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Cattails have foodies wild over ‘nature’s supermarket’

On Prince Edward Island, forager Sylvain Cormier picks and supplies cattails for local chefs.

Light & Vision Photography/Louise Vessey

It may sound too good to be true: a nutritious wild food that's easy to find, can be eaten year-round and is palatable to even the pickiest of eaters. While cattails have long been a survivalist mainstay, locavore chefs and foraging foodies are increasingly discovering the potential joys and uses of this humble and versatile plant.

With their slender foliage and distinctive hotdog-on-a-stick silhouette in autumn, cattails have been a staple of First Nations across North America for hundreds of years, and for good reason. Known in foraging circles as "nature's supermarket," nearly every part of the plant can be eaten, from the starchy roots that can be cooked like a potato or pounded into flour, to protein-rich pollen from its puffed flowering heads that can be used in scones and biscuits.

More recently, cattails – you may know of them as bulrushes – have been appearing on highbrow menus across the globe. At Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen, diners were presented with whole raw cattail stalks, their tender hearts exposed and ready for hand-held munching. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles "culinary think tank" the Amalur Project served its cooked cattails with yogurt and a fine powder of rye and cumin at its four-week-long spring pop-up series.

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"Cattails are good all year long. They have different growth periods, so at different times you can do different dishes," says New Brunswick chef Alex Haun, who is currently serving scallops on a bed of braised cattail shoots at his St. Andrews restaurant Savour in the Garden. "The shoots have this amazing unique green, cucumber taste in the spring, and they play well with butter and white wine, which are pretty much my favourite things to cook with."

Later in the summer, as their stalks get thicker, Haun plans to pickle cattail hearts and serve them with gravlax.

On Prince Edward Island, forager Sylvain Cormier picks and supplies cattails for local chefs including Lot 30's Gordon Bailey, Terre Rouge's Dave Mottershall and chef and television host Michael Smith. Those chefs have been increasingly incorporating this traditional ingredient into their cooking, and Cormier's sales are going up.

While using the starchy roots is laborious (they need to be peeled, dried and crushed into flour), Ottawa chef Matthew Brearly says the end product gives tempura fritters an incomparable texture. "The cool thing is that it's a lot like cornstarch, with a nice consistency, so it thickens things up nicely."

For home cooks, Brearly suggests starting with the light-coloured ends of the cattail stalk, picked from fresh, clean water, slicing it into rounds and using in a quick stir-fry like bamboo shoots. "It actually tastes a bit like fresh-cut grass," he says, laughing.

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