In today’s over-processed food culture, a tomato racks up more road miles on its way to your grocery store than some people accumulate in a year. In an effort to put more nutritious, fresh fare on their table, Ontarians are turning back to the “gathering” method for sustenance – just as our ancestors did. Although a harvest from Ontario’s natural areas may not procure three square meals a day, there are plenty of delicious and healthy ingredients that will add flavour and interest to our meals. And most of these native plants are right under our noses when we take a walk through our favourite woods.
In late April, I went on a group guided hike into woodlots near Stratford with well-known forager and author Peter Blush of Puck’s Plenty. With a bag and scissors at the ready, we identified and collected a variety of delicious-tasting greens for a post-hike feast we indulged in at Stratford’s Milky Whey
With the rise of home gardens and small hobby farms for those with a desire to know exactly what’s on their plate, foraging is an increasingly popular, free, and less labour-intensive activity. . Foraging has long been a popular hobby or income supplement in Quebec; foraging expert Peter Blush, now based in Stratford, once operated a B&B in Quebec’s eastern townships, where he began foraging to add flare to his breakfasts. In that region, wild leeks are now an endangered species there because of over-foraging. However, when Peter moved to Ontario he was delighted to find that wild leeks – and a variety of other wild edibles – abounded in the woodlots of local farmers.
On our foraging trip, the group spent an hour a piece at two woodlots within five minutes’ of downtown Stratford. Peter leads several of these walks each year, organized by Tourism Stratford. On this beautiful, sunny day in late April (after a cool, late spring), we headed off into the trees, walking along the slightly muddy banks of creeks. After a few steps we quickly identified a common woodland plant, the not-edible and unfortunately pungent skunk cabbage, which gives off its namesake’s smell when stepped on. Dodging skunkweeds, we made our way down the overgrown trail, following Peter, who frequently stopped to point out edibles.
First up was fiddleheads. These gourmet greens are found on the menus of high-end restaurants and for a pretty penny in grocery stores (Peter says, “I don’t know what they put on the fiddleheads in the store to get them to stay fresh, but these natural ones have more flavour.”). It would be easy to miss the tufted mounds with just a hint of the curved green spine of the fiddlehead sticking up at the top. However, once one was pointed out to us, the group saw them by the dozen.
We also found trout lilies, with delicate yellow edible flowers and slightly sweet leaves (just taking a couple leaves from each plant), a perfect garnish for the top of a salad. Like the trout lilies, the wild leeks we came across were found in groups around a large tree. Peter advised only taking a few leeks (or trout lilies) from each bunch to ensure the health of the group (which take about five years to become a sustainable, mature group). Also, he advised to harvest leeks from the centre as the seeds from neighbouring plants will help repopulate that area more readily.
We also found some wild ginger, which is a thin root (not at all like the huge ginger roots in the grocery store, and with a more subtle flavour). After shaving off the outside bark of the root, the sinus-clearing smell fills the air.
We also found some stinging nettles, but, unlike the other edibles we found along the trail, you can’t eat these raw unless you fancy a stinging mouth.
After our walk, the group headed back to Stratford to have a refreshing lunch at the Milky Way Fine Cheese Shop. A sampling of the meal included stinging nettle and wild mushroom cheeses (of course) from Mountain Oak Cheese of New Hamburg, a salad that included our trout lilies, a wild leek quiche, and a wild leek soup made from Peter’s own recipe.
This was certainly a lovely way to welcome in spring and another year of plenty from Ontario’s soil.
For recipes using Ontario’s wild edibles, visit Peter’s website. For details on upcoming foraging trips (such as the one September 14), visit Stratford Tourism’s website. For ideas of other culinary activities in Perth County, see this planned trip.