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Foraging for delicacies becoming more popular among chefs, foodies

09/10/2012 09:00 EDT | Updated 11/10/2012 05:12 EST
LONDON, Ont. - The foods of forest, meadow and stream that sustained Canada's native population centuries ago are now being featured in some of the finest restaurants in the country.

Some might be expected, such as nuts, berries, wild mushrooms, fiddleheads and ramps (wild leeks), but others are usually considered weeds, like Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot), milkweed pods, burdock roots and cattail hearts.

When Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods in Toronto first approached chefs with foods foraged in rural Ontario, some showed immediate interest, he says. Others turned him away, saying his products were "too exotic." He laughs at the irony.

As a child, Forbes gathered wild raspberries and mushrooms with his mother. His interest was rekindled as an adult when he told a story about picking chokecherries for his parents' chokecherry wine and his listeners had never heard of them.

"I thought, 'This is really serious when people don't know what their natural environment is,' especially things like chokecherries because they're everywhere."

He started his company in 1998 and now has people who forage for him "from Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia) to Labrador" and into the far north. He gets some fresh, some dried and some frozen and sells to restaurants around the world and to consumers online and at Toronto-area farmers markets.

Since he began, interest in foraged foods "has grown a lot," he says. It started "mainly with chefs and foodies" when the move to slow food expanded to regional and then to indigenous food. Now that more foraged foods are readily available, interest among the public is growing too.

"When I first brought puffballs (basketball-sized mushrooms) to market 10 years ago, people looked at them and wondered whether you could really eat that thing," Forbes says. "Now they line up for them."

There are also numerous books about foraging and an increasing number of cookbooks devoted to wild foods.

High-profile Canadian chef Brad Long regularly includes foraged items on his menu at Café Belong at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto. For example, he uses little bits of Queen Anne's lace flowers in salads — "very intense" — or boiled with sugar to make a hard candy, wild nuts and ricotta cheese to make ravioli, cooked greens and roots as vegetables or birch syrup or black walnut syrup as sweeteners. Maple syrup is also considered a foraged food.

"There's a lot of food here that most people have no concept even exists," Long says.

He went foraging with Forbes one day for ramps and fiddleheads (the furled fronds of a young fern) but also ended up with an armful of marsh marigolds, trout lilies (whose tubers can be eaten raw or cooked) and a type of mushroom that grows like a knob on elm trees.

Foraging is hard work and there's "also a lot of danger in it," Long says. Many types of wild mushrooms are poisonous, as are many other plants or parts of plants. The leaves of marsh marigolds, for example, cannot be eaten until they have been boiled in several changes of water to remove the toxins. Unripe elderberries and all other parts of the plant except the flowers contain toxins that metabolize into cyanide.

Probably the safest way for consumers to access foraged food is to buy it. But Long and Forbes say for those wanting to try it, it is absolutely essential to first educate themselves about plants, what is edible, what is not and how to prepare them to make them safe to eat.

Finding places to forage can also be a challenge, Forbes says. He does not recommend urban foraging because of the pollution and because in the past, now-banned chemicals such as lindane and DDT were spread over wide areas and continue to exist in the soil. Some parks are built on landfill sites, making things that grow there unsuitable to eat. Many conservation areas do not allow foraging and others require permits. Some county forests, however, allow mushroom-picking.

Even in the countryside, many areas "lost" their wild foods when they were cleared for agriculture or due to grazing cattle. But Forbes lives in a less developed area of the Niagara Escarpment in central Ontario and says there is no shortage of sites there to forage. But you have to get permission from the landowners.

Sustainability of the products is a major issue, say Forbes and Long.

"I think I'd be horrified if everyone started foraging," Long says. "That's not sustainable. Understand that what you're doing is fun, but it's also part of a preservation system. If you want to perpetuate it, you also have to be part of the protection of it."

Forbes says, "If you're only supposed to take five per cent (of a given patch of a certain food) that's fine if you're the only person digging. But some things (such as wild ginger and some other root crops) are susceptible to over-harvesting."

It's not a problem with most berries, he says, but wild leeks, for example, grow in a seven-year cycle and reproduce very slowly.

Nevertheless, Forbes and Long say there's a great satisfaction in gathering and cooking foraged items.

"Wild food is pretty pure. It's more organic than organic," Forbes says.

"There's a special feeling when you cook a meal for friends or family," Long says. "It becomes exponential when you forage for food to cook the meal. It's just that much more intense, that much more connected to the land around you."

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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