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The aromas and tastes of the wild

Hillsboro resident Gwen Balogh demonstrates her Garlic Mustard Pesto with Black Walnuts at the Wild Edibles Festival Saturday.  S. Stewart photo
Hillsboro resident Gwen Balogh demonstrates her Garlic Mustard Pesto with Black Walnuts at the Wild Edibles Festival Saturday. S. Stewart photo

Tastebuds were tickled at the annual Wild Edibles Festival in Hillsboro Saturday as experts shared recipes and uses for wild edibles found right here in Pocahontas County.

Seminars broke out in four locations and participants flocked to them to fill their heads with knowledge and their bellies with free samples.

First thing in the morning, the Hillsboro Senior Center filled with the smell of wintergreen as presenter Rich Laska prepared birch tea for his birch soda class.

Laska explained the historic uses for birch and the health benefits attributed to the tree.

“These have been traditional mountain chewing sticks,” he said. “The medicinal properties are probably another reason why I love to chew on it because I have very bad arthritis and these things contain an ingredient which is an anti-inflammatory. It also has anti-cancer properties.”

The birch tree used to be a rare tree because it grows on disturbed land, but as Laska pointed out, there is plenty of disturbed soil in the world today.

For the tea which becomes birch soda, Laska said it is ideal to use just the bark, but collecting the bark is a difficult task due to the size of the tree.

“I chop the branches into small pieces and put it into water,” he said. “You brew a tea out of it and let it cool down and you can either add a little bit of yeast – champagne yeast – to a bottle and cork it tightly, and drink it within a matter of days. It doesn’t really have a lot of alcohol in it unless you want it to.”

Laska said you do not want the tea to come to a boil. A telltale sign the brew has gotten too hot is the strength of the wintergreen aroma it emits.

“If the water is too hot, it gets into the air,” he said. “The downside is, it’s not in the water. The upside is, you are getting exposure to a medicine which is an anti-inflammatory. You should try to keep the temperature down to 160 [degrees]. Basically you’re sterilizing it. You’re giving it plenty of time for the flavors to get into the water.”

In order to allow all the flavors to enter the tea, Laska suggested putting the tea on at about 150 degrees and let it sit overnight.

Laska shared samples of birch soda he made earlier in the week. This version had a little bit of maple syrup mixed in to increase the “sugariness” of it.

Moving on to a more pungent aroma, Gwen Balogh shared her recipe for garlic mustard pesto.

Balogh explained that the garlic mustard plant is not native to North America. It was brought over by Europeans in the 1860s and grew rapidly.

“It is now one of the most dangerous invasive plants in all of North America,” she said. “It spreads rapidly into undisturbed woods. It produces a chemical that inhibits the fungi and the natural things in the soil that our plants need. Browsing animals, like deer, they don’t eat it. Deer will be grazing around it and they will eat everything but this.”

Although it is a pest, garlic mustard does have medicinal properties, including promoting heart health and aiding in weight loss.

It is a biannual plant, meaning it will flower in its second year, then go to seed and die. The second year leaves are tastier than the lower level leaves which are a different shape. Balogh said the best leaves are the top triangular leaves.

“It’s an amazing food. It’s good for you and it actually tastes good,” Balogh said. “One thing you can do is make this pesto. If you don’t like garlic, you’re going to hate it.”

Even if you don’t enjoy eating garlic mustard, Balogh urges everyone to uproot garlic mustard plants in the area because they are such a pest.

Below is the recipe Balogh shared.

Garlic Mustard Pesto with Black Walnuts

3 cups garlic mustard leaves, washed, patted dry and packed in a measuring cup. Use the young, more triangular leaves when the plant just begins to bolt as they are less bitter than the older, rounded leaves at the base of the plant. Leaf stems are okay.

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped.

1 cup black walnuts (toasted in oven or toaster oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes)

1 cup olive oil

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice (to help keep the fresh green color)

salt and pepper to taste (Balogh did not add salt and pepper during demonstration)

Optional: 1 dozen or so wild ramp green leaves, about six inches long, blanched for 30 seconds, then placed in ice cold water and patted dry.

Combine garlic mustard leaves, wild ramp leaves, garlic and walnuts in food processor and chop. With motor running, add olive oil slowly, then lemon juice.Shut off motor. Add cheese, salt and pepper. Process briefly to combine.

Serve warm over pasta or spread on crackers, crusty bread or warm flatbread wedges. It also makes a great topping for baked fish.

Keeps several days in the refrigerator in covered container. Freezes well.

Other seminars offered included: wild ginger, powerhouse salads, cooking with ramps, kimchi demonstration, maple syrup, wild mushroom cookery, surviving on wild edibles, tonics for spring and Native American wild edibles.

The Wild Edibles Festival is a program in the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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