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foraged foods

Armed with a collection of 30-litre plastic jugs, Andrew Shepherd dons his hip waders and steps out into the clear, salty waters off Vancouver Island's Cherry Point.

He fills the jugs with sea water and hauls them into his car, which local spectators have now come to nickname "the rolling beach."

"I've got lots of fans," Mr. Shepherd laughs. "There's always some guy sitting there with a beer going, 'You know, you can't drink that, son.' I'm like, 'Yes, I know. Thank you very much, sir.' "

The water he collects is boiled off in large vats in his front yard to extract batches of unrefined, artisanal sea salt.

Mr. Shepherd's Vancouver Island Salt Co., which he started early this year, is touted as the first in the area to supply this natural resource to retailers, home cooks and professional chefs. But he's not the only one to recognize a growing market for wild, regional, hand-harvested ingredients.

Capitalizing on nature's bounty, operations like Mr. Shepherd's are bringing foraged foods into consumers' pantries, introducing people to new ways of cooking with items found just beyond their backyards.

These days, the wild ingredients available at farmers' markets and grocery stores extend beyond foraged mushrooms and berries. It's now possible to stock your kitchen with familiar products you might never thought of consuming before - you can your replenish your spice rack with spikenard and powdered wintergreen from the forests of Quebec, flavour your soups with seaweed harvested off the beaches of the Strait of Georgia, and top your salads with milkweed pods from the Central Canadian outback.

Sequoia Lesosky, whose Northwater Seaweed harvests native varieties of seaweed from the rocks and waters north of Campbell River, B.C., says interest in his business has flourished in recent years, as home cooks and restaurant chefs experiment with new ingredients.

"There's a lot of people trying it who would never have thought of trying it, and are amazed when they do," Mr. Lesosky says of his seaweed, noting that his customers use it in stocks and fish chowders, steam it into rice, or use it as a dried condiment to sprinkle onto salads.

Meanwhile, those who are already familiar with cooking with seaweed are happy to find wild product harvested locally, rather than having to buy imported product from the Sea of Japan, he says.

"It seems to me people are definitely more interested in whole food, raw, untainted [ingredients] And people definitely want to know where it's from and how it was handled," Mr. Lesosky says.

The forest products co-operative, Coopérative forestière Girardville, in Quebec is tapping that demand with its new label of d'Origina wild herbs and spices, like burdock root and sweet gale seeds, hand-picked from the boreal forest.

To keep up with orders, d'Origina has already tripled its production since its launch in October, says Éric Chiasson, head of sales and marketing. For now, its products are sold in grocery stores and gourmet specialty shops around Quebec and via the Internet, but Mr. Chiasson says there are plans to expand distribution to other provinces.

Many of the products d'Origina is marketing have long been part of aboriginal diets, Mr. Chiasson says, but they are only now being rediscovered by mainstream consumers. A taste for "terroir," or a sense of place, combined with a growing aversion to mass-produced foods, has created a niche for such ingredients, he says.

Of the 21 varieties of native plants that d'Origina harvests, some have similar flavours to spices that are found in India and beyond, Mr. Chiasson says. For example, pine forest spikenard tastes of eucalyptus and cardamom, tansy has a curry flavour with hints of saffron, and meadow parsnip root gives a cucumber-like aroma with a grapefruit aftertaste, he says.

But since Mother Nature can be unpredictable, so can be the availability and quality of products grown in the wild. "If the product is not good, we don't pick it," Mr. Chiasson says. "We don't push nature."

Back on Vancouver Island, Mr. Shepherd says his goal is to one day see bags of his local sea salt in kitchen cupboards across B.C., next to people's collections of specialty salts from Portugal or France.

He describes his foraged product as having a smooth flavour that sets off a mouth-watering sensation at the back of the tongue, instead of the sharp, front-of-the-tongue burn typical of processed salt.

As a former chef, Mr. Shepherd originally started extracting the mineral for his personal use. Impressed with his resourcefulness, friends and neighbours quickly encouraged him to turn his hobby into a business.

"I think a lot of people are almost shocked that it's never been done before," he says, noting that life on the island revolves around salt water. "I think people are almost like banging their heads, like, 'Aw, how come nobody's done this before? It's 2010. Finally somebody's got a sea-salt operation on Vancouver Island?' Like, of course, right?"