Walk into the snowy woods of Vermont in January and you’ll hear any number of things: the crunch of the crusty snow beneath your feet, a branch scraping against your jacket, chickadees calling to each other as they dangle from the birch catkins, perhaps an unhappy squirrel alerting all other residents of your presence. However, if you find a nice tree to sit against and just stay still for awhile, eventually the squirrel will stop chattering and everything will go silent. No birds. No wind. No sound. Quiet. Snowflakes drift through the air, floating down to the ground and land without the faintest hint of a sound. It is in this silence of the deep woods that the chaga mushroom grows.
To the untrained eye, it appears to be a crusty chunk of burnt wood protruding from the trunk of the tree. That black lump is actually one of the most powerful and sought after medicinal mushrooms in all the world. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is often reported to have some of the highest levels of food based antioxidants found in the natural world. It is currently being studied for its potential anti-cancer and immunostimulant properties. I could go on but there are too many other sites out there espousing the medicinal benefits of this fungus.
Since chaga has become all the rage in the holistic and natural medicine scene, demand for it has gone through the roof. There are many folks out there trying to make a buck by harvesting and selling chaga, and I can’t really say that I blame them. However, there is one thing that you should know about chaga before you buy from a dealer or harvest your own: it takes a long time for chaga to mature. Five years ago I removed a tennis ball sized piece of chaga from a yellow birch tree. I was careful not to cut into the tree itself and left a good chunk of the fungus behind. I’ve revisited this tree every year since to check its progress and though it has healed over, it still has not completely regained its mass.
The portion of the fungus that we see is not a fruiting body, it is a sclerotium, which is a hardened mass of hyphae (the mushroom version of roots) that have formed a protective crust. If an entire sclerotium is removed from a tree, you may risk damaging the fungus permanently or harming the tree itself. I recommend cutting only a portion of the growth, leaving some behind to grow back and being careful to not dig into the tree. You don’t need much to work with. A one inch cube is enough to make over a gallon of chaga tea and can be reused several times.
To find chaga, you will need to first find the birch trees. I have found it on yellow, paper, and black birches. There are some claims that it may grow on non-birch species, though these claims have often been disputed. Fungi magazine has a very detailed article on some of the chaga “look-alikes” that may grow on other trees: No, that’s Not Chaga. When scanning a stand of white birch trees, the black schlerotia stands out. If you are uncertain what you’ve found is chaga, break off a very small piece and look at the interior. The hyphae should be a shade of orange with a network of yellow lines running throughout.
This interior part of the chaga is the part that you actually want for making tea. The crusty, black outer layer holds many medicinal properties but it is also unpalatably bitter. If you are making a decoction or tincture, this may not matter so much since the primary usage is medicine meant to be taken in smaller doses. When using chaga as a beverage, be sure to scrape off the black part. I tried it once without taking the outer layer off. Think of the most bitter burnt coffee flavor imaginable and then multiply it by 10. I recommend removing this layer and cutting the rest of it up before it has a chance to dry out as it will likely require the use of power tools if you don’t. I usually process it the day of harvest with the use of a heavy duty kitchen knife and a sturdy cutting board. Pieces about one cubic inch are the perfect size for me since I tend to make large batches of tea and store it in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
For the simplest form of chaga tea, I simmer one cube in a gallon of water for at least an hour. The color should be a deep caramel color. It will give off this color within the first half hour but to extract maximum medicinal properties, longer exposure to heat is needed. The flavor is reminiscent of the woods from which it came, earthy with the faintest whisper of vanilla. Lately I have tweaking this basic recipe, adding a stick of cinnamon during the simmer.
This past week, the Man Cub and I took it up even another notch and attempted a few batches of chaga chai. For this, we took 2 cups of the cinnamon chaga tea and added 2 cups of whole milk from Sweet Rowen Farmstead. The Cub got to add the spice: 1 crushed cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 3/4 of one freshly grated nutmeg, 3 crushed cardamom pods, 4 whole cloves and 1/2 teaspoon of powdered ginger. We allowed this to steep on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. This was poured through a fine meshed strainer and then into individual mugs. We don’t have a steaming device but I still
wanted to have some froth for the top. So, I heated up another cup of whole milk and turned off the heat right as it was starting to give off steam. Tilting the sauce pan slightly, I stuck in the immersion blender and commenced to blend the heck out of the milk until it gained a thick froth. This was carefully poured over our mugs to top off our drinks. A sprinkling of cinnamon and cocoa powder added a little flair and a pleasant scent to greet our noses as we took the first few sips. For an extra decadent version, you could do a chocolate chaga chai by adding a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder and a drizzle of maple syrup to the mix.