Foraging for food is a return to our ancestral roots
As a species, humans have spent most of their time as hunters and gatherers. Our ancestors foraged for plants that they could eat, and hunted wild animals for tens of thousands of years. It has only been relatively recently that we lost our foraging skills when we developed agriculture and domesticated animals which allowed us to settle in one place and dispense with our nomadic ways.
Foraging is in our DNA, as it were. And while the activity can't exactly be called popular – in part because many foragers want to keep their sources secret – foraging for wild food has its aficionados among area chefs like Nick Benninger, Jonathan Gushue, Spencer Vella and Jason Bangerter, among others. In Stratford, a company called Puck's Plenty has regularly scheduled foraging expeditions that sell out.
On a beautiful fall day last week, I ventured out to the floodplain of the Grand River in North Dumfries with chef Steve Allen to do some foraging. He owns and operates Little Louie's Burger Joint and Soupery in Cambridge and says for him, foraging is a time to get away from business and relax. It's clear he loves the solitude and the simplicity of communing with nature, but foraging has a practical side too.
Fiddleheads, wild grapes
"This is crisp air, no bugs, peace, quiet. You can look through the forest and see everything from deer and groundhogs to wild turkey. And you get to come back with some choice edibles as well," said Allen.
For Allen, 48, the activity connects him to both the natural world and family. His mother took him foraging in Cape Breton, and he takes his 10-year-old daughter foraging now. "My mom had very strong ties to the land having been born in Cape Breton and living there her entire life," said Allen. "It was one of the few hobbies I got to share solely with her."
Depending on the season, the list of ingredients he finds can be long: fiddleheads, ramps, black walnut and birch syrup, wild grapes, wild mustard and mushrooms. He might also find a good piece of recently fallen hardwood and make his own cheese boards too.
It's true that foragers often look for mushrooms, but Allen is extremely cautious. The experienced forager rarely uses the fungi – and only ever with absolute certainty that they are edible. He consults with a network of experts and carries a well-thumbed field guide in his knapsack to ensure what he does pick is safe. As well, Allen performs what are called "spore prints" to help him identify mushrooms.
He says that there are several dangerous mushrooms in Ontario – in fact, we came across a deadly "galerina" species on our walk – and stresses that only veteran foragers who know exactly what they are doing should ever eat a wild mushroom. One thing you will notice about foragers: they eschew less precise common names for plants and prefer the accuracy of scientific nomenclature like "hericium americanum" (bear's head tooth mushroom) and "hypsizygus ulmarius" (elm oyster mushroom).
Allen cites the honey mushroom, a prolific variety in southern Ontario which grows at the base of hardwood trees possibly alongside the toxic galerina marginata: they look similar and only the trained eye can tell the difference between the two. A single galerina among a batch of honey mushrooms can harm or kill you warns Allen. The popular jack-o'-lantern mushroom is also dangerous and can look like other edible mushrooms, he adds.
"It's a scary hobby if you don't know what you're doing and don't have the proper people to assist you with it. If you're only 99.99 per cent sure about a mushroom, do not eat it. If you are not 100 per cent, do not eat it," he stressed.
Cautionary tales aside, foraging for Allen isn't so much an epicurean food trend for chefs as it is an opportunity to reach back into human history at the same time he can venture outside with his family.
"I love nothing better than spending time in the woods," he said.
"My daughter expresses the same feelings and when we head for a visit to Cape Breton, her first question is when are we going for a hike along the shore and then into the forest?"
Read more food columns from Andrew Coppolino