When my brother and I were kids, my dad loved to take us on what he’d call “roadside lunches.” We’d get up early and drive, sometimes for hours, on dusty, deserted gravel roads. We’d listen to the radio and we’d sing. Then, suddenly, he’d pull the truck over to the side of the road. He’d hop out and we’d be right behind him, climbing around trees and across mossy bogs. When he found a spot that looked right, he’d pull out his jack knife and a bag (or his hard hat, if he didn’t have a bag), and we would follow his lead. One day, maybe we’d pick wild strawberries. Another time, it would be saskatoons or cattail hearts or high bush cranberries.
We didn’t know it then, but we were learning the basics of foraging — literally, the act of finding and harvesting edible wild plants. People have been foraging since the dawn of time, but today a new generation seeks to understand what grows around it and why it matters. Call it the Noma effect. The two- Michelin starred Danish restaurant — led by chef Rene Redzepi — has been on the list of the world’s best restaurants for years, serving dishes made with hyper-regional wild ingredients such as reindeer moss, locally harvested ants (yes, ants) and even sea salt hand-harvested from the North Sea.
A little closer to home, Julie Walker, owner of Full Circle Adventures, has been leading groups into the Alberta wilderness since 1987. She studied Alberta’s ecosystems, so she could teach people about the trees and plants along their forays. “Then I started reading more about edible and medicinal plants,” she says.
The more she learned, the more she wanted to know. She began incorporating the wild edibles — stinging nettles, wild violets, fireweed — into her own meals and soon brought that knowledge to her business. About three years ago, her wild edible hikes and walks really took off, and she now offers specialized tours for chefs and distillers. Paul Rogalski, chef and co-owner of Calgary’s Rouge restaurant, has long been interested in foraging. He says it isn’t something that you can easily do by yourself if you’re a beginner. “A lot of foraging is knowing what is and what isn’t edible. Some stuff is definitely not good for you,” Rogalski says.
That’s why he signed up for one of Walker’s excursions.
“Julie’s groups have been a great opportunity for me to get outside and learn, as well as take people out with me and treat them to this great unveiling of local, regional, wild ingredients.”
Rogalski got so into the experience, he’s now working on a TV pilot about wild foods with Les Stroud (Survivorman) and Edmonton forager and filmmaker Kevin Kossowan. And he says the experience has boosted his own culinary knowledge, as he has learned what to do with the likes of fireweed and cow parsnips. “I’m cooking things I’ve never cooked before, and I’m learning an incredible amount,” he says.
Rogalski notes that many of these regional foods are best when they first pop up after winter. By fall, they can be woody and past their prime. Fireweed, for instance, is wonderful sauteed when it’s just a few weeks old, he says, while the sweet cores from young cattails are delicious pickled or turned into fritters. “They’re amazing, more of a dessert than a savoury dish,” he says. “There’s a lot you can do with them and they’re really good.” Beyond just finding free food that tastes good, foraging brings us into nature and reconnects us with the natural world around us, Walker says. “I call it re-wilding yourself, reconnecting yourself to your landscape.”
Down the road, she hopes more of us Albertans will plant wild edibles in our own yards.
“I see real potential for knowing where our food comes from, in terms of our health and environment and water issues,” Walker says. “Growing wild food on a larger scale could help with those issues and feed us at the same time.” And harvesting those wild foods — as my dad and I know firsthand — is a nice way to bond, too.
10 BASIC RULES FOR FORAGING
- Before you eat something, confirm that it’s actually edible. You don’t want to be the person who ate the poisonous mushrooms. Or fed them to someone else.
- Go with someone you trust. You’ll gain confidence in your own abilities if you forage first with someone who’s experienced.
- Learn what’s edible and when it’s edible. Not everything is good all year.
- Don’t over-harvest. Leave enough for the plant to reproduce next year, and never take more than you’ll use.
- Only harvest the part you’re going to eat. In other words, if you only need the blossom, don’t pull up the entire plant.
- Don’t harvest rare or protected plants, even if they’re edible.
- Plant wild edibles in your garden, so you help the species thrive.
- Only forage healthy plants.
- Don’t forage near busy roads; plants can absorb heavy metals from car exhaust.
- Don’t forage on private land, unless you have permission.
photo courtesy of Julie Walker