The quest to offer diners a taste that’s unique, seasonal and truly local has the country’s chefs turning to their backyards — and Canada’s bountiful countryside features everything from ramps and rosehips to seaweed, dune pepper and sea buckthorn berries.
In Fredericton, N.B., spring is fiddlehead season and as soon as the ferns begin to sprout in the woods, foragers arrive at the door of local restaurants. “Local foragers have been calling non-stop for the past week,” said Sean Clayton, executive chef of BrewBakers when F&H caught up with him in late spring.
Foraging, which involves tracking down, picking berries and other wild plants, is a way of life for many families in places such as Newfoundland, and it’s not unusual to see wild game and local chanterelles on menus. At Raymond’s in St. John’s, N.L., chef and co-owner Jeremy Charles serves smoked moose tongue on his charcuterie board, while at Bacalau restaurant, also located in St. John’s, N.L., the snow crab springrolls are served with a mignonette sauce of bakeapples (cloudberries), mint and rice vinegar.
At the Hotel Paulin in Caraquet, N.B., Karen Mersereau, chef and innkeeper, has a forager who supplies the restaurant with ingredients such as wild-sea asparagus (samphire), cattails and wild Dugas oysters. She also organizes foraging trips for her guests, edible adventures to dig clams or forage wild mushrooms. On the opposite coast, Bill Jones, chef and proprietor of Deerholme Farm on Vancouver Island offers similar foraging days and dining for guests to enjoy the island’s supply of yellow chanterelles, morels and shaggy hedgehog mushrooms.
Some chefs turn to bigger distributors. Port Colborne, Ont.’s NorCliff Farms sells wild harvested (handpicked) fiddlehead greens — fresh and frozen — from its farm on the shores of Lake Erie. With 300,000 ostrich fern plants, NorCliff is the largest distributor in the world, retailing fiddleheads to grocers across Canada and the U.S. Forbes Wild Foods in Creemore, Ont., supplies chefs with everything from wild strawberries to Vancouver Island mushrooms, spruce tips and pickled ox-eye daisy bud capers. And d’Origina, a Quebec-based foraging company, sells “spices” from the boreal forest — dried and crushed roots and leaves, from Labrador Tea to peppery green alder and wintergreen powder.
But some chefs like to forage for their own ingredients. In Saskatoon, Christie Peters and Kyle Michael, chefs and owners of The Hollows restaurant, focus on local ingredients, whether they’re breaking down a whole heirloom pig for their house-made charcuterie or buying wild ingredients such as sea buckthorn berries — tart, orange berries from a spiny, fast-growing tree often found in prairie-farm shelterbelts. “At The Hollows we love wild foraged foods; our name is a reference to the hollows in the forests where we love to gather wild edibles,” says Peters, who offers local flax and sea buckthorn-berry pancakes on the brunch menu. “I go mushroom picking at least once a year and find my own chanterelles, morels and pine mushrooms,” she says. “We love wild sage and oregano that we use in our tomato sauce and breakfast sausages.”
Chef Rory Golden and sous chef Kevin Schmidtke know where the best patches of ramps (wild onions) can be found around Deerhurst Resort in northern Ontario. And, in Calgary, John Jackson, chef and co-owner of Charcut, and Andrew Hewson, a culinary instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, follow local naturalists into the woods to forage for wild foods, from spruce tips and dandelion greens to cow parsnip.
Jackson also sources boreal herbs from d’Origina, and recently served “Indian celery” (cow parsnip) atop an appetizer of white tuna at Charcut. “Foraging is really the ultimate form of local cuisine,” he says of these unique, seasonal products of the land.
Interview by Rosanna Caira