Forager Jenna Rozelle finds inspiration, awe and an abundance of wild foods in the woods and meadows of Maine and New Hampshire.
BY KATY KELLEHER / PHOTOS LITTTLE OUTDOOR GIANTS
Last September, Jenna Rozelle discovered a stand of beech trees that she had never seen before, located on her own 26-acre property in western Maine. The professional forager was scoping out potential hunting spots when she came across a pocket of trees crisscrossed with deer trails and moose beds, festooned with wild grapevines.
“It was mind-boggling, and yet humbling at the same time, that I had never seen this part of my own land,” she recalls over coffee at the Black Bean Café in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. “It was a good reminder for me—this beautiful place was here the whole time, and I just hadn’t seen it.”
Foraging, Rozelle explains, offers these opportunities for wonder on a daily basis. She is interested in gathering food, but her connection to the land goes deeper than simply taking plants and animals from it for human consumption. “Some days, I’m stressed out and I treat it like any other job. I’m grumpy and sweaty and bug bitten and torn apart by thorns, and I don’t appreciate my surroundings,” she admits. “But most days, I’ll have at least one moment when I’ll think, ‘Wow, this is where I get to be.’”
As Rozelle speaks, she’s interrupted frequently by fellow customers at the small-town café, who stop by to ask her questions about hunting and relay stories about rare birds they have spotted, strange plants they have seen. Her dark blond hair is loosely tied up, and her hunter-green rain boots are mud-speckled and well worn. She’s open and friendly, and it's no surprise that she seems to know everyone in this New Hampshire town. After all, she’s a local girl with deep roots in the community. Her grandparents are from Dover, New Hampshire, and her great-grandparents were from Berwick, Maine. Her mother grew up in Dover, and Rozelle spent her childhood exploring “in equal parts Maine and New Hampshire.”
Her unusual career choice is a natural outgrowth of Rozelle’s lifelong interest in the outdoors. At 31, she’s a passionate environmentalist, a voracious eater and a true naturalist. She can rattle off plant names like sports fans list players, and she talks about the New England woods with a mixture of awe, knowledge and unfiltered joy. She spends most of her time walking around the forests of seacoast New Hampshire and southern Maine with her Great Dane, Rigby, collecting greens, bark, berries and roots, which she sells to restaurants, breweries, meaderies and, as of 2016, home cooks.
Although much of her business comes from professionals in the food industry (regular customers include well-known Seacoast chefs like Matt Louis at Moxy and Evan Mallett at the Black Trumpet Bistro, as well as brewers at Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth and Sap House Meadery in Ossipee), Rozelle decided last year to begin offering mixed boxes of her finds as part of a CSA-inspired project she calls CSF (community-supported foraging). For $20, buyers get a weekly delivery of wild food items, including greens good for juicing, berries perfect for baking and herbs ready for infusion. The idea sprang, like many great ones do, from need: Rozelle’s mother was participating in Climate Ride, and Rozelle wanted to help raise funds for the cause.
“I was broke, but I wanted to contribute somehow,” she recalls. “My mom used to work at a chiropractic center in New Hampshire called the Wellspring Center for Wellbeing, and so she tossed out the idea that a lot of her customers might be interested in weekly packages of juicing greens or smoothie greens.”
However, Rozelle thought greens might “get old fast” for the Wellspring customers, so she began developing a format for the CSF boxes. Each week, she would collect berries, herbs, nuts, greens and aromatic shrubs. Every box would get a week’s worth of four different plants. Some weeks, she puts big bunches of purple wild grapes into the boxes; others, she stocks them with red autumn olives. Sometimes she finds knotweed, and sometimes she fills them with fragrant sprigs of sweet fern.
Each box costs $20 and she donates 30% of the proceeds to combat climate change. It’s a fitting partnership for such a nature-minded person, and the CSF experiment was a hit with Wellspring customers. Soon, thanks to the power of social media, Rozelle’s business began to grow as more and more foodies discovered her work.
“The first thing I realized was that many people didn’t know what to do with their ingredients,” she says. “So now, each week, as soon as I drop the boxes off, I’ll post a photo of the haul to Facebook, and in the comments section, I put instructions for each ingredient. Plus, there are plenty of people who are using this stuff in even more creative ways than I could think of, and they often share it there. Theoretically, I know what the plants can be used for, but I don’t always have time to do crazy stuff at home.”
While Rozelle eats plenty of wild foods at home in Parsonsfield, she tends to throw it all into a “big, nutrient-packed salad and go to town.” Sometimes, when she has extra time, she’ll whip up batches of strawberry knotweed jelly, or make cocktails with sumac and gin, or simple syrups infused with pine.
However, her favorite part of foraging isn’t eating her finds—“I don’t have that discerning of a palate,” she admits with a bubbling laugh—but rather from spending quiet time roaming the woods. Just the other day, she was sitting in her hunting stand in a hemlock tree when a flock of hermit thrushes landed on the ground.
“They started singing all at once, and it sounded like a fairytale. It’s my favorite bird and my favorite bird song—ethereal and flute-y, with a beautiful rattle at the end,” she pauses and mimics the sound, singing a soft trill of do-do-do-doodle-shushhh. Her eyes are bright but faraway as she remembers the strangeness of that encounter.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says. “It was magic.”
One of Rozelle’s favorite ways to use pine—an ingredient abundant in the winter months—is in a simple tea. “Many people like to harvest young evergreen tips in the springtime,” she explains, “because you get such a bright, citrus-y, evergreen flavor.” Often, mature pine can taste like turpentine, but Rozelle has a solution for that, too. “Instead of putting a branch or twig into the pot, I snip the needles of pine and spruce and pour hot water over them.” Other uses for pine including simple syrups and infused vinegars, which can be mixed with oil to create a seasonally appropriate salad dressing.