The edible forest: N.B. foragers reap a treasure trove of free food
A new wave of wild-food foragers is discovering the province's edible bounty
The weekend is coming, and Danielle Tranquilla is on a mission.
She knows The Palate – the downtown Fredericton restaurant where she is the head farmer and forager – will be hopping, and she has to get the produce ready.
So she heads to one of her favourite supply sources: the great outdoors.
There, along riverbanks and in lush, damp forests, she'll find the prized local ingredients diners are hungry for.
After three or four hours, she has several five-gallon pails full of fiddleheads, chanterelles and lobster mushrooms.
Although food prices are rising at a dizzying pace in grocery stores, Tranquilla's bill for this fresh, organic, local produce will be exactly zero dollars and zero cents.
But while the freebie aspect is a nice bonus, it's not the main reason she forages for food.
It's about "going local."
"It's a big draw," she says, noting diners are "thrilled" by the fact that so much of the food they are eating is as locally grown or foraged as possible.
Foraging has always had its devotees, but the ripple effects of the pandemic have dramatically heightened its appeal.
Community foraging groups are springing up on Facebook. People are increasingly seeking out the knowledge of Indigenous elders and other experts and tapping into the bounty of local delicacies, from fiddleheads to spruce needles to wild onions.
More and more diners and shoppers, concerned about food security, food supply and rising food costs, expect to find local ingredients on the menu and on supermarket shelves.
For Tranquilla, all of those things are a factor.
But it's also deeply fulfilling on a personal level.
There's nothing quite like the feeling, she says, of just being able to "put on your boots and head outdoors to see what New Brunswick has to offer."
Rooted in childhood nostalgia
Fredericton chef Matt Mackenzie's foraging roots run deep.
Mackenzie, the chef and owner of Ready to Eat restaurant at the Fredericton Boyce Farmers Market, grew up in Cape Breton and some of his fondest childhood memories are of foraging with his father, an avid outdoorsman.
"It's something that I did as a child that I found super peaceful and also very rewarding," he says. "And it's something that I do with my own children now."
He regularly forages for items to feed to his family, starting with his favourite chanterelle and lobster mushrooms.
"As soon as they're out I pick as many as I can, because they're everywhere. Chanterelle mushrooms are super easy for [a beginner] to figure out how to pick, because they're so distinctive," he says.
"Sauteeing them with a little thyme, butter and garlic is pretty well the best-tasting thing you can think of."
Spruce needles and tips, which he uses for tea and sauces, are always available, and within about three weeks, the fiddleheads will be out.
Ramps, a delectable, garlicky wild onion, are popping up now, and within a few months, Mackenzie will be able to harvest berries and chokecherries, which he uses for sauces and jams.
Later this summer, Mackenzie will be on the lookout for a particularly cherished treat: cattails.
Many parts of the plant, common almost anywhere there is a water source, are edible at different stages of development. Mackenzie's favourite part is the bottom of the cattail, which he boils and mashes.
"I pull up cattails and at the bottom of the cattail there is basically like a starchy banana," he says. "You can use it much like a potato, and it's very full of nutrients."
Asked to list some of the best spots to forage, Mackenzie hesitates.
"If I start outing places, people will get upset with me because they kind of covet their areas," he says with a chuckle.
"But what I will tell you is basically when you walk outside your door in New Brunswick, there's food available."
'There's a lot of food out there'
St. Mary's First Nation Elder Cecelia Brooks knows, perhaps better than most, how interest in wild-food foraging has taken off lately.
Brooks, whose childhood was steeped in wild-food foraging, has a degree in chemistry with a minor in biology, but she holds a passion for traditional plants used in ceremony, medicine and for food.
To this day, she not only forages year-round, but also leads wild-food walks and culinary experiences through Wabanaki Tree Spirit Tours and Events in Fredericton's Odell Park.
The tours have always been popular, but never more so than now, she says.
"I think it's a great thing," Brooks says.
"I think the young people especially are very keen to learn about these ways of feeding yourself without having to go to the grocery store or having to spend money on it, and getting kind of that back-to-the land movement we're seeing."
New Brunswick's forests and fields are richly suited to hosting that movement, fairly bursting with edible treasures.
"There's a lot of food" out there, Brooks says.
"Things that people don't think are edible. Things like bracken fern. I mean we think of that as a weed, but bracken fern is delicious."
With evident relish, she describes how she likes to prepare it.
"It can take on the flavours of other things, so like if you cook it with butter ... with meats, you add savoury spices to it ... it's delicious."
Then there are sunchokes, a knobby, nutty-flavoured root vegetable that looks like ginger and is hands-down one of Brooks' foraged favourites.
"I've been waiting for the ground to thaw out so I can dig out some more sunchokes, because they're really good with hummus," she says.
She's also fond of goldenrod, daisies, trout lily leaves, blue-beaded lily leaves — "they taste like cucumbers!"— wild mint, acorns, hawthorn berries.
She's especially partial to spikenard, a big, leafy plant that grows three or four feet tall and has peppery little berries on it that are "really just amazing."
Brooks uses those, and juniper berries, to season meat.
"Then in the winter, that's when we'll harvest the fir, the pine, the hemlock and spruce, and we use those for teas and for flavouring."
She understands it may all seem a little overwhelming to the beginner, but notes there is a wealth of knowledge available, everything from apps that can identify the plant you're looking at to field guidebooks to the expertise of Indigenous elders.
After all, she says, the food is there, in abundance and free for the taking.
"We all have to eat," she says. "And the more variety we eat, the better off we are as human beings."
TIPS FOR THE FIRST-TIME FORAGER
- Safety first: Make sure you have positively identified what you're about to eat before you eat it
- Start small: Try foraging for just one or two items at first
- Wash your foraged finds before eating
- Get yourself a good field guide, such as Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America
- Consult community experts, check out community groups on Facebook
- Download a plant-identifying app, such as iNaturalist
- Find a mentor who can teach you to safely and sustainably harvest