Meet the full-time forager filling local restaurants' mushrooming demand for wild food

Shawn Dawson has turned his passion for edible plants into a full-time job as demand for local wild food mushrooms.

A growing number of St. John's area restaurants are serving up once-dreaded local plants and fungi

Forager Shawn Dawson gathers stinging nettles to make pesto. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Forager Shawn Dawson has a nutritious solution for gardeners fighting weeds — eat them.

Dandelion greens can be used in salads, and Dawson gathers the weed's blossoms for a local brewery making a dandelion India pale ale.

His other favourites include the dreaded Japanese knotweed. The plant — also known as "mile-a-minute" — can ruin a garden and destroy a home's foundation, but Dawson says it's delicious.

"It's a pretty hated plant but I've learned to love it," said Dawson, who cooks with the plant's spring shoots, before they gets too fibrous. 
Dawson forages for Japanese knotweed shoots near St. John's. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Knotweed is just one of dozens of plants and mushrooms Dawson has used to turn his passion for wild food into a full-time job.

But it's not just weeds he's gathering, Dawson has recently found one of the world's more desired mushroom near St. John's: the morel, a fungus that isn't believed to grow naturally on the Avalon Peninsula.

Dawson found these morels on the Avalon Peninsula this past spring. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Dawson won't say where he found them but he did say they were in a garden. He says they may have been brought to the Avalon in some mulch brought in from western Newfoundland, where morels are found.

"Needless to say I was pretty excited when I found them. When I was messaged a picture of these, I dropped everything. Gone. I've been waiting my whole life to find these," he said.

Local food revolution

The growing movement towards eating locally foraged and produced foods has been led by Newfoundland chefs like Jeremy Charles of Raymonds.

Dawson is an important part of that movement. When chefs like Charles or Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage say they are using local produce, there's a good chance they got it from Dawson.

I won't burn out. I'm doing what I love.- Shawn Dawson

In fact, Dawson says demand from St. John's area restaurants is keeping him extremely busy. 

Dawson gathers river mint near St. John's. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

"[I work] from sunup to sundown usually and then I have the farmers' market on Saturdays and foraging tours on Sunday," he said.

"All day, every day, I would say."

It's idyllic on sweet, sunny, summer days but when he has many orders to fill Dawson has been known to forage in driving rain and wind.

Foraging seasons

During the spring, Dawson forages for emerging plants like river mint. Later, there are summer plants to harvest and in the late summer and fall months, Dawson transitions into serious mushroom foraging for species such as chanterelles, boletes and hedgehogs.

Dawson put some of the morel mushrooms he found into the hands of Newfoundland chef Jeremy Charles. (Instagram)

His own company is called the Barking Kettle, and he operates foraging tours out of the Murray Garden Centre in Portugal Cove, and he can be found on Instagram: flossmandandycabbage

"I won't burn out. I'm doing what I love," he said.

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