Humber Village — It started out as an activity that might benefit his family, but Tony Voitk is pondering turning his hobby of harvesting chaga into a business opportunity.
Voitk moved to western Newfoundland from Hillsburgh, Ont., in 2010 after a downturn in the automotive industry forced him to give up the car part die-casting company he owned and operated a few years ago.
After losing his business, his wife Tiina was diagnosed with cancer and continues to battle the disease.
One day, while discussing the cancer-fighting benefits of antioxidants found in things like blueberries and pomegranates, Voitk’s father — well-known mushroom expert Andrus Voitk of Humber Village — told him about chaga.
Chaga is a parasitic fungus found primarily on birch trees, of which there are plenty in the forests of Newfoundland and Labrador. In some poorer regions of Asia and Eastern Europe, the irregular-shaped, black conk is harvested and ground into a tea.
Some studies have shown chaga has antioxidant levels which surpass those of blueberries and pomegranates.
Voitk began searching for the charcoal black burls on birch trees and he and his family have been drinking chaga tea on a regular basis ever since. He has had requests from friends who have heard about the tonic and he’s thinking about producing it on a commercial scale if there is enough interest.
“I mostly did it for my wife and family, but you’ve got to start somewhere, so we’ll see what happens,” Voitk said.
He has already dubbed himself “The Chaga Man” and has created a website — www.wix.com/ chagaontherock/chaga — expounding the benefits of chaga.
Voitk said he is not causing any extra stress to a tree by carefully cutting out the chaga. He uses a chisel or a hatchet, depending on the size of the conk he finds.
“I try not to go too deep that I wound the tree,” he said. “I try not to cut into the wood at all.”
The collected conks are dried for about two weeks and then ground into a fine powder.
“You can dry them out over your fireplace, but I’ve built a small, wooden box with a light and a fan in it so the hot air is forced over the chaga,” said Voitk.
He uses a manual meat grinder to pulverize the conk. The powder can be steeped in boiling water and used several times over.
He has yet to develop an affordable way to contain the powder, so for now, a cup of it entails dealing with some fine grit during the last few mouthfuls.
The tea is relatively tasteless, but Voitk said that just means you can add something to flavour it to your own taste. He is looking into how he might be able to package ready-made flavoured chaga tea.
“Personally, I like to drink it cold, like iced tea, with some apple juice in it or a teaspoon of local honey,” he said.
From his research, Voitk said chaga conks affects only one in every 15,000 or 20,000 trees. Some days, he will go out and find a couple of pounds of them, but there are days when all he finds are healthy stands of birch.
“It makes for a nice day out at least,” he said.
The Western Star