second. My now favorite mixologist had spent the entire day experimenting with foraged ingredients–wild hyssop and juniper made the cut–to top Barr Hill Gin, a Vermont-made honey gin donated by beekeeper and spirits master Todd Hardie of Caledonia Spirits.
While enjoying a foraged green salad, guests reflected on their experiences with sustainability. Janice Bini said it best: “It’s not often we have an opportunity to relax with CEOs, entrepreneurs, entertainers, a professional forager, renowned chefs and restaurateurs. We can all be enlightened [by outside] perspectives.”
Then came the second course (and my favorite dish)–a line-caught rainbow trout prepared on the grill with chanterelles and chicken of the woods, an orange shelf mushroom that Tama found during our visit to the forest.
The next course, what Steve called “happy pork,” came from a small local farm and was simmered all day over the pit. And the piece de resistance–the dessert–featured Rainforest Alliance Certified™ ingredients from around the world: fire-grilled Chiquita bananas with a homemade ice cream of chocolate and coffee.
After dinner we gathered under the Milky Way to talk with the chefs about their hopes and aspirations. They impressed us with their perception of service: not just service to their diners, but service to their communities, local farmers and the planet. Guest Hans Tester later told me that he has “never really experienced such diverse individuals from such disparate backgrounds coming together and being thrilled by each other, learning from each other and respecting each other’s opinions.”
Another guest, Lisa Barlow, said in a follow-up note, “I am still counting the lessons learned…Every time I open the door and take a step I see food. That pesky clover hogging my window box? Yellow wood sorrel that will dress tonight’s fish! But of even greater resonance is your idea that not only artisanal chefs and small restaurants with local mandates can act responsibly. Everyone in the food industry can.”
It was an honor to have the chance to learn from all of the diverse and interesting people who joined me—and to eat really well while doing it!
To learn more about opportunities to experience the Rainforest Alliance’s work in action, please contact Diana Van Der Jagt.