An appetizer-sized leopard frog leaps across the grass, only to be captured by a little girl. “No, no, it’s a frog, we’re not going to eat him,” says outdoor educator Barret Miller.
At a Hunger Games-inspired evening of archery and foraging at an outdoors education centre in Winnipeg, the participants are outdoorsy types who like hiking and camping.
Building on the popularity of the Suzanne Collins trilogy, the workshop has been marketed as a chance for would-be Katniss Everdeens to shoot arrows, then learn how to steep willow bark tea (which contains salicin, a natural pain reliever that would be useful if your small plane crashes, the pilot has a sprained ankle and the wolves are circling).
Workshop participants say they are discovering the real taste of Winnipeg as they savour grassland plants like wild mint, licorice, and chocolate-flavoured wild sunflowers. For 20-year-old Kirsten Brenner, this is a fun evening out. “I go hiking. I like spending time outside, and I wanted to know more about Canada’s outdoors.”
Across Canada, from big cities like Vancouver to small towns in Labrador, walks and workshops to learn about wild edible plants are growing in popularity. For many, identifying berries and mushrooms is just another way to enjoy the outdoors, but locavores, foodies and chefs are also eager to try the next obscure ingredient.
Miller leads the edible-plant workshops at Winnipeg’s Fort Whyte nature centre, as well as weekend lessons in partnership with foodie blog Savour Winnipeg. He shows how to prepare a grasshopper by pinching off the head and removing the wings and legs; he says you can eat it raw, but he prefers it cooked. He speaks glowingly about the myriad ways to prepare cattails growing in the nearby marsh. This late in the season, the raw stalk tastes chewy, like celery strings, and a little salty. Miller likes to harvest them sooner when they’re more tender, dip them in bread crumbs, pan-fry with bacon and then serve them at summer barbecues. “Everybody thinks if you’re interested in wild, edible foods, you must want to eat healthy,” he says ruefully, patting his belly.
In Toronto’s High Park, human foraging is forbidden so that wild animals can feed instead. Jon Hayes, the family program co-ordinator at the park’s nature centre, has been leading wild-edible walks in the large downtown park for five years, and says their popularity is growing with locavores and outdoor enthusiasts alike. “I think people want to reconnect with nature in new and different ways. We look at the plants all the time and we smell them, too, but adding taste to it is something different.”
Hayes helps people identify leafy green weeds like garlic mustard, purslane, lamb’s quarters and dandelions. Although they can’t pick in the park, they can find some of the same plants in their yards. And with a half-dozen poisonous species of berries and plants to avoid—including bittersweet nightshade—wild gourmands need to know what they’re eating. (Hayes also receives the odd inquiry about eating pigeons and squirrels, but it is illegal to hunt wildlife in the city.)
In Vancouver, chef Robin Kort forages for chanterelle mushrooms, salmonberries, stinging nettle and Dungeness crabs to bake on the beach with a little garlic and white wine. Her company, Swallow Tail Culinary Adventures, attracts local gourmands, retirees, as well as British, German and American tourists. “Most of them are foodies,” she says. “They’ve realized that the freshest thing they can get is pulling a crab out of the water right there. The same with the wild porcini mushrooms; you can’t buy these mushrooms in the store.”
In Winnipeg, Shiyan Wang has brought her family to the foraging workshop because they all love hiking, biking and camping. “We’re just trying to do as much outdoors as possible. We really go with nature all the way.” Her two daughters wait their turns to shoot arrows at a target; Wang jokes that they’re hungry because they haven’t had dinner yet.
Workshop leader Miller overhears, and reassures her before they go foraging for plants. “I think I see more when I’m hungry.”