At my childhood summer camp in Pine Lake, Alta., you could water ski or take arts and crafts, sing in the musical or ride a horse. But sometimes on a cool, cloudless morning, I would skip the programming altogether and disappear into one of the scrubby woods that dotted the property. There, alone or with a reluctant friend in tow, I'd comb through the bushes for an hour or two, hiding from counsellors and filling my canteen with the juicy Saskatoon berries that grew wild and ripened to a dark purple-black toward the end of July.
This self-directed foraging felt like a strange, almost embarrassing way to voluntarily spend my mornings at camp. How times have changed. We now live in an age of collective yearning for connection to our food supply.
And while farm-to-table dining has shifted from offbeat to omnipresent and you can get a taste of foraging's benefits in an increasing number of trendy restaurants right now, the experience itself – searching a sun-dappled corner of forest or a wind-swept beach for edibles while the rest of the world falls away – is prompting more and more individuals, from chefs to hobbyists, to grab their baskets and make a beeline for the wild.
"I love foraging because it makes me feel like a part of something bigger than myself," says Tyler Gray, who co-owns Vancouver-based Mikuni Wild Harvest, a foraging business that supplies chefs in Canada and the U.S. with wild specialties such as coastal red huckleberries, mountain rose apples and golden chanterelles. "It's such a resonant feeling out in the woods. You lose yourself and you turn your brain off," adds Gray, who does much of his foraging in the Lower Mainland.
Eastern Canada, meanwhile, offers its own tantalizing treasures. Gerard Mather and his wife, Catherine Jacob, came to Canada from Belgium eight years ago and have been exploring the boreal forest near their adopted home in Gaspé, Que., ever since. Their company, Gaspésie Sauvage, collects an impressive array of products, from swollen stalked cat mushrooms to beach peas, sea asparagus and even lichens. They see it as more than just a business, however. For this family, foraging is a way of life. "We have three boys ages 15, 13 and nine. They live with us and they share our work," says Mather. "We try to be as self-sufficient as we can." In addition to foraging for mushrooms, fruit, wild vegetables, spices and teas, the family maintains a large garden for itself and raises cattle for meat and dairy.
While the romance of it all can be intoxicating, foraging is, in several ways, as practical as it is poetic. After all, wild foods are free for the taking. They're organic and typically more deeply flavoured than cultivated varieties. And since they're pesticide-free and sustainable, they're as good for our health as they are for the environment. But before you dash for the woods, consider a few caveats. "Early on, there can be a false sense of security," warns Gray. Exercising caution about what you're picking is essential or you might get a mouthful of something nasty – or poisonous. "I picked things I thought were lamb's quarters and they definitely weren't," he recalls. The second concern, he says, is that you can become so captivated by what you're doing that you lose all sense of space and time. "I can't tell you how many times I've slept out in the bush because I wasn't paying attention to my watch or where I was going." Be sure to carry a map and pepper spray or bear bangers, and don't forget to listen for footfalls that aren't your own. "I've been charged by grizzly bears and once I saw a bull moose coming through the forest like a freight train."
Mather also emphasizes the proximity between delicious and deadly and believes a person should be well-prepared before heading into the woods. "You must go to a workshop or train with a mycological society," he says, especially if you're interested in foraging for mushrooms. "You can't choose a mushroom by one photo in a book. This is something I've been learning all my life."
For Gray, like Mather, foraging is more than just a job. He happily shares his love of the forest with friends whenever he can, turning the foods he finds into fresh, creative dishes like the ones shown here. To turn your own foraged finds into a feast the next time company's coming, follow Gray's lead: Use wild foods soon after you've harvested them and keep the seasoning and plating simple to really let the ingredients shine.