Forest Treasures: Foraging in Mountain Forests
TEXT: NANE STEINHOFF, C.C. SCHMID
Forests are a very special treasure of nature. They provide habitat for numerous plants and animals. They are also vital for us humans and provide valuable ingredients for beneficial products. Pines and spruces, birches and larches alleviate physical complaints and are also the basis for almost forgotten recipes in the kitchen.
We visit Stefanie Mattig – a young, active herbalist in the fourth generation. She lives in Bettmeralp, a small, car-free Swiss mountain village located high above the Aletsch Glacier. She takes us on an exciting walk through the fairytale mountain forests of the Aletsch Arena.
We are far up, on the Bettmeralp high plateau in Valais at an altitude of 2,000 metres, surrounded by powerful, fragrant nature. The path leads through meadows, in the southern distance an impressive number of four-thousanders are stacked up to create a fantastic backdrop of cloud-white dappled spring blue. Then, a little further, you pass trees, often needle-dark, sometimes bright as leaves. For Stefanie Mattig-Wirthner’s guests, it is a typical mountain forest that one often encounters here, in the middle of the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage region. But Steffi sees much more in the firs and spruces, downy oaks, larches and pines, which grow in different compositions depending on the location and altitude. For her, they are a: pharmacy, pantry, place of strength: “If you listen to your heart here, you will have a connection to Mother Earth.”
“How about some chewing gum?” The hiking group looks skeptical. Very few people know that tree resin, mixed with birch sugar and a few other ingredients, is a natural alternative to the common microplastic petroleum product. Or that juniper is the basis for a warming ointment that relieves tension. That a tincture can be made from pine cones that help with bruises and that the root of mountain clove root relieves the symptoms of inflamed gums. “Modern man has forgotten all of this. We have to learn to see again,” says Steffi. And instructs: “Close one eye, observe the forest, use all your senses.” Hear, see, smell, feel. This is how the forest takes on a shape and reveals itself anew.
Despite all the joy in the well-stocked forest larder, Steffi also warns urgently: “Never eat plants that you don’t know.” Because most children have never learned this and many adults have long forgotten it: how to recognize whether something is edible or not. “The modern diet has an excess of sugar – that’s why people no longer know the effects of bitter substances.” The inviting red berries of daphne, for example, are “super poisonous”. And Steffi adds that you should only pick and harvest as much as you need. The fresh fir, spruce or larch tips in spring, for example, speckled light green in the dark forest, are important for the growth and development of the trees. They can be used in a variety of ways, as syrup, tincture, honey, for enjoyment and as medicine against coughs or spring fatigue. Larch is also a jack of all trades, especially the resin from which larch turpentine is made. “For me,” says the herbalist, “it contains the scent of the forest.” This makes her all the more careful when extracting the resin behind the bark for her natural cosmetics and smoking courses so as not to damage the trees.
Her guests will learn a lot more today, about juniper honey and how it is made. About the birch, whose leaves and buds can be used to make teas and spices, shampoos and bath additives, and whose wood contains healthy sugar. And how to use resins for smoking to “open and clarify the heart.” It is this spiritual view of things that Steffi is sometimes ridiculed for. But she always lets nature speak: “At the end of the forest walks, everyone is completely relaxed – and understands me.”
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