One-stop shopping—in the woods

Pawpaw fruit, sea asparagus, balsam jelly: Canadian chefs are crazy for ‘wildculture’

It’s a cornucopia of enticing goods right under our noses—and often under our soles. Wild foods have always been there, naturally, but most have gone unnoticed. Lately, a movement of forest-to-fork eaters is embracing native edibles that are as exotic as any import, and rating them as gourmet fare. As an offshoot of the eat-local dogma, and beyond the Canadian culinary clichés of wild blueberries, wild salmon, and maple syrup, there are hundreds of untamed foods gaining popularity.

“Wild is big,” declares chef Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier in Toronto. “As a chef, you want to think outside the box, to find something different and exciting.” He rhymes off a long list of sauvage items worked into his menus, from wild rose jelly—“it’s nice with scallops or with white fish such as halibut”—to ox-eye daisy capers, wild mustards, elderberry syrup, pickled fiddleheads and more. He’s particularly pleased with one Canadian amuse bouche—a little pot of pheasant and foie gras rillettes with tempura-style wild mushrooms, garnished with truffled cedar jelly and pickled spruce tips, and paired with a champagne flute of spruce beer. “Especially when chefs come in, it’s the showstopper.”

Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods, based near Creemore, Ont., supplies dozens of chefs, including Bangerter, with a range of uncultivated goods from across the country. He started his company 10 years ago and has seen the interest increase dramatically in the last two. “I think people are more concerned about knowing where their food came from.” Working with 30 to 40 foragers each year, he sources syrups, fresh vegetables and fruits—from the rare (sweet chestnuts) to the ubiquitous (wild highbush cranberries). “We can have over 100 different items,” he says of a good year.

“Food without farming” is entirely regional, based wherever conditions allow it to thrive. Depending on your locale, you can find cattail hearts, cloudberries, balsam jelly, chanterelles, sea asparagus, Labrador tea, the pawpaw fruit, black walnuts, edible flowers and birch syrup. And that’s for starters.

Since “wildculture” (as opposed to agriculture) is not a government-regulated sector, trust, knowledge and transparency are especially important to avoid toxic sources. There’s a saying about wild mushrooms, some of which are notorious killers: they are all edible—once. “You have to have relationships with the people who are doing the harvesting,” says Forbes, who often meets his suppliers in person. “You want them to be community-based. These are people who take a stewardship role with the land.”

Les Saveurs Oubliées is a local-themed restaurant in Charlevoix, a region in Quebec particularly rich in food culture. Chef Régis Hervé garnishes his salads with milkweed pods, makes his own spruce-tip jelly, preserves cloudberries, known locally as chicoutai, and says his menus are immersed in a multitude of wild, regional tastes. “There’s an education that is needed, but people want to taste, to know these ingredients.”

Wild flesh is another matter entirely: it’s illegal in Canada to sell wild beasts hunted in the woods. Chefs like Bangerter would love to get their hands on wild game. When he was in London, he says, “a hunter would show up at the back door with a box and 15 wild grouse inside it, still with the feathers on. It’s a whole different experience there.”

On Vancouver Island, a weekend conference hosted by the Buy BCwild initiative wrapped up its third annual festival in early October with reports of record attendance. The marketing project is based out of Royal Roads University’s Centre for Non-Timber Resources, an institute for “research and development projects on sustaining the wise use of the non-timber sector,” explains coordinator Tim Brigham. When he started in the field over a decade ago, he says people didn’t know about the potential of wild foods, except for mushroom and berry pickers. “Now, lots of different people are developing that awareness.”

Still, there are challenges for wild-food foragers, says Forbes. “A lot of remote and Aboriginal communities are disadvantaged because they’re sitting on some of the purest food you can find, but the cost is prohibitive to bring it to the market.” Also, he adds, these foods are still largely a mystery. “I brought chestnuts and persimmons to the farmers’ market and people didn’t know what they were. These are indigenous foods that grow in the area. That’s crazy!”

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